Green Hills Literary Lantern

 

 

 

Short Reviews of Three New Books of Poetry

 

C.D. Albin, Axe, Fire, Mule, Golden Antelope Press, Kirksville, MO, 2018, 72 pages, ISBN: 978-1-926135-54-7

Charles Rammelkamp, Jack Tar’s Lady Parts, Main Street Rag Press, Charlotte, NC, 48 pages, ISBN: 1-59948-655-0.

Mike White, Addendum to a Miracle, (Winner of the Twelfth Anthony Hecht Poetry Prize), Waywiser, Baltimore, MD, 2017, ISBN: 978-1-904130-89-5

C.D. Albin, was born and raised in the Ozarks and has taught for years in his hometown within the English Department of Missouri State University, West Plains.  His book of poems, Axe, Fire, Mule, is broken into five parts, all of them dealing with what his publisher explains are the “joys and disappointments, loyalties and doubts, and inevitable changes we associate with ‘Ozark noir.’”  The book is divided into five parts: Ozark Dark; Marooned; Axe, Fire, Mule; Rose of Sharon and Will and Testament.   The first three sections all deal with familiar Ozark themes, including poems about rural poverty, the rugged landscape and the resilient men and women who farm and work that land, even as their parents, grandparents and great grandparents did. Rose of Sharon focuses on Albin’s role as an educator, while the final section’s Will and Testament poems, all from the perspective of “Cicero Jack,” let an elder Ozark resident lament the new ways of both his own people and the strangers who come to the Ozarks for outdoor entertainment.   Albin as a Ph.D., scholar and poet who has lived most of his life in the Ozarks is uniquely qualified to speak with eloquence and authority of Ozark realities.  His tone is consistently sympathetic towards  Ozark people  and remains so even when he narrates their foibles, as when they keep killing coyotes illegally “No matter the new conservation/ officer’s patient pleas” (“All Else”)  or when they ignore the “Burn Ban” because the old man featured in the poem has always done “slash and burn” farming.  Still,  while Albin appreciates the stubbornness and traditions of the Ozarks (one of which is to be suspicious of strangers) he does not go so far as to share some of his students or neighbors’  racism against Spanish speaking immigrants (“Speech Lessons”), and instead shows sympathy for all of his struggling students, whether immigrants, returning veterans or a working class man who hopes against hope that his  education will  perhaps rescue him from a life of labor: “How can somebody like me find work that’s clean?” (“Revision”).

Of course, having sympathy both with Spanish speaking immigrants and with the people he has claimed as his own all his life is not an easy line for Albin to walk.  In the book’s last section, Will and Testament, all the poems are in the voice of “Cicero Jack” an old Ozark man who laments and vilifies the intrusion of St. Louis and Springfield tourists, while also judging his nephew in Tulsa for living in a sub-division where there’s “no place to run” and his other heirs who can’t wait for him to die so as to convert his farm to “bass boats and bank accounts.”   In one of the most poignant poems in the Rose of Sharon section, “Speech Lessons,” Albin admits to remaining quiet in the barbershop while some of his neighbors speak unkindly about the Spanish speakers new to the Ozarks.  Of course, as a stranger to Ozark ways myself, I’m left to ask where Cicero Jack gets his hair cut and what he has to say while he is there.  I’m left wondering  if some of the seemingly admirable qualities of Ozark men who keep killing coyotes illegally or starting fires during a drought are the same qualities that make them unlikely to like anything strange or new, including anyone not born to their part of the world or their settled way of life. 

Charles Rammelkamp has a history of writing books of poetry on historical themes; I’ve reviewed two of them in past issues of GHLL, one focused on the life and times of Mata Hari and the other a more obscure tale, Fusen Bakudan, based on the complicated aftermath of the one fatality from the Japanese attempt during World War II to send balloon bombs across the ocean that would explode in America.  In Jack Tar’s Lady Parts, Rammelkamp has taken on the interesting history of women who served in some capacity or other on the merchant and war ships of the British navy during the height of the British Empire.  His poems are divided into three sections, Wives; Prostitutes; Transvestites  The speakers are mostly the women themselves, as they tell their stories of how they came to be on British ships, though there are also some poems told by male observers.  In every instance Rammelkamp takes a sympathetic and positive view of the brave women who so often faced degrading and violent treatment by the men in their lives or who were only on the ships to avoid even worse choices that awaited them back on land.  As Rammelkamp tries to get inside the heads of these women in his persona poems, he seems particularly drawn to the irony of women who prefer even a little bit of autonomy, no matter how questionable, to none at all.  For example, in the wives section the reader meets Lydia Hawkins, who enjoyed working as a “powder monkey” alongside her husband on naval war vessels, but who was disgusted by being forced to labor as a servant to some royal women during their passage on a ship.  After a few weeks of having to empty their chamber pots and serve them their meals and otherwise be their virtual slave, she laments, “What had I done to deserve this?”  Betsy Pike of the  Prostitutes  section tells us that a gang rape by a whole crew of seamen, which included not paying her after they had had their brutal way with her, caused her to go to the “Female Penitentiary for Penitent Prostitutes.”  However, the people running the establishment were so self-righteous, mean-spirited and cruel to her during her stay with them that after just three weeks she “went back to whoring.”  Though the autonomy and power of these women is extremely limited by their lack of education, their poverty and the particularly male-dominated world of the British vessel, Rammelkamp focuses again and again on their abilities, their bravery and their determination to make the best lives they can forge against a sea of opposition and hypocrisy.

