For Love of the Windy City

Lawler Chronicles the Downtrodden So They May Not Be Forgotten

Matthew J. Lawler’s poetry is in essence an assembly of odes to and critiques of that windy city of Illinois, Chicago. Concrete Oracles speaks on the city’s defining harshness, barbarity, and on the particular ecosystem in which the poet himself lived.

With an attitude poet W. R. Rodriquez would approve of, this text aims to present the reality of the poet’s home city and “…take the rose colored glasses bash them / smash them with steel toes senselessly.” Lawler’s poetry covers such upsetting subjects as addiction, homelessness, street violence, police brutality and what is produced in the aftermath.

As readers scan over the lengthy compositions, they may feel as if they’ve picked up someone’s diary. The poems, with their meandering nature and personal ruminations, read almost as entries. While at times, Lawler does not quite seem to reach his artistic goals, the earnest nature of the work is never smothered. His verbosity throughout Concrete Oracles may deter some readers but all should be encouraged to read his poems in their entirety as Lawler has a knack for delivering exquisite verses in the depths of his pieces.

“Bums” is intriguing from the start. “We get the bums to buy us beer. / Dust and sweaty bareback city bums” the poem opens; it carries on, describing more fully the lives of these “Chicago street bums: Who love to laugh / with mouths attached to a bottle of rum or Seagram’s…” and then just as the readers may feel their fingers itching to flip the page, Lawler delivers:

“Bicycle Bob” was a mess and a slob,

but before his wife died he was working two jobs,

no kids just bills, no thrills or fun

just sweat and toil under the sun.

Until one day his wife came to say,

“I have a tumor that’s growing and not going away,”

the hammering silence of a shattering violence

that severs the bond of man and his god.

The long winter came,

Bob fainted into grief soaking himself in sleep,

only to awake in chains that baked his brain,

a victim of disbelief.

Lawler’s tendency to write longer pieces will be forgiven by lovers of brevity when he produces verses like those above in his narrative pieces. His poem “That Could Be Me” unfolds upon three pages, but has a sublime ending: “There……a human being / like a scavenging vulture / searches through the scrap. / The shadows are out. / The moon is full. / I am / headed / home.” This strategy is continued in the piece “I Sit Watching”. For impatient readers, this style may be irksome, but these readers must think critically as to why Lawler is writing in this fashion.

He is chronicling the bleaker aspects of the Second City so ignorance cannot be feigned as “…a junkie stands in the alley / sifting through a dumpster…” or when a “…lifeless teen lay cold to waste…” because “…the law had made a call to blast his brain…” Lawler loves his city despite its ability to ravage its inhabitants. “Though your streets were paved in mud, / I dug my roots into your blood / and grew up tough like Stockyards / and Ogden’s railroads…” the speaker croons in “Still I Love You”. He seems to be practicing a form of generous orthodoxy with his poetry. He points out his beloved city’s blights so that it may try to heal itself. He loves his city so much he cannot lie to it. Malcolm Gladwell would bless this approach.

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Published by Alien Buddha Press in 2018, this collection stands as a testament to Chicago and it’s inhabitants, to those who have lived and died there.

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