A Dog’s Life

A poet strad­dles the line be­tween the glory and the flame

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette - - Books - By Kristofer Collins Kristofer Collins is the books ed­i­tor for Pitts­burgh Mag­a­zine.

You may know Jimmy “Dog” Cvetic as a for­mer homi­cide de­tec­tive, or as the man­ager of sev­eral box­ing gyms around town, or as the founder of the Three Rivers Peace Pro­ject. But per­haps for the read­ers of this page it’s Mr. Cvetic’s role as im­pre­sario of the decades-run­ning Sum­mer Po­etry Read­ing Se­ries held at Hem­ing­way’s Cafe in Oak­land that you know him best. One of the high­lights of that se­ries is when, at the end of the evening, Jimmy Cvetic reads a poem or two of his own.

Mr. Cvetic’s lat­est col­lec­tion of po­ems, “Dog is a Love From Hell” is the per­fect en­try point for those un­fa­mil­iar with his work. As the tongue-in-cheek ti­tle im­plies, Mr. Cvetic’s po­etry has an affin­ity with that of the in­fa­mous Los An­ge­les writer Charles Bukowski.

Much like his West Coast for­bear, Mr. Cvetic has no time for niceties in his work. His po­ems are stripped down and mir­ror the tics and idio­syn­cra­sies of Mr. Cvetic’s way of talk­ing, which in turn cre­ates a very in­ti­mate read­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. The Cvetic of the po­ems feels very much like the Cvetic of the box­ing ring, “I like to swear / and swear­ing should be as nat­u­ral as breath­ing / nor­mal as shak­ing a fist to heaven.”

Which isn’t to say th­ese po­ems are art­less. Lis­ten to the mu­sic Mr. Cvetic wrings from a hand­ful of mem­o­ries, just a few loose frag­ments un­moored from time that find a home in “Junko the Ditch Dig­ger”:

They are gone now street­cars Le­mon Blennd WWII sol­diers that marched pa­rade on But­ler Street Big Isaly's Milk­man Junkman Rag­mansteel-shoe clomp horse­fly drawn wagon Rags Rags Rags

“Dog is a Love From Hell” is struc­tured chrono­log­i­cally, giv­ing it the feel of an au­to­bi­og­ra­phy. The first quar­ter of the col­lec­tion, in fact, could be ti­tled “The Ed­u­ca­tion of a Stinker.” The fu­ture cop re­veals his child­hood as a ne’er-do-well hel­lion run­ning the streets of Pitts­burgh skip­ping school, shoplift­ing cig­a­rettes, and sneak­ing bot­tles of Tiger Rose wine with his gang of bud­dies.

In th­ese early pages, Mr. Cvetic also lays the ground­work for a ma­jor theme of the col­lec­tion: his re­la­tion­ship to God and the Catholic Church. Here he is as an al­tar boy,

I was serv­ing Mass for Mon­signor Camp­bell who was older than the Bible and his Mass was longer than a slow rosary prayed by an old nun on

a hot sum­mer day ...

When the mon­signor ac­ci­den­tally drops a wafer of the Eucharist while serv­ing com­mu­nion, Mr. Cvetic springs into ac­tion and snags the Body of Christ on his paten, in his words, just like Wil­lie Mays. Then this hap­pens, “I knew I was blessed / and as I stood up I saw the rear end of Mary Sweeney / and just knew every­thing would al­ways be al­right.”

The ten­sion be­tween the sa­cred and the pro­fane drives Mr. Cvetic’s work. The po­ems that fol­low de­tail his time serv­ing in the Viet­nam War and his life as a homi­cide de­tec­tive. Mr. Cvetic has seen plenty of vi­o­lence and de­prav­ity in his time and he does not shy from de­scrib­ing it in th­ese pages. The lan­guage is raw and the emo­tions run bright red, yet none of it comes across as gra­tu­itous, be­cause at heart Jimmy Cvetic is a moral­ist in the tra­di­tion of Mark Twain and Lenny Bruce.

The sto­ries he tells can be shocking. The reader is not sup­posed to feel com­fort­able with the world Mr. Cvetic re­veals. The poet him­self is just as dis­turbed by what he has seen, “Al­ways ask­ing what is the mes­sage / ask­ing your­self over and over / again and again / ask­ing and ask­ing / beg­ging for an an­swer.” It’s only by see­ing the world as it is, Jimmy Cvetic im­plies, that we can fi­nally be­gin to change it for the bet­ter.

“DOG IS A LOVE FROM HELL” By Jimmy Cvetic, right Las­caux Edi­tions $25

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