Addendum to a Miracle contains fifty-four poems and twenty-four of them (exactly four ninths of the total) are ten lines or fewer. I find this particularly interesting because, in my own history as a poet I’ve published several hundred poems, and none of them have ever been that short. Mike White is no stranger to longer lengths of poetry, though; in fact, of the remaining thirty poems, five of them are more than a page long, and one of them is five pages long. White’s ability to be alternately pithy and effusive is something almost inherently noteworthy, but what he actually accomplishes at any length of poem makes it easy to see why this collection won the Anthony Hecht Prize. In his five line poem “Easter,” for example, White gets so much meaning out of twenty-two total words, that it almost seems like the act of a magician rather than a writer. 

                                                                                The sun’s finally out

                                                                                and with his stepdad a boy

                                                                                builds a newspaper boat

                                                                                they both half-believe

                                                                                the snowmelt will float.

 

The poem’s title evokes themes of rebirth and miracle, both the incontrovertible kind that comes with every Spring, and also the miraculous possibilities tied to Christian faith.  It’s the half belief shared by the boy and his step-in father that ties all of us to this snapshot, since few of us seem certain in our faith these days, but most of us still want something in which we can believe.  These two decide to take some paper printed mostly with bad news and transform it into a vehicle of movement; the attempt itself implies hope and, after all, the sun really is out and the snow really has melted quickly enough to become a potential river Jordan. 

One twenty-line poem I found particularly poignant  is “Dying.”   Rather than the poem being about some terminally ill person or a recently lost relative, it surprises instead by centering on a routine check-up at the speaker’s doctor’s office. White captures well what just about anyone over forty feels when making such a visit, the foreboding sense that, eventually and inevitably, something has to go very wrong.  The ending of the poem details the speaker’s escape from the office, into the “immaculate hall/ where the hospital’s ghostly benefactors/ line the walls,” concluding with his entrance, via revolving doors once more into the light of day: “tumbling into the sunny afternoon,/ mildly stunned that it’s  there.”

For a poet who so often chooses poems of ten lines or less, it’s ironic that the real tour de force of this collection is his longest poem, an irreverent piece entitled: “Brandon’s Nuts Hang Down to the Water,” a title lifted from some bathroom graffiti in the “Reno bus station.”  One line that speaks to the method of the poem itself, but which also typifies White’s overall approach in Addendum to a Miracle is a single line stanza stating: “I read into things.”  In this poem those things include comic descriptions of everything from a man actually washing his feet in one of the restroom’s sinks, to the poet’s chagrin over having a “considerably/ less elastic scrotum,” to a nostalgia he allows himself over the primacy of outhouses  before the dawn of indoor plumbing.  However, the poem is a lot more than bathroom humor; White affirms a principle detailed in Whitman’s “Song of Myself,”  “All truths wait in all things,” (and nods to Whitman in one of the poem’s last lines: “singing/ the body eccentric,”) by making his poem, which began by “reading into” a line of graffiti, a poem about love and loss and the heartbreaking reality of never really measuring up to existence’s impossible standards.  And so it is that the man who has been cleaning his feet in an unclean place has no place to put them without sullying them again, yet he tries, just like the step-father and son in “Easter,” and like their effort, his attempt itself is worthy work, as he tiptoes “making as little noise as an angel/ as little noise as can be.”     

Only after reading all three books, which seem so widely and obviously different, Albin’s set in the Ozarks, Rammelkamp’s on board long-ago sailing vessels and White’s mostly in contemporary urban settings, have I realized the core they have in common.  All three books admire resiliency: the farmer who keeps slashing and burning his fields, the woman who would rather whore than be lectured to and derided by hypocrites, and the step-father and son taking a chance with their half-faith, all know life is unforgiving and probably too much for us, but none of them are asking for pity or doubting that there might not be at least a little something they can do about it.  And that’s how these poets seem to feel as well.  And there more than little somethings they give back to the world are the very worthwhile poems in these three little books.

 

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. The second in the Cupelli Brothers mystery series, Saving St. Teresa, appeared this year. Expecting Songbirds: Selected Poems: 1983-2015 is just out from Purple Flag Press.