Riff on Six

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Selected Reviews for Riff on Six

“The selected poems are from Reiss’s five volumes of published poetry from 1974 to 2002. The new poems are satirical poems on the war in Iraq after 9/11 with the title A Child’s Garden of Evil. In these, the line ‘Now that Bush has allied us with lies’ rhymes with the following one, ‘About how Saddam and bad guys/[Will unleash dogs of hell].…’ Another satire begins, ‘Off we go into the wildest blunder [since Vietnam].…’ Most readers will find this last section of 20 or so satires most engaging for being topical and honing in on the deceptions, overblown expectations, and stubborn realities relating to the war.  No matter what Reiss’s subject, his poems have a crispness of language from the quick pace of short words, most only one or two syllables. This simple, no-nonsense placement of words gives the poems a jewel-like brightness.”
Small Press Book Review

“James Reiss’s Riff on Six: New and Selected Poems is gathered from as far back as the seventies. A good number of the poems in the selections from the 1970s and 80s deal with childhood and family within the setting of a Jewish central European New York neighborhood.  It is within these concerns that Reiss’s poems, sharply intimate in detail and executed with an ease of tone, are at their strongest and most moving. They contain vignettes, often, of poignancy and sadness, such as ‘A Candy Store in Washington Heights,’ which are imbued with feelings of affection for a generation such as his father’s, of immigrants ‘who arrived in this city in…rag shirts.’

All the strong poems [carry within them] that sensitivity to, and empathy for, other lives which never descends into mere mawkishness in Reiss, and within which there exists the recognition of that intense spatial and temporal loneliness one associates with the American psyche:

The summer Barbara gave birth I received a post
card from someone I’d never heard of, Mrs Sidney Burns,
postmarked August 4th from someplace I’d never heard
     of in Iowa.
In a shaky third-grade script these words were penciled:

have bin thinkin of you how do you like all this winter
now you think of me once in a wile mr. reece what will become of the ice house
                                                     mrs. sidney burns

On the back a cheap imitation of a Currier
and Ives Christmas scene: by a tiny road a gingerbread farmhouse in the snow with long
icicles hanging from the roof over the windows
and the faintest outline of a woman’s face in one window
the curtain of icicles, as though someone
had penciled it in and then decided to erase it.”

—Martin Anderson, Shearsman

“James Reiss’s poems encompass a world both private and political. In Riff on Six, he takes the reader into the world of family and into global politics, all with the same plainspokenness and eye for nuance that catches the reader’s breath and delivers poems that don’t flinch from their subject or the reader.

Part of Reiss’s style comes from spending time in two very different places: New York City and Oxford, OH. In the selections from his first four collections, he moves from the streets of New York and his childhood—‘A Candy Store in Washington Heights,’ for example—to the here and now transplanted to Ohio—‘A Day in Ohio’ is a good example of his fondness for the landscape of rural Ohio. Even in poems that carry him to foreign lands, he’s able to re-create the specifics, the events, so the reader feels taken along. There is also, in many of the poems, a deft touch of humor, irony, or gentle bemusement that makes the poems move in an unexpected way.…

Watching Reiss’s progress as the book unfolds from his earliest to his most recent work is a delight.  The shifts in his interests, language, feelings—even the shift starting in his book, Ten Thousand Good Mornings, towards a more formal style that works within the confines of structures and metrics—gives the new reader a terrific overview of Reiss’s work.  For the reader already familiar with these poems, the book is a wonderful way to revisit and be moved again by Reiss’s voice and eye.”
—Marianna Hofer, Ohioana Quarterly


I never thought a war would wake me up
From dreams of olive branches by the sea.
I sip black coffee from a bitter cup.

The commandant pontificates, “A-yup,
Now’s not the time for dozing. Look at me.
I never thought a war would wake me up.”

His minions listen. While they sit to sup
On sweet potatoes and molasses tea,
I sip black coffee from a bitter cup.

His mistress knows at heart he’s just a pup
In need of petting. “Woof!” she snarls; then she,
Who never thought a war would wake her up,

Yawns over her pink lady—hic, hiccup!—
And draws him to her bosom drowsily.
I sip black coffee from a bitter cup,

Which runneth over every time I sip.
I’m lost between the letters A and Z.
I never thought a war would wake me up.
I swig black Lethe from a loving cup.