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Thomas Centolella

Lannan Literary Award winner Thomas Centolella has published three previous books of poetry: American Book Award-winner Terra Firma (Copper Canyon, 1990), California Book Award-winner Lights & Mysteries (Copper Canyon, 1995), and Views from along the Middle Way (Copper Canyon, 2002). He was a Stegner Fellow at Stanford University and has taught literature and creative writing at San Francisco State University, the University of California extension, the College of Marin, and in the California Poets in the Schools Program as well as for the Institute on Aging and WritersCorps. He lives in San Francisco.


As in a profound love affair, Thomas Centolella's new poems register attraction, delight, expectations fulfilled and foiled, and moments of great feeling cherished and/or lamented. Employing the vividness of narrative without yielding to its linear strictures and overly familiar tonalities, many of the first-person protagonists in Almost Human are mysterious figures at once engaging and idiosyncratic, even outright eccentric. Often betwixt and between, neither here nor there, they are uncertain of actually getting anywhere. Almost Human documents the restive life-force incarnated in an endangered species -- our own -- and charts the movement of the self between spirit and human, recalling the idea, attributed to Teilhard de Chardin, that we aren't human beings having a spiritual experience but spiritual beings having a human experience.

– Winner of the Dorset Prize, selected by Edward Hirsch

"Thomas Centolella is one of those poets whose deeply thoughtful poems are best read on a quiet evening beneath stars. Philosophical without being didactic, they unfold, usually with the help of a chance human encounter, a sight, smell or sound emanating from the city, all while musing on an old master's lost notion. Quite simply, I love his meandering poems which twist and turn as if walking a labyrinth of back streets. Almost Human is an unusual combination of urban and spiritual, the eternal and the every day."

– Dorianne Laux

"Almost Human has an arresting, original voice, . . . both elusive and direct. On the one hand it can be riddling and elliptical, the voice of someone who possesses the 'art of caring from afar.' On the other, it can be startlingly open in expressing . . . concern with finding a vision to live by. The poet . . . is bracingly honest about the resistance of the world to revelation, and at the same time seems always open to change, so that the simple act of sitting down to play the piano is felt as making contact 'with everything that has come before / and is still to come.' . . . The result is a book that keeps drawing the reader back and keeps surprising."

– Carl Dennis, Pulitzer Prize winner of Practical Gods

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Almost Human

Almost Human by Thomas Centolella


Were a joke to begin So Jesus walks into this little piano bar in Berlin, then almost all of Almost Human would serve as punch line.

This collection, exquisitely tuned by a musical ear, finely turned by the hand of a master poet – one of our best – clearly revels in its obsessions: Jesus (or the Holy Spirit) adrift in the present day; the piano, the recurrent piano, which tinkles along to no small delight as leitmotif through its pages; Berlin, chockablock with griefs and guilts that the poet sometimes takes upon himself (“A city/that wasn’t me, but could be”).

And then there is a further preoccupation, the focus on loneliness, on isolation . . .

For example, my beautiful neighbor.
Passing me on the street or in the aisle
of our local grocery, she made certain
her eyes stayed trained on some
distant target of oblivion.

. . . an isolation which never strays far from the open sea of hostility:

And approaching me in the street
on the shortest day of the year,
a tall creature with long lively hair.
Kept my eyes down until the last
possible moment. And when I looked up –
Beautiful Neighbor, cutting her eyes at me,
rushing by with the startled look
of Who the fuck are you
and what do you want from me?

There is in these pages a pronounced focus on beauty, on perfection (“a startling examination/of the secret life you can’t easily articulate to yourself/and half the time are glad you can’t”):

you’re out in the unpredictable world, and some woman or man
is close enough to touch, or to study with impunity,
and what binds you like a spell is something like the symmetria
of Polyclitus: a face so pre-possessing, so proportionate and marble-smooth,
at first you can endure it only in its particulars –
the bridge of the nose, the ripple of a lip, how perfectly
each brow crowns each mesmerizing eye

Obsessions – Thomas Centolella makes the most of them with his gift for the particular, figuring the essential in diligent detail, rocketing from the lurid to the longed for, from admiration to astonishment:

In the next gallery an athlete by Daidalos is so lifelike
I can believe the legend that says he had to tie down his statues
to keep them from fleeing. Anchored in her own room –
not that she seems to mind – a woman of dusky rose,
of wide-eyed wonder, holds a small fruit over her stone womb,
and nobody knows: Is she Persephone? Or someone’s smiling wife,
smiling mother, enjoying the secret of her immortality?

