To hell with poetry:/life’s more important,” declares Greg Delanty in The Hellbox, his fourth collection of poems. This half-truth is less a dismissal than a riff on the dispute between living fully and thinking deeply, and between physical and intellectual elbow grease. Like Seamus Heaney— whose fixation on soil derives from his father’s life as a potato farmer— Delanty’s focus on printing is a tribute to his own father, a compositor in a hot-metal printing shop in Ireland.
In the best poem, “The Compositor,” Delanty draws parallels between the printing process and the mystifying life lessons we learn “before finally passing on to the stoneman.” His father’s metaphorical death as he finalizes a printing job, and a fluid rhythm that blends well-paced iambic sentences and occasional rhymes, give the poem a quiet intensity.
Delanty explores being a tradesman, and a kind of intellectual adventurer, through style as much as through narrative. Typographical puns abound. One poem defines the word “mackled” (a blurred or double impression) by printing its double image; the same typographical trick invokes the deathly shadow of “AIDS.” Consistent with his attention to dualities, Delanty switches his form when he shifts his allegiance from Ireland to America. The “Irish” poems are shorter and more formal, while the “American” ones he calls a “mumbo jumbo sandwich.”
A hellbox is a receptacle for discarded type, and the eponymous poem fulfills that description with its clichés and run-on sentences. It mixes musings, memories, and soapbox oratory in a monologue on Delanty’s life as an immigrant and poet. Delanty’s tone is irreverent (“Please talk dirty to me./Sure I’m tipping.”), yet our affection for this shrewd, vulnerable character overtakes his offhand remarks. We believe Delanty when he says, “the more imperfect words are, the truer they are,” because that hellbox, with his errors, bluffs, and bad poems, seems heartfelt. But in the end The Hellbox is about more than the demands of one’s trade; it’s also about Delanty’s efforts to avoid taking himself too seriously.