Ann Neelon reviews Attack of the Claw

Larry Lihosit discovered the Peace Corps Writers site a couple years back and has been sending his books our way for reviews and comments. Larry is ‘outside’ the main current of literature and commercial publishing and has successful published his own books of poetry and travel. He is proof that you do not need an agent, a big name, or connections to find your way into print. It is for that reason that we have him writing a column on this site. Here is a review of one of his books of poetry to prove that like all good writers, he can take criticism as well as give it.

lihosit-attack-clawAttack of the Claw and Other Poems about Teaching
by Lawrence F. Lihosit (Honduras 1975-77)
A Book Company 2008
(Purchase book from publisher)

Reviewed by Ann Neelon (Senegal 1978-79)

For several years running, my sons have participated in the National Guild Auditions, in which out-of-state pianists-from, say, Colorado or California-fly in to evaluate local Kentucky piano students.  Until students begin playing intermediate repertoire, they are inevitably placed in the “Circle of Family and Friends”-a judgment that is not at all synonymous with failure, but rather with nascent piano skills and the forbearance of lots of parents and grandparents in the audience.  How adorable that his or her feet don’t reach the floor when he or she sits down to play the melody line of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” switching off between right and left hands!

I would place Lawrence F. Lihosit in the Peace-Corps-writer equivalent of the “Circle of Family and Friends.”  His poetry skills are nascent.  Ignorance is bliss.  He doesn’t know what he doesn’t know–if it’s in lines, it must be a poem.  Still, Lihosit will hear some people, albeit not poets, clapping in the audience, mostly fellow teachers (or ex-teachers, like Lihosit himself) who have had it up to here with No Child Left Behind.

It so happens that on behalf of poetry, I am sympathetic to their cause. When my younger son entered fourth grade, my family hit a wall with NO CHILD LEFT BEHIND.   Maybe it was all the worksheets on changing similes to metaphors.  Maybe it was the fact that all the similes were really clichés anyway-cool as a cucumber, proud as a peacock, etc.-so they were being changed into deadmetaphors.  Maybe it was the new requirement that students do “graphic organizers” of poems instead of reading them aloud.  I don’t know, but it still pains my heart when I remember how my son-who never met a volume of poems by Shel Silverstein or Douglas Florian or Nancy Willard he didn’t want to read indefatigably at bedtime-came home spitting bullets about how much he hated poetry.

Lihosit admits in a preface, “Teaching is hard work.  It just didn’t pay enough.  So when a grade school principal offered me a contract to teach fifth grade, I ambled off in another direction.  Any cowboy who says he ain’t been throwed is a liar.” Attack of the Claw is at once Lihosit’s paean to the classroom he left behind and his dire warning about what schools are becoming thanks to federal law, which he characterizes variously as “a giant ripsaw” and “a paddle to beat our kids for a higher score.” Officials charged with improving scores page through dossiers “like giant raptors/hunched over bleeding prey.”

On the one hand, we’ve heard it all before (i.e., the jeremiads about sixth-graders who read on a second-grade level, about the broken promises of charter schools, about the educational deficits of foisting a competitive business model onto the public schools). On the other hand, on any battleground, there’s always room for a poet of witness. Lihoset is not that poet of witness, and the most he manages is the occasional interesting report from the front, as in “Feet Tapping,” where the speaker/teacher tests out “dead white guy orchestration” (read classical music) as a pedagogical tool, or as in “Change,” where he describes books and studies on the public schools “like rows of night creams next to the sleeping, sagging czar.” There are also moments of good fun, as in the title poem:

I winced my face
Like a giant pickle
Shook my claw
To hand

We all laughed
Practiced holding pencils
With hands
Not claws.

In terms of poetics, it’s like Lihoset took a video camera into the public schools and shot anything and everything.  “Thank you for reading to us/There’s a boy/in the girls’ bathroom,” reads “Thank You Note 2 For Student Teacher.”  In the reels and reels of unsophisticated footage, Lihoset got a few lucky takes.

ANN NEELON is the author of Easter Vigil, which won the Anhinga Prize for poetry.  Her poems have appeared most recently in Poetry Southeast.  She edits New Madrid journal and teaches in the Creative Writing Program at Murray State University. In a prior life, she taught high school for five years. She also taught the equivalent of seventh and eighth grades while in Senegal in the Peace Corps.

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