Ace Boggess
Escape Envy
Brick Road Poetry Press

Reviewer: Erica Goss

The possibility of escape, whether from a traffic jam, a prison cell, or just an uncomfortable conversation, informs Escape Envy, Ace Boggess’s latest collection. The poems in this book explore family relations, emotional vulnerability, and the poignant, often perplexing experiences of post-prison life, where specific, irrefutable realities temper desire and fantasy.

Read as a directive or an adjectival phrase, the book’s title emphasizes the ironic, be-careful-what-you-wish-for sensibility at the heart of these poems. Even though we might know what we are escaping from, Boggess asks us to consider what, exactly, we think we’re escaping to. For example, the speaker in the title poem, “Escape Envy,” ponders the fate of “two guys [who] made it out / from Clinton Correctional in New York / through a hole in the wall”:

How it must feel for them to anticipate
a soft mattress, softer arms embracing,
first sniff of sizzle-scents of steak …

In spite of his own “escape envy,” the speaker is wise enough to understand “what happens next / when truth does violence to their fantasies, / as it will.”

Confinement is not limited to prison cells. In “Traffic Writes Our Biographies,” a traffic jam holds two people captive, stuck for an indefinite period due to “a jumper on the Southside Bridge.” This period of enforced inactivity echoes so many others: “Our biographies would run long with pages / on which nothing happens, / interspersed with chapters of mayhem.”

That helpless feeling when everything grinds to a halt returns in “Heading into Pittsburgh on the First Day of Summer.” To add to the general frustration, “On my radio, the forecaster says, // ‘You’re stuck in traffic.’” At the end of the poem, the speaker realizes that he’s just one of many “men like me trapped in their boxes, / ever almost there, almost there.”

“Now That I’ve Driven South to Visit My Father” focuses on the awkward silence that too often exists between parents and their adult children. Without the “ritual of the weekly prison phone call / … we’ve finally run out of things to say.” The crisis of Boggess’s prison sentence now in the past, other issues—“politics / religion or what it means to work hard” come between father and son, yet the urge to reach out, to connect over this emotional divide, dies hard:

I wonder if I should dial his number
just to say we haven’t spoken in a while

which I’m sure he knows …

Two poems, “Hair Dye” and “My Condolences,” present very different responses to trauma. In the first, the speaker’s anxiety about a loved one’s suicidal depression finds a weirdly fitting comfort in this detail, significant because of its normalcy: “She bought a box of hair dye, / so I know she didn’t kill herself.”

Desperate for any encouraging sign, the speaker observes:

what’s more hopeful than hair dye?
Brown Six-A, I think: closer to her natural
than the various shades of low

self-esteem she’s worn for months.

On the other hand, the speaker in “My Condolences” admits to a disconcerting lack of compassion: “I confess that I can’t empathize / with what way you react when people die.” Is it the manner in which most people mourn, or are expected to mourn, that the speaker can’t understand? The poem doesn’t answer, but the more the speaker repeats the phrase, “I’m sorry for your loss,” “mechanical as a grinding clock,” the less convincing it seems.

“My Condolences” creates a tension between what the speaker knows he should do; i.e., display the correct emotional responses when someone dies, and what he really feels: boredom, lack of engagement, and aggravation that he can only mimic the expected, predictable response. “I’ve never been a mourner,” he states; “I’d be like a pallbearer / showing up with broken arms.”

“Absent Dearest” serves as a corrective of sorts, both to “My Condolences” and “Hair Dye.” The speaker “walked among the graves alone,” reading the names carved into headstones. Although he knew none of those buried in the graveyard, awareness creeps over him as he thinks of a lost loved one:

Were you there to … read their names aloud with me—
Mrs. Lazano, Hope Running, Rev. Ronald Lovinggood—
you would have welcomed love into your breath.

“I haven’t let go despite years like miles between us,” Boggess writes in “You Salvaged What Was Left of Me.” The poem is a tribute to a former lover, someone with “bangs like forelegs of a tarantula,” someone who “made demands, telling me what you wanted / as if any of it mattered, as if I did.” In this poem, Boggess paints a portrait of not only a person, but also of a time in his life that feels familiar, impermanent, and gloomy, except for the occasional bright spot:

We lay together on your mattress on the floor,
listening to Syd Barrett & breathing in
coconut smoke off incense cones.

As the poem ends, Boggess interprets the fact that he still finds meaning and a sense of identity in this recollection:

I haven’t let go despite years like miles between us,
so you save me again & again ad infinitum
like the greatest play in a ballgame shown &
reshown on TV long after it’s old news &
I’m the only viewer left who wants to see.

Escape Envy builds on many of the themes Boggess explored in his previous collection, Misadventure. The comical observations about life’s absurd moments are balanced with insights into increasingly complex relationships, memories, and the contrast between life in and out of prison. Having escaped from one reality, Boggess finds himself negotiating another, one with confusing and ever-changing rules. Filled with witty observations and painful admissions, the reader follows him as he charges forward and doubles back, always, despite all odds, finding his way.

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