Only the Dead Know Albany

Only the Dead Know Albany

Poems by Alan Catlin
Sunnyoutside Press, August, 2008
ISBN 978-1-934513-11-8
5″ x 8″, chapbook
32 pages

Reviewed by Kimberly King Parsons

The Drunkard’s Lingua Franca

“You see them everywhere,” begins Alan Catlin’s poem “Zombies for Loose Change,” from his collection Only the Dead Know Albany.  Yes, we have seen junkies on the street, and yes, we have braced ourselves for each approach, each familiar plea. But the junkies in Catlin’s Albany are unlike any we have come across, for their language is not

a language of humility, nor

a poverty vow, not a language

at all, more an argot, polylingual,

self-referential, post-reason and

logic, knowing like an idiot


These zombies exemplify Catlin’s greatest strength, and the strength of Only the Dead Know Albany as a whole: to make everyday hardship heartbreaking.

For twenty-five years Catlin poured drinks at the Washington Tavern in Albany, New York.  Twenty-five years commuting by bus, twenty-five years serving regulars at his well, and, most importantly, twenty-five years of astute observation go into this latest collection of poetry.  Mining his day job for gems is nothing new for this 17-time Pushcart Prize nominee. Bartending has heavily informed much of his work, including Suffering Bastards (2008 Evil Genius Series winner), Short Shots, and Drunk and Disorderly:  Selected Poems 1978-2000.  Of course, Catlin’s reach extends beyond the bar—Effects of Sunlight in the Fog is a brilliant meditation on the artist’s relationship to his art—but Catlin, currently at work on a fictionalized memoir called Chaos Management, keeps going back to Albany.

Catlin’s Albany is rain-streaked and snow-glazed, a “city paralyzed / moving forward slowly on bent wheel rims.”  These descriptions themselves are deliberate and unhurried, scenes that unfold from the window of a barely-moving bus.  It’s an Albany made up of “side-alleys, cock-fought streets / buildings in / full flame.”  An Albany populated by characters at once familiar and matchless, archetypes of the hard-knock life.  In “Queen’s Gambit,” a “half-dead / teen angel” prostitute pulls out her wares, tells takers “how much

the full ride would

cost for a bareback

trip with frills…

As confining as they are confined, inhabitants of Catlin’s Albany are “double-parkers,

triple-parkers, placing bets, running

numbers, trading stolen goods in pawn


making it “impossible to / back out, impossible to navigate once / the lanes are blocked.”  Authority only adds to the oppression—citizens bristle at the uselessness and hypocrisy of licensing procedures, contracts, BCI agents, social services.  In “Civic Duty,” the democratic process is described as knowing “which lever to pull… the only one / that works is the Democratic Party line.”  Once civic duties are fulfilled, the government provides voters with a wooden coin worth a free drink at participating bars.  In Catlin’s Albany “all the bars / participate if they know what’s good for them.”

“While his characters tend to be tragic figures, Catlin does not wallow in a single morose register.  In “Attention Earthlings,” a bum calls “God on his

spaceship from

a disconnected

public phone,

goes evil on you

when you refuse

to pony up fifty cents

for the righteous

cause of interstellar


Comedy is part of the barman’s bag of tricks—it’s a way of putting the drinker, or reader, at ease in a city where there is one bar “for each corner and / another in between for those who / can’t walk as far as block’s end.”

Catlin is at his best when he resists sentimentality and heavy landings, which, for the most part (“Underage” and the ending of “Queen’s Gambit” notwithstanding) he does.  There is nothing experimental or surreal about Only the Dead Know Albany.  Realistic observation of minor details and generally unnoticed gestures comprise the people and places in these poems, and this thematic and stylistic consistency makes the collection cohesive, even seamless. Scenes take place in the same cluster of bars; characters from different poems seem to collide in the streets after last call.  In only 30 pages, Catlin manages to fully realize and populate an entire city of downtrodden people, their “eyes cloudy with want.”  In spite of our better judgment, our instinct to keep our heads down and walk a little faster, Catlin’s zombies, drunks, prostitutes—in a word, derelicts—command our full attention, and compel us to take another look.

  1. […] my review of Alan Catlin’s Only the Dead Know Albany here. “Catlin’s Albany is rain-streaked and snow-glazed, a ‘city paralyzed / moving […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: