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QUARTERS

James Harms, Author
James Harms, Author QUARTERSJames Harms
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Although Harms's third book has plenty of well-made poems, it's distinguished largely by how they fit together. Harms (The Joy Addict) for the most part writes free-verse stories, portraits, snapshots and essays about contemporary middle- and working-class life—divorces, rough childhoods, freeways, beaches and other features, in particular, of southern California, though certain poems range east to deserts and other, older cities. In one poem, a young girl thinks about calling her absent father; in another, "Jessica and a boy she'll remember" explore an amusement park on "the last day/ of summer, 1967." One long-lined, essayistic poem discovers that the largest "gang" in L.A. is "not Bloods or Crips but the resigned/ and dispirited, those who've given up and just drive." Two poems remember dead musicians: one depicts the crowded funeral of the bluegrass musician Bill Monroe, and the other takes "Tea" with Kurt Cobain (a fairly painful reading experience for anyone who really likes Cobain's music). Fans of Philip Levine or David Wojahn will find a lot to like in some of Harms's individual poems, but little that's wholly new. The trick is that somewhere in each poem, Harms has placed a quarter. In the first, a parent drops 25 cents into a supermarket toy; in the last, a widower remembers how his late wife wore "a small woven sack on a string, and in it... a quarter" for an emergency call. In between, quarters help children play jacks, animate jukeboxes, become playing pieces in father-son checkers and even get melted down for ammunition. While Harms's conceit suggests that it's the small change, and small changes, of life that hold us together, most readers will demand more varied currency for poetry. (Apr.)

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