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Thursday, January 5, 2012

"Night And Day" by P. J. Laska--A Book Review

"Night And Day" by P. J. Laska available from Amazon.com at $29.99 and also on Kindle.

"Night And Day" a retrospective book of poetry by former National Book Award Nominee, P. J. Laska, takes the reader through a body of work which has been accumulating over the past forty or fifty years by one of the finest poets in America and particularly among Appalachian poets. P. J. Laska has traveled a life which took him from being the Polish-American Catholic son of a West Virginia coal miner to altar boy to Buddhist philosopher and from Morgantown, West Virginia, to the University of Arizona to the Southern Appalachian Circuit of Antioch College to Cleveland, Ohio, to a brief retirement in Mexico and back to Arizona. Such a varied experience deserves to be documented and that is exactly what Laska has done on nearly a daily basis since he first learned to read and write in the coal fields of Northern West Virginia.

This work is far too brief to fully depict the poetic career of one of America's best poets. Laska has worked in the creation of this edition of his work much like an Alaskan prospector or a ten year old boy picking slate in a 19th century West Virginia coal mine. He has gleaned the best nuggets from his lifetime of work while also working diligently to pick the few small pieces of slate from what has been a remarkably productive and high carbon seam of literary coal. The reader of poetry can walk upright in this seam without fear of linguistic kettle bottoms or wordy water dripping from the ceiling. The top is solid. The bottom is clean. There is no linguistic methane but from time to time the language, ideas, ethics, and history can become explosive and incendiary in the best possible definition of both words. P. J. Laska has devoted his life to poetry, philosophy, social activism, and working to better the condition of the human race. I first met him in the early 1970's when he was a professor at the Southern Appalachian Circuit and I was drifting about on the edges of one of the finest collections of poets, writers, and social activists the region has ever seen. P. J. Laska easily stands with the best of a group of writers which included Bob Snyder; Don West; Bill Blizzard, Jr.; Gail Amburgey; Yvonne Snyder Farley; and about a dozen others who have produced bits and pieces of the best poetry, fiction, and non-fiction in the history of Appalachia. This collection by Laska joins the best works of this group which include Bob Snyder's cumulative body of poetic and non-fiction works; Don West's several books of poetry over a sixty year career including "Crab Grass" and "No Lonesome Road"; and "When Miners March" by Bill Blizzard, Jr. With the publication of "Night And Day", Laska has clearly cemented his reputation as having literary and historical importance in Appalachia equal to Snyder and West. He had already established a wonderful literary reputation in terms of single pieces of high quality poetry and with the National Book Award nomination. But publishing the collection of works written over such a lengthy period into a single book places the cumulative work easily in the hands of the general reader and gives the everyday educator a major point of reference for teaching Laska's work in the classroom.

"Night And Day" reprises many of Laska's best poems from several works over the years while also introducing several newer pieces which many readers have not seen. It opens with "The Day The Eighties Began" and sets an immediate tone of social activism and outspoken opposition to wrongdoing. Then as we read on we find poems like "Uncle Frank's Death" which is a fine comment about family and love in the hills of Appalachia. The book examines Appalachian issues such as strip mining, love of place, outside ownership and corporate greed, and devotion to family. It gives the reader who has never met Laska's work a wonderful window into the soul of a poet who has lived a life of action and activism in a beautiful but often stormy land. It serves to create a picture frame around a portrait of a life lived at the cutting edge of social action in the 20th century.

Several other fine works came out of the Southern Appalachian Circuit group and, to date, the best had been Laska's "D. C. Images And Other Poems" which was a finalist for the National Book Award. Now, with this retrospective of his work both before and after "D. C. Images..." P. J. Laska has outdone himself. He is leaving footprints in the sands for other aspiring Appalachian poets to follow. The work contains many of the best poems from several of his earlier works including "D. C. Images...:", "Old Martins, New Strings" a work done with friends Bob Snyder and Joseph Barrett, and a few minor collections which had been self published over the years. It also contains newer works which had not been collected before. It is well worth the price of admission. Buy it! Read it! Seek to take up some of the social activism it portrays and espouses! Go back to it from time to time! Leave it dogeared and lying in a prominent place in your home for your friends to read and perhaps even steal.

Writer's Note: I had published this post several months ago on a "Page Important Enough To Stand Alone" and it never seemed to get read as much as I think P. J. Laska's work deserves.  So here it is where you cannot miss it.  But the book, read it, pass it on.  Roger

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