Green Hills Literary Lantern

 Egoism vs. Altruism in Books by Two of Our Poets

 

Charles Rammelkamp, Fūsen Bakudan: Poems of Altruism and Tragedy in Wartime, Time Being Books, St. Louis, MO, 2012 (82 pages; ISBN: 978-1568091501)

David Lawrence,  The King of White Collar Boxing, A Memoir, Rain Mountain Press, New York, NY, 2012 (328 pages; ISBN:9780983478331)

 

On the last page of David Lawrence’s memoir, The King of White Collar Boxing, he states, “But for better or worse I only really know myself,” a line quite in concert with some lines from the first pages of Thoreau’s Walden, “I should not talk so much about myself if there were anybody else whom I knew as well.”  Normally I only review poetry books in my annual review for GHLL, but this particular memoir was completed by one of the poets we’ve most frequently published at GHLL over the last decade, someone who is unabashedly, and, like Thoreau, unapologetically I-focused in both his poetry and his nonfiction writing.  I thought it might be worthwhile to review Lawrence’s book alongside one by another poet I admire, Charles Rammelkamp, whose Fūsen Bakudan: Poems of Altruism and Tragedy in Wartime, could hardly seem more different from Lawrence’s approach to writing, not only because its subject matter is never Charles Rammelkamp, but also because of its attempt to understand others by writing as if we were those others.

Fūsen Bakudan recounts, via a series of narrative persona poems from a variety of points of view, the painfully sad story of the Reverend Archie Mitchell, who in 1945 witnessed his pregnant wife Elsie and five teenagers die horribly from an exploding balloon bomb (fūsen bakudan) that had been sent across the Pacific, all the way from Japan to Oregon, and who later, as a missionary in 1962, was kidnapped by the Viet Cong from a jungle leprosarium and never seen again.  Rammelkamp’s poems are effectively prosy and conversational, as they tell this tragic tale from numerous angles.  Rammelkamp does not go in for “spinning”; he doesn’t make judgments of any of the many people he lets speak, though Oregonian Ori Gaines, who gets to be the speaker in no fewer than four of the poems in the collection, is perhaps a variation on a straw man, or as Robert Cooperman describes him in a review of the book, “a grade-A bigot fearful and hating all that he doesn’t know or understand.”  Ori considers  Reverend Mitchell and his second wife “idiots” for going to do missionary work in Viet Nam,  since “Those gooks don’t want/ none of their Christian charity.”   It’s almost impossible, then, to sympathize with Ori’s point of view, but almost all of the other speakers, including the Viet Cong who kidnap Rev. Mitchell and two others, are shown to be fully human, caught up in the seeming necessities of war.  For example, in “Binh Pham’s Suspicions Confirmed” we find out the Viet Cong leader is convinced the Missionaries are spies, “whispering information to their army advisors/ putting us in danger.” 

Rammelkamp has chosen to delve into a fairly obscure history; certainly I had never heard of the balloon bombs the Japanese sent across the ocean during World War II.  The metaphoric value of that image itself is devastating.  Five teens and a pregnant woman were killed at a church picnic in Oregon, the only fatalities recorded from the fūsen bakudan.   Balloons, so often delightful to children, were attached to bombs (and Japanese children helped construct the devices, under their teachers’ supervision, as we are informed in the book’s final poem “Searching the Sky”) and then sent across the waters to the U.S. and Canada in hopes of killing as many civilians as possible.  The fūsen bakudan were thereby a kind of microcosmic prelude to the atomic bombs the U.S. sent back only months later to murder Japanese civilians by the hundreds of thousands. 

The King of White Collar Boxing centers around David Lawrence’s  odd and colorful time as a boxer, a role he did not take on until his forties as an ironic substitute for the motorcycle riding his wife and young son thought was too dangerous, though more truly because “it was a tribal thing.  I wanted to defeat enemies.  Boxing was a forbidden planet.”    At the time Lawrence was a millionaire, through ownership of a Wall Street insurance firm whose shady practices would eventually get Lawrence convicted of tax evasion and earn him more than a year in jail.  Previously a college English teacher (with a Ph.D. from CUNY),  during the course of the memoir Lawrence also pursues with some success the life of a rapper (the “Jewish Renegade”), a documentary movie star ( Boxer Rebellion)  and, eventually, a boxing instructor at the iconic Gleason’s Gym, a post he still holds now, well into his 60’s.   

