Friday, June 2, 2017

Tucked Away: Dual Lives in David R. Altman’s “Death in the Foyer”

by JoAnn LoVerde-Dropp

For me, summers are for regrouping and re-reading favorite books.  One such work by David R. Altman, “Death in the Foyer,” continues to sink the plumb line of my appreciation for his attention to instinct and motive each time I read it.  “Death in the Foyer,” published by Finishing Line Press in 2014, is Altman’s debut chapbook. His website can be found at

“Death in the Foyer” contains a series of vignettes that convey the message nature may contain mysteries, but people keep secrets.

 The first of these is the book’s titular poem about a man who suddenly, and without resistance, succumbs to an aneurism in his home’s foyer. Altman’s use of an omniscient voice places the reader in an awkward position of knowing more than the dying man’s devoted wife whose “warm fingers [protect] now what no longer needs protecting.” 

Suddenly, the reader knows perhaps more than they should. Without warning, we’re in on it as the speaker divulges how, “his final thoughts were of wives and children;/and secret friends who knew him well,/thoughts that he will share now only with himself.”

And we know her, don’t we? This woman of “soft pleas” who emerges from “a living room landscape of family photos and dusty Bibles.” She is the hearth keeper; albeit, possibly not the first one as “wives” is unmistakably plural. 

I love this poem because every time I read the last stanza, I have to ask myself if I am obligated to care more about this man than the clearly ambivalent speaker. Altman writes,

            He was to die upon a rug he used to vacuum
            and had admired from a distance.
            Now moving toward a new life,
            less worldly than the one which at that instant he was leaving,
            but a new life, just the same.

We have to ask ourselves, what type of man (or woman, for that matter) sinks so comfortably into an “unexpected” death? Could it be one with “secret friends” suddenly offered a clean slate?  This negative capability allows the question to linger as long as we wish, as the dying man only “[moves] toward a new life” when we are ready.

More dramatic but equally compelling is the poem, “2:17 a.m.” Here, Altman carefully attends to setting, mood, and plot. We exist in both space and time, and the speaker uses the poem’s title and first line to create a sense of tension that does not dissipate even when the danger has passed.

Awakening to the sounds of destruction,
            the family presses one another to the hardwood
Unable to move or see or understand
            in one final act of unity they pray silently, hands touching.
Bullets fill the room, shattering photos and jewelry and bed posts
            While small children, life faceless rag dolls, curl beside their mother
Each family member pinned down like a spider beneath a jar
            waiting for the inevitable.

                                                Suddenly, things stop.

The crackling glass still rings as tires screech beyond shattered blinds.
            Quiet sobs fill the void
                        where gunfire had been.
The father sighs, his family safe, his home destroyed,
            His secrets so rudely revealed.
He peeks outside, in the dim light,
                   thinking only of how badly his grass needs cutting
                            and whether his house will ever be sold.

Here, the poem’s story is mirrored in its visual rhetoric. The first stanza consists of alternating but uniformly indented, end-stopped lines connoting order even in the midst of disaster.  It almost does not matter that a solitary line interrupts the terror in the night because the second stanza, with its craggy indents, betrays a father’s secret life.

While I personally find “Death in the Foyer” and “2:17 a.m.” two of the most intriguing poems in Altman’s first collection, this chapbook’s scope is far reaching.  He explores the lethal neutrality of animal instinct in the poems “Wake Up Call” and “Her Woods” in the same proportion as the will to live and love in “The Groom’s Mother Has Cancer.”

“Death in the Foyer” can be found on the Finishing Line Press website at

JoAnn LoVerde-Dropp is a Lecturer in the English department at Kennesaw State University. JoAnn received her MFA in Creative Writing from Spalding University in Louisville, Kentucky. Her poetry has appeared in Gargoyle Magazine,, and Bigger than They Appear: Anthology of Short Poems