Centolella, in fact, is the sort of lush (though never louche) philosophe you not so much teethe on as graduate to after making your way through the mush and slush pile of marginal poets. As it’s said, when the reader is ready, the poet appears.

Poets, though – and, alas, prosodists – toil eternally at the margins of significance, of consequential human endeavor. They work, often single-mindedly, always hopefully, at Almost (but perhaps not quite) Work – being, by extension, almost (but perhaps not quite) human – their occasionally sublime efforts irrelevant to the moth-eaten, the mundane, the unambiguously non-spiritual churn of the day: the roil of Bitcoin and mass shootings, of partisan incivility, of claims about fake news.

Still, poetry is the news from somewhere, so sayeth (famously) Dr. Williams, so sayeth (darkly) Ezra Pound. Quiet news from the calyx of the Big Bang. Against no lesser backdrop than this, a giant elliptical galaxy – a galaxy evoked in the first poem of the book, “Virgo A” – Almost Human unfolds.

And the labors of this Almost Work, anchored more in the Spirit than the Street, give rise in their escalating otherworldliness, in their meteoric clang against the surface of the worldly, to the small (or not-so-small) splendors of the almost human. The beyond human – the numinous. The mystically better than human.

From these quiet collisions, these Little Bangs, Centolella mines his title. And shares his insights in shy sequence, very like a flower unfurling.

Unfurling altogether logically, though.

As the last of its five sections is revealed, the book discloses the full reasoning behind its author’s choice of Teilhard de Chardin (wearing both of his hats here: philosopher, Jesuit priest) to bestow a benediction – the elegant little epigraph that serves as prologue and summary, both, to the book’s central concerns:

“We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience.” Not quite, but almost, human, you see. Upon this premise the poet builds his case and sets his goods.

No surprise, then, when Jesus – almost human, he – enters the city after midnight in the final surge of the collection, trampling like a beatific elephant through Centolella’s fragile, elegant wares.

I was a genius of dreams,
a reticent guest, the exhausted angel
without blessing or bliss, the friendly
demon that keeps things interesting.
The world called me human
but what was the world?

But that’s from the last part of the book. To retreat amidships:

Beyond Jesus in the modern day (“Nobody here bothers him with more than a glance:/his reputation might precede him but not his mug”) – beyond the piano (whose voice “will rise/as needed/before slipping back/into its bed of silence”) – beyond Berlin (“a city said to be evil, holy, shining, eternal,/a plexus of animus and genius, renowned for its ravishments”) – beyond his recurrent points and counterpoints, his favorite dishes, amply dished, the poet finds his surest footing in the dynamics of the oldest war: the one between the sexes, the story of Mars and Venus, in these pages clashing and clarifying, anticipating and isolating. (And more on that particular choice of words some paragraphs hence, in a few comments on Centolella’s craft and musicality.)

So. Mars and Venus. An example: From a dizzying study of a study in the Rijksmuseum, a real life woman in blue stands before an enigmatic Vermeer, and through an exercise of empathy – in what might be an instance of autobiography, as well – the speaker, the voice of the poem, stalls on the borders of a borderline love- or loveless epistle, interpreting the thoughts of his woman in blue watching the Woman in Blue Reading a Letter:

The letter says he’s not coming back.
He has his reasons. There are always reasons,
aren’t there? They make sense –
call them reasonable – even if
they’re far from fair.

And there’s this, in charming and poignant antiphon, a classic He said, She said:

While the music played she took off her glasses and looked at me, and I remembered that the eyes of the temple figures had been made large on purpose, to approximate awe in the god’s presence.

I don’t know if he wanted to kiss me, but he didn’t move his eyes from mine, he didn’t move at all.

She was leaning slightly toward me and her black sweater made the color of her eyes more compelling, and I wanted desperately to touch her in some way, but the god was unyielding and held me firmly in place.

He was so well-behaved I was aching to kiss him, though I knew I shouldn’t.

