Charles Rammelkamp’s Catastroika is the best romp with Rasputin since the animated film Anastasia – with none of the sugar coating. Based on the true story of Aron Simanovich, Jewish secretary to the notorious monk who perished in Auschwitz, and his friendship with Rasputin’s daughter, Maria, Catastroika takes us on a thrilling kaleidoscopic ride through some of the most horrific and strangest parts of Russian history.
– Anne Eakin Moss, professor of Russian literature, Johns Hopkins University
Particularly Dangerous Situation by Beth Gordon Reviewed by Chris Collins
The title of Beth Gordon’s collection sets you on your wary guard, then tightrope-walks you through the twenty-four poems. The name is apt for the whole collection, not least for the overriding themes and imagery of death and loss, but for the overwhelming and dizzying mysteries set up in every poem that throw you on edge. You know danger is lurking there, but you can’t see it yet.
I read these poems over a series of weeks, as each one’s disparate images took time to digest. And as the images and phrases seeped disjointedly into my consciousness, a tension was created as I skirted around twenty-four particularly dangerous situations.
The opening poem ‘Looking Away at Lambert Airport’ instantly sets the tone. Images of lives; distorted, damaged and corrupted are uncomfortable; humans are cruel, selfish and destructive. The title serves to remind us that in the face of suffering, most of us look away. When pain, loss or disease humiliate, it is easier to dehumanise the sufferer; the female twin subjects of the poem are rendered animalistic with talons and fur. We go back to our screens.
Gordon’s vehement imagery is bitter and heart breaking. Visions of death emerge, bubble up in nearly every poem and subside. We are called upon to imagine ‘What my daughter’s hair felt like when she was dead;’ something is ‘riddled with bullets;’ we go to ‘ICU’ and ‘emergency rooms.’ Widows dance with ‘dead husbands,’ an Irish Pagan has been dying ‘since the moment she was born;’ there are tombstones, carcasses, skulls and rotten things. You find yourself racing haphazardly through each poem to search for an answer; staring myopically at each image and idea, as if in a dream, as each poem paints a piece more. Something awful has happened. What, and to whom?
Structure and poetic form are adeptly manipulated. The poem ‘Loquacious’ makes giddy use of enjambment to emphasise the poem’s title of unfettered verbal outpouring, in a panicked or despairing confession that works to avoid the crux of the matter; emphasising the poem’s theme. This structure is employed frequently to create lists of images which overwhelm the reader. At times, this is heady and joyous – ‘Road Trip Redux,’ despite its negative view of travelling nevertheless creates the hedonism of random adventure. At other times like in ‘Christmas Eve,’ enjambment is used to heap up upon the reader lists of misery like an outpouring of loss. Questions are asked and not answered - left despairingly in the air - abandoned as hurt and lost things. The ghost returns at the end of ‘I Buried My Father Twice’ to ask: ‘Where are you, where did everybody go?’ These heartbreakingly lonely and sad questions are never answered for the ghost; nor the reader – who continually questions the identities of the elusive ‘you’ to whom Gordon addresses her poems.
Along with death, disease is a key image. It is an inheritance; a curse that is always lurking and passed down like old furniture. In ‘April Sixteenth Two Thousand Seventeen’ Alzheimer’s haunts us; numerous cancers prowl through the pages. Genetic diseases like cystic fibrosis cripple the next generation as ‘nothing ever ripens’ in ‘Walking Catfish,’ while children are routinely ‘tumour-ridden’ in ‘One of Those Days.’ Contagions of rabies, diphtheria, smallpox, and Zika virus loom over us; comas are implied in the sleeping cocoons of ‘Goose Season’ where nature is out of kilter and migrating birds, despite their hereditary instinct, lose their way.
In Gordon’s poetic world, the body is frail; and the mind, assuaged by the body’s weakness, is frailer still. ‘April Sixteenth Two Thousand Seventeen’ paints the impact of loss, the peanut butter eating, day-time red wine drinking, pyjama wearing kind of coping. The kind of coping that thinks ‘fuck it,’ in ‘I Tell You I Dreamed of Reading Poems in Phoenix’ and stops the car in the middle of the road. In a world of dead teenagers, dead daughters, dead brothers, dead fathers (sometimes twice), dead friends and their dead fathers and dead lovers, Gordon creates dark images of despair and escape.
But escape is not always dark. With only a few words, Gordon evokes a sense of place and often it is the desert to which she returns to create a scape to escape. In coyote circles with ‘dust drenched winds’, ‘vultures’ and ‘stars,’ the open desert is before us as a clean and safe place where stasis ensures nothing is lost and nothing is complicated. Escape is also found in dreams, another recurring image. Non-sequitur images in Gordon’s poems are themselves dreamlike, men ride on unicycles and mutter about dialects; dreams and the dreamlike in her poems begin with greens and orange, plants and animals, then throw dangerous confessions or realisations around like exploding hijacked planes. Verbalised realisations that can destroy as much as the death and disease.
There is kindness though. And hope. In ‘I Think You Live In Constant Fear of Tragedy,’ Gordon empowers the broken body and encourages it to ‘relearn the art of twist and bend,’ calling it to somersault and ‘promise your ribcage to the stars’ in the safe haven again of the desert with its coyotes and vultures. The body is disjointed, but lovely, spirited from the grotesque to the spiritual. ‘The Possibility of Journey is a Heavy Thing’ empathises with the failings of the weak body; be it old or traumatised, and gently encourages bravery; ‘the fear will dissipate.’ Gordon offers the possibility of continuance. Never more so than in the collection’s final poem ‘Alpha or Omega’ when she plays with the notions of who will be last and first to inherit. She brings together here, and in ‘Just One of Those Days’ strong, kind women who care for the sick, pick up the pieces, cook easy meals for others while foregoing lunch and ultimately will be the hope and saviour of us all.
Beth Gordon’s collection Particularly Dangerous Situation is published by Clare Songbirds Publishing House and available at www.claresongbirdspub.com/shop/poetry/.
Disclaimer alert! I like to stress that I can’t confirm if any of what I’ve said above is what the poet meant. I lived in her poems for several weeks, and this is what I took and what stayed with me. Enjoy the poetry prism; the rainbow looks different from every angle.
Before the Big Bang Makes a Sound by Carolynn Kingyens
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