Lawrence’s memoir is an easy, fun read in large part because he is a talented writer with a really interesting story to tell.  His sentences, reminiscent of his approach to poetry, are themselves like hooks and especially left jabs; he’s funny, always politically incorrect and consistently unapologetic about his narcissism.  Here’s just one example of the kind of feints that characterize the book:

“I wasn’t sure I was ready for the Doc. He was an ex-pro who was into self-destruction. He didn’t care about getting hit. I told my wife I was going to a business meeting.  She didn’t suspect my adulterous liaison dangereuse with a pair of boxing gloves.  If my face was battered, should I say negotiations were rough? Or quip that we clashed heads for a while, then saw eye to eye?  I had to come home unblemished.”

I’ve always enjoyed David Lawrence’s poetry for its honesty and its sardonic self-assessing, and that is also one of the most attractive characteristics of his memoir. Certainly his story is inherently interesting- a rich business man who took to professional boxing- but People Magazine and the various other venues that have already chronicled that part of Lawrence’s life have beaten us to that punch.  What I find engaging about David Lawrence’s life and poetry is his living out Thoreau’s idea- that, if we are honest with ourselves, the only part of life we can really even try to make sense of is the “I”: “We commonly do not remember that it is, after all, always the first person that is speaking,” Thoreau tells us, but David Lawrence doesn’t need to be told.  And so he can share with us without shame his naïve dalliances into money laundering, his happy celebrity status during his time in prison: “Back in the business world I was a low life, but in jail I was the man;” or his belated and also somewhat limited appreciation of his wife’s talent and her love for him: “I can only stare at her from a distance and fall into the well of her accomplishments and my own self-obsessions.”   He makes no attempts to even pretend to “learn from his mistakes;” he is just as fascinated by himself at the end of his memoir as he was at its beginning-- he tells about his life honestly and well, an undertaking far less common than most contemporary readers of memoir probably realize. 

How is my appreciation for what David Lawrence has accomplished able to coincide with my respect for the Charles Rammelkamp of Fūsen Bakudan?  After all, unlike the ubiquitous Lawrence, the poet, fiction-writer, editor, husband, citizen that is Charles Rammelkamp is hard to quantify in persona poems of people I assume Rammelkamp never even met.  Ironically, I think Rammelkamp is just as aware of and in tune with Thoreau’s notions about the first person as Lawrence.  If one agrees with Thoreau that we are always restricted to the first person, if one wants to write about others one has to become those others, as much as is humanly possible, and write as if he were them.  One has to become so other-centered that he stops being himself entirely, like the best actors who try fully to become the people they portray. Frankly, I think it’s easier for Rammelkamp to pull that off when he is writing with the voice of one of the altruistic people in the collection, the ones closest to him in their sensibilities, but it is still quite an accomplishment to render these strangers from the past authentically and with sympathy in the truest sense of the word, as defined in the American Heritage Dictionary:” A relationship or affinity between persons or things in which whatever affects one correspondingly affects the other.”  Rammelkamp does not settle for telling this sad story of Reverend Mitchell as a small part of the larger, sadder, third person stories of World War II and the Viet Nam War; he participates, becomes those others, to connect all of his readers to the ongoing, always living senselessness of war and its making the killing of children by children and the capturing and killing of well-meaning people acceptable, even logical commonplaces.  By extension, Rammelkamp is refusing to let us see war as a third person entity; if war exists it is because we (the first person plural) let it exist, accept it as logical or at least unavoidable.  In a way, then, we are no better than Ori Gaines, no matter how superior to him we might feel, since we allow the horror of war to remain status quo.  Towards the end of the book, in reading the poem, “The Last Survivor,” where we discover that more than thirty years later the Reverend’s widow Betsy journeys back to “Ban Me Thout... still hoping to find Archie, the Reverend,/ or at least his remains,” we understand how long the cruelty of war lingers, how difficult it is ever to defeat.

These two books serve as extreme contrasts to each other- one focused on the very individual Lawrence’s exact specifics of his unusual life, the other investing itself in an attempt to comprehend a broad history in which the writer had zero direct involvement; taken together they present to us much of the range and the limitations of what good writing can do.   Ironically, while the writers take such different approaches, their protagonists share a lot in common, even as boxing and war are both obviously centered in violence and in harming the other.  Yet Reverend Mitchell answered hate with love, and Lawrence holds no malice towards the men who hurt him within the boxing ring.  While war and boxing are two long-standing types of ritualized violence, Lawrence seems able and willing to contain that violence within a small ring; he can even befriend most of the other boxers he encounters, while Rammelkamp shows us how war disables us from recovery, how there is no ring, no matter how large, that can really contain the effects and endurance of its harmfulness.

 

 

 

Joe Benevento has published fiction, poetry and essays in over three hundred places. Poetry editor of GHLL since 1995, with numerous collections of verse and several novels to his credit, he teaches literature and creative writing at Truman State University.