A Dog’s Life
A poet straddles the line between the glory and the flame
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