Book Review: When Severed Ears Sing You Songs


I’ve always loved poetry best aloud. There’s something about the cadence of the poet’s voice that speaks to that place beneath my heart, that interprets poetry for me like snare drums reflect vibrations.  I paced my 100-year-old house’s slanted hallways chanting Justin Karcher’s “When Severed Ears Sing You Songs” like spells for a forgotten Buffalo, and conjured a ghost of poetry’s future. My liver digests his unrelenting barrage of grit and whisky and secondhand smoke, or filters it through the rest of my unsuspecting organs like sludge down the Niagara River.

The best way to explain this new collection is by letting it speak (in snippets) f0r itself.

But a man’s got to know his limitations, maybe it’s best to go up in flames

Karcher knows his limitations, but he doesn’t show his hand. His poems are sharpened sticks and blunted baseball bats, the ends of shattered bottles and half-smoked cigarette butts. He lets readers inside his booze-soaked, nicotine-fueled Rust Belt life and smushes our faces in it. I’ve always found Karcher’s words work best in small bites, and this is no exception. Reading it cover-to-cover feels like the brink of an overdose, but coming up for air at the end is just as sweet as avoiding one.

The city has no idea what it wants to be

And neither does this collection, but that’s not a criticism. Karcher’s poems are heavily place-based and Buffalo residents or expats will understand the desperate cynicism that runs through it like the Scajaquada cuts through North Buffalo at 30mph so you can rubberneck the carnage. Readers will feel the heartbeat of Buffalo’s unshowered underbelly on every page as Karcher leads us through his midnight walks and inner life like we’re handcuffed together. It’s raw and real, just like the poet, the city that might as well be listed as co-author.

But you can’t build a skyline out of whisky dicks/That’s no city you want to live in

If you didn’t drink whisky when you started reading, you will by the end. His poems are sticky with it, soaked, marinated. Read it with a tall glass of something brown, preferably in a corner dive, and settle into the lubricated contentment of living in the dystopia Karcher illuminates.

I can’t help but think good can come/From something that is broken, that beauty/ can climb out of cancer and I feel better

This is not a redemption story. Our broken narrator doesn’t find purpose, or justice, or any of the fairytales we’re taught to seek in art. This is an unflinching portrait of the artist and his struggle toward the finish line, examining every pitfall and pothole along the way. Readers may stumble and stagger along too, but Karcher’s linguistic dexterity pulls us out again.

Sometimes Art Fails, but That’s Not the Point 

Some poems hide behind agendas. These know there’s no deceiving the demons. Some of these poems seem hastily drafted, dashed off on a bar napkin in the corner of a cafe with ash smudging the vowels. “When Severed Ears Sing You Songs” often feels experimental, like a friend testing out new lines over a staticky soundtrack. And that lends it a sense of intimacy lacking in the squeaky-clean corporate machine-churned literature littering bookshelves at the kind of places where one can also buy a Starbucks.

Buffalo’s full of shooting stars that not everyone can see

And Karcher’s one of them, if he has to light the canon fuse himself. Buffalo’s full of poetry hustlers. I almost expect to see Karcher and his clan on street corners, whispering lines into the garbage-scented wind in alleyways the street cleaners skip. Soon enough, the burbling underground will explode into something harder to ignore, and I expect to see Karcher leading the charge.

I guess I’m all heavily interested/In reversing curses, like the idea/Of it, that no matter how shitty/Things might be, there are always/Opportunities to drag yourself/Out of the mud, away from the clutches/Of lonely fossils that want to relive the past. 

Buffalo’s full of fossils taking drags from art scene heroin leftover from the booms no one but them remember. But it’s also full of stories like Karcher’s, of those working past midnight to reverse our city’s artistic fortune. This chapbook reads like a survivor’s guide to the dark days, but sometimes, chinks of light make it through the shades. When they do, it EKGs even the most soot-covered heart out of destitution.

And that’s an optimism I want to overdose on. 

“When Severed Ears Sing You Songs” is produced by the CWP Collective Press and can be found here.


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