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John Clarkson reflectson 'Unopened'. the debut poetry collection of Nashville-based singer-songwriter Doug Hoekstra.
Doug Hoekstra was a prolific presence in both folk and Americana circles from the mid 1990’s through to the late 2000’s. The Chicago-born but Nashville-based singer-songwriter released eight solo albums between 1996 and 2008, and toured regularly in both the US and Europe.
When Hoekstra became a single parent, he, however, put his musical career into hibernation so that he could bring up his now fifteen year old son, Jude. He has continued to develop his other love as a story writer, essayist and poet and has contributed now to many literary publications and magazines over the years. His first book ‘Bothering the Coffee Drinkers’ (2006), a collection of short stories and an essay, was followed by a second collection, ‘The Tenth Inning’ (2015), a set of stories all based around the world of baseball, and now he has released ‘Unopened’, his first anthology of poetry.
As a songwriter, Hoekstra had the sort of hushed vocal that drew his listener in. His great talent, however, was for writing lyrics. One critic described him as writing “five minute worlds,” and one is reminded of those lyrics on ‘Unopened’. Like Raymond Carver or Charles Bukowski, he has on ‘Unopened’ a similar stark, accessible style and the ability to capture the small as well as big events that give our lives meaning and significance.
Many of his poems are music-related and are about his previous life on the road. ‘Laughter (An Apology’ tells of how on one road trip he and another singer-songwriter, an unnamed Kat Parsons, became hopelessly lost in the Northumberland/Scottish borders, having to ask directions from the same person twice (“Lost and laughing at our misfortune in the early autumn”). On ‘House Concert in Liverpool’, he reflects on a memorable gig played out in a once favourite shirt against the backdrop of the home town history of his heroes, The Beatles. (“Wearing the Paisley shirt I loved but lost/Standing in front of frosted windows/Singing songs I knew were/Mine alone to quote the McCartney/tune written years after he quit riding/On his fast city bike through Sefton Park”).
‘All the Way North’ tells of a very different road journey, this time to Idaho Falls with the still very young Jude (“Meanwhile an iPod clicks away in the backseat/Like repurposed Morse code, in the hands of/My son/Thunder Road”). On ‘Gravitas’ the middle-aged Doug goes out to see a fashionable new band, but finds himself out of his time and depth and much more in his comfort zone at home listening to the music of the past (“I stayed on to the end, hoping to miss something/Went home and put on a Frank Sinatra record/and danced slowly around the living room with/My loer I my arms”).
Best of all, there is the poignant ‘Impermanence’ in which Hoekstra returns to his Chicago childhood home to visit his elderly parents (“Where the walkers and wheelchairs/Made their way into our loves)”. He reflects on his fading parents’ memories (“Tonight it’s Turner Classic Movies, holding hands and watching/Dancing, singing and laughing at the Aragon ballroom”) and how things have changed beyond all recognition, but somehow remain the same (Nothing is as it used to be except when it is”).
‘Unopened’ is a reminder of how good a writer Doug Hoekstra is. As heartbreaking as it is often hilarious, it chronicles life, as Hoekstra’s songs also have done, with matter-of-fact honesty and realism.
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