My Bedside Radio is a chapbook written in narrative form. The reader follows the narrator from childhood to young adulthood struggling to understand a seemingly contradictory and fearful world. It touches on themes such as sexuality, war, racism, social scripts and paternal abandonment.
These poems are deceptively simple; they aren’t laden with metaphor or high diction and the lines rarely have more than five words in them. It’s as if the poet made a compromise between the complexity of life and the simple-hearted perception of a young person, as if Cappo told the young narrator, “Yes, I know how to write about your confusions, about your realizations, about your awe and loneliness and if you let me do it, I will do it so that if I were able to throw this book decades into the past you would be able to read it.” In this compromise he refuses to burden the growing protagonist with sententious analysis and instead gives him a sympathetic once-over before looking to the larger world. Cappo does not lock his protagonist in pity-driven isolation but frees him into the larger scope of being, for which everyone—his sister’s boyfriends, Nixon, Byron, fugitive guerrillas – is responsible:
[Freedom, freedom, everybody wants freedom]
Freedom, freedom, everybody wants
freedom, my bedside radio explains.
Goodbye, stranger; baby don’t
get hooked on me; never fall
in love again.
Other people such a problem.
I thought together was the whole point.
Life isn’t simple, Cappo seems to write, but the apparent contradictions of the world mustn’t obscure our language. Contradictions lead to uncertainty but words are the tool used to approximate truths. The radio, with its songs and news, plays the role of an authority figure to the young narrator and at the end of the book, the adult protagonist understands the identity-forming power of words.
Anthony Cappo is just as skillful and considerate of sound in his poems as the singers that come through his radio. The strength of his sound comes through his fluent use of assonance. One of my favorite poems from this book demonstrates how well he maneuvers the vowel sounds:
[My bedside radio says that was all he missed]
My bedside radio says that was all
he missed, he ain’t comin’ back.
I sing this and my baby sister
complains, you don’t know that, dad
Might be coming back. Everyone
tells her no no, he’s just singing
a song. But she’s right – I’m not.
And he isn’t.
In this poem, Cappo plays the “i” sound against the “o” sound, creating a dialogue between the vowels. The “i” is definite and cruel: “missed”, “this”, “isn’t.” The “o” is a protest, upset and insecure: “no no”, “song”, “not”, “don’t.” The sounds in Cappo’s poems are not just part of the poetic music, but play intricately to each poem’s meaning. One can argue that the main dialogue is not even between the characters, but between these “i” and “o” sounds that would be able to carry all the weight even if the poem were written with nonsense words.
Even when opportunity affords it, he chooses to surprise rather than shock his audience (“When I asked her what adultery meant // she said to ask your father”). His uses of metaphor aren’t far-fetched (“just two married guys stinging // the town, honeying the girls.) and even his use of surrealism shows great control. The radio may be “sad” or “goofing off” but the personification of the radio never detracts from the poem as a slice of the actual.
What is most astonishing about these poems is the multitudes that they contain in such a small space. The poem “[Come on people now, smile on your brother]” is sixteen lines. In it Cappo is able to put the audience in a specific era, acknowledge hypocrisy and the limitations of music, disparage idealism, mock commercial tactics, and demonstrate the incredible disparity between the private and public treatment of a minority group.
The last three lines of the poem are “There’s harmony in buying the world // a Coke, but Ruben Carter / didn’t make out so well.” I want to go into these lines because this is one of many great places where Cappo shows his understanding of language to not have to use a lot of it. (I can imagine him describing certain poems as pushy). His minimal use of language demonstrates his understanding of white space. The large, uninhabited areas of the page spread wide and unanswered. Whereas a charged topic such as race relations would set less skillful poets into apologetic writing, Cappo lets the untouched page speak the immeasurable silence of perpetual racism.
My Bedside Radio is a collection of poems that follows the development of a maturing protagonist alongside the historical development of a culture. In the beginning the radio gives inchoate messages (“AM radio the new truth / acid protest”), staticky with confusion and destruction; by the end Jim Morrison is proclaimed “the sexiest man alive, but dead.” Our protagonist is now an adult and the authoritative voice of the radio is turned down. We witness him as grown, physically navigating an outside environment far from his bedside, and learning, tentatively how to sing his own song.