Really Happy, Reviewed by Kevin Carey

Really Happy does what a good poetry collection should do, it opens the door to a poet’s life. Reese reveals the many sides of himself with these poems, the teacher, the parent, the friend, a man involved in a life of service and reflection. Once the door to this life is open, Reese leaves us wandering around inside it by painting clear pictures of his South Dakota home and honest portraits of the people who live there, and we are left with much to consider about what it means to be human.

I see some of you bandaged at the wrist,
Forearm, belly, throat…
If we treat men like animals they’ll eventually
Start to chew their way out—
(“New Folsom Prison Blues” 57)

The poems in Really Happy are sometimes funny (“Feels So Good to Be So Fat” 16), (“I Know Goldfish” 25), others have a strong sense of place (“Shirley Temple and a 7-10 Split” 24) and some are driven by a dialog (“The Pulse of San Quentin” 33). Some evoke a hidden sense of despair or regret, and some have an acceptance that reflects the hardscrabble landscape and those who have to endure it— I Can Muck Thirty Stalls Before Breakfast! What can you do? / Cowboys for Christ / My Other Tractor is My Neighbors (“South Dakota Bumper Stickers—Redux “ 30 ).

Reese has an authentic, conversational style in his work. He often acts like a local guide, removed enough to be an observer but always within reach of what he’s writing about, always a living, breathing participant. This personal style creates a sense of verisimilitude that draws us in and invites us along for the ride as if we were following a first person character in a story.

But shit, man,
Maybe I have it all wrong,
I see the Chevys and Fords, hear the engines call,
The glass-pack’s throaty cough.
(“Still and Silent as Stone” 54)

Reese has the guts to tell us the truth in these transformative poems. They reflect his life as a poet, as a teacher in a prison, as a college professor. They are personal poems about trying to make a difference and the struggles, both internal and external, that sometimes make it feel impossible. He is honest about these obstacles, the ones we all face— our own mistakes, the ingrained systems that stack the deck against us, the failures we contribute to. He observes all this with an acceptance of his role in it, and with a voice that can be funny and tragic in the same breath, evident here in a poem about trying to get his daughter to eat her vegetables.

I get up from the table,
lower my head and put my hands behind my back.
I pretend to walk in shackles.
They cuff you up, and you’ll have to eat your vegetables without
any silverware. …

Paige begins to cry.
Her sister, Willow. Who is seven-and-a-half, says
That’s not funny, Dad.

Not only have I reinforced their fear of prison.
I have ruined vegetable medley.
Being a father isn’t easy.
Being funny isn’t either.
(“Medley” 56)

There is much to admire in Reese’s poetry. It’s heartbreaking, it’s funny, it’s accessible and important, but I think more than anything it’s the voice that is the ultimate sell. Often Reese speaks to us with internal italicized comments, reaffirming and filling in the blanks of his world with colloquial seasoning. Get off your ass up off the couch and get a job! We’re broke and I’m pregnant (“Unlimited Absolutes” 48), Twenty six dollars for about ninety russets— / are in my dryer. It’s 50 degrees in there (Potatoes in the Dryer 49), Hell this is a caste system they trying to run in this country (“Down” 65).

With this voice, and with the fearless approach he takes with his subjects, Reese is able to capture a place that is both familiar and strange, hopeful and haunting. He does it with remarkable precision and candor. He is a sure-handed guide who knows his people, their disappointments, their will to push through, and he handles their hopes and dreams deftly, with a style that is guaranteed to entertain and challenge any reader of contemporary poetry.

Kevin Carey teaches at English Department at Salem State University and Endicott College. He has a chapbook of fiction “The Beach People,” from Red Bird Chapbooks (2014) and a 2012 book of poetry “The One Fifteen to Penn Station,” from Cavankerry Press, N.J. A new collection of poems, “Jesus Was a Homeboy,” is forthcoming (CK Press).