The song ended and then it was just the rain and its solitary syncopation.

There are splendors scattered like diamonds on the loose floor of these pages. There is “Your Legion,” “encoded with messages” crucial to the survival of this craft and sullen art, crucial to its admirers, to its practitioners. There is “Pergamon,” well worth the tour. And “Examination,” which bears (and stands up to) close scrutiny.

And then there is the poem “Nuptial.” Perhaps the best in the book. None wittier, none more evocative, none more technically acute. The word cant never employed more cunningly. Appearing early in the collection, an incitation – a stand up poem. This reviewer, reading the pieces in sequence, noted at the bottom of the page, “Now I know I’m in the hands of a professional poet.” The piece cannot be quoted here in full, and deserves more than to be quoted in part. It is, standalone, worth the price of the volume.

As are others, such as “Meadow,” which delivers a 21-line one-act play with the brevity of a bullet. And “Why I’m in Awe of the Spiral,” where even the flush of a toilet is significant “when its swirling is a variation/on our sidereal drift.”

Back to Berlin: “Say the one you loved was Jewish./Grief and peace just a block apart.” This is sad and syncretistic and wise, worldly-wise, a fusion in tone of the horror of the city’s history and the wistfulness of its charms – one of those moments “you’ve always heard about,/the one that could kill you but prefers to make you stronger.”

How fail to mention a poem with “a woman sitting so still/she had all the affect of a mannequin” or the dazzling “Namaste” or (of equal brilliance) “The Lost Coast”? Or a piece that offers a glimpse of the musical composition process which leaves little doubt about its similarities to the poetic process, a poem in which “an elegant dark-haired song, glistening with sweat” has walked to the poet’s house “all the way from its neighborhood in Havana” (has sweat ever been sexier?); or an internee poem thematically evocative of Plath and Auden; or “Simulacrum,” if only as an unexpected homage to Yeats? Centolella leaves few leaves unturned. There’s even a sprinkling of haiku.

On craft and musicality: Some few lines above were fretted with a couple of choice pairings (clash & clarify, anticipate & isolate) designed to pleasure the ear. The ear of a poet. And all in good fun. Get the essence of the game? Centolella does, in spades, in compounds of glorious aural enchantment, discrete snippets here adduced from various of his pages (which morsels, incidentally, nearly cohere as a poem when stacked thus):

a plexus of animus and genius
renowned for its ravishments
affection and its afflictions
alliances and allegiances
iritis in both eyes
arthritis in both knees
soothe and scathe
meager and mundane
cirrus and circus
gone to gray, gone for good
vexing as a hex
fidgety with tangent and anecdote
the radiant and the raucous
a concrete bunker on a lonely campus
the diligent clarity of a Kashmiri sky
without blessing or bliss
I despised the despoilers that would deprive
plash and swoosh
against hull and paddle

The poet’s technical tool chest is formidable. Alliterative adornments. Check. Range of expression. Check. The gift of clarity. Check. Sensitivity to consonance. Check. Shaking the kaleidoscope from the sacred to the profane. Check. Skillful striptease to stark-naked truths. Double check. And yes, the rare abilities to engage, to delight, to load, to lighten, to skirt the sentimental whilst rambling the rim of poignancy. De plus en plus.

Many artists, most writers, all poets, operate on the fringes . . . the fringes of an overwhelmingly Bottom Line culture, a society where quantifiable achievement – Work! – engulfs anything so frail, so vague, as the “spiritual,” the “almost human.”

Yet it is precisely in this vector that Thomas Centolella purées his gruel, where his poetry negotiates “the mysterious union of the divine and the human,” a phrase he employs in describing his piano, but which is likewise descriptive of his work.

These are poems of dramatic diction and street level brio, spirit elevators and gut punchers, poems of great learning and great good humor. These are ideas scrupulously framed and delivered with virtuosity. A fine, very fine, refined intelligence gleams here. And a pleasing modesty as well.

This is not a collection for the unconcerned, largely tuneless, unsmiling frantic nest of humanity, not a book for the man in the street.

But very much one for the reader in the subway, where poetry crawls from car to car, on placards, on signs, on ribbons of graffiti – poetry almost human – forcing the agile rider to lift her eyes wide open.

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