Urban, youthful, sometimes rap-inspired poems with titles like “Lust IV” make up much of Mark Cugini’s new poetry collection, I’m Just Happy To Be Here. The author’s bio announces with understated panache that “Mark Cugini grew up in Staten Island. This is his first collection of anything.”
But there is nothing understated about the poems, many of which coalesce on the strong cord of having grown up in Staten Island in the shadow of that other island, that cosmopolitan world capital, Manhattan. “O My Island” alludes sadly to the collapse of the Twin Towers (“my island, where the smoke’s still setting/ over those dead firemen’s homes—”) while “The One Pool” deftly conveys the view of an outer borough’s resident, referring to 9/11 in the context of youthful drinking jags (“…when we all/ used to dream as big as those two buildings/ we’ll never be able to throw up in front of again”).
The persona here is that of a rather tough street kid, one who announces of the Occupy movement, “I survived Zucotti Park/ and all I got was this stinking falafel,” but his toughness does not preclude genuineness and hope, as when he glances at the Occupiers around him, seeing “real beauty in real people.” Still, these poems are not sentimental, especially not so about art or inspiration. “There is no river in which our destinies flow,/ and those damn birds that/ burst forth from your soul are/ shitting on the hood of my car,” he writes in “You Damn Lames.”
Dry humor pervades this work, heightening the absurdity of much of our popular consumer culture: “You should, at any point in time,/ be able to recite the specs of any/ Mercedes S-class off the top of your head—/ if not, memorize the monologues of/ at least seven mob movies.” This attitude, with lots of outer borough lore, grief, anger, and oddly cheerful announcements like “I am ready to fucking kill you,” blend into a gallimaufry somewhere between music and poetry. There is nothing stale or verbose here; the clichés are handled ironically and, often, with a jaunty note of regret, as in “Appoggiaturas”: “We wiped clean when we should have rebooted—/ we french fried when we should have pizza’d/ I had to concede so many dreams,/ this year, like my old neighborhoods/ and the way you used to look when/ no one was around but us buttheads.”
Above all, I’m Just Happy To Be Here exudes life—an in-your-face vitality in which nothing seems fake. Though Cugini complains about the Occupy open mic in one piece, these poems at times resemble just that, amplifying whatever powerful mood happens to possess the poet at a given moment. With titles like “We’re About Whatever, Man,” the poems dance along, sometimes slowly and sadly, sometimes snidely or angrily, but always happy to be here, because that, after all, is so much better than the alternative.