It Takes One to Know One:

Poetry and Prose

Michael Lally, winner of a 1999 American Book Award for his sensational debut Black Sparrow volume, It’s Not Nostalgia, evinces the same stunning honesty and self-analytical clarity in this powerful new collection of autobiographical poetry and prose. Retracing his wandering life-path from a rough Irish-Catholic boyhood in a working-class suburb of Newark, N.J., through turbulent years of radical political engagement in Washington, D.C., struggling-poet bohemianism in New York and elusive brushes with movie-star fame in Hollywood, Lally finally circles back to his home turf of South Orange, an older and wiser man.

If in the chapter, “Lally’s Alley,” the author’s large family “owned” the eponymous block on which they lived, so too does Lally own this work. The book’s melange of vignettes, poems, tracts, and reminiscences is daring to say the least; still, sprawling like the Lally clan, these variegated ruminations manage quite nicely to cohere.

Lally is a fierce writer and intellect. His Irish-American heritage is a recurring theme, but it provides a jumping-off point for exploring the American Way and the different American zeitgeists the author has witnessed, rather than acting as a limiting agent. Though his “Newark Poem” explains that the speaker has waited all his life in Jersey for the great cities of the world to come to him, It Takes One to Know One rises above New Jersey and indeed even America as Lally plumbs the soul of his people, his country and himself, creating a world much like the Paradise found in “Heaven & Hell”:


Hell is
no escape.
And no acceptance.


Ah, heaven.
Heaven is
more complicated.


Born in Orange, N.J. in 1942, youngest of seven in an Irish-American family of cops, priests, and politicians, Michael Lally started out playing piano and reading his poetry in coffeehouses and bars in 1959. By 1980 he wrote twenty books, including the poetry collection Rocky Dies Yellow (1974) and a collection of prose and poetry, Catch My Breath (1978). After creating several poetry reading series in D.C., New York, and L.A. in the 1970s and ’80s, Lally was declared “The Godfather of Poetry” by several magazines, newspapers and fellow poets.