Sunday, January 20, 2008

Peeling the Fruit: Josh Rathkamp, SOME NIGHTS NO CARS AT ALL

When I was small, my father would peel an orange for me. He'd draw a line around the blossom end with a small sharp knife, then carefully draw the orange rind away from the fruit, laboring to retain the largest possible intact expanse of peel. Then, while I ate the fruit, with either the knife or a pair of sharp scissors he'd cut the shape of a monkey from the half-flattened peel. "Chimpo!" he'd announce with pride.

And from there, he'd move into telling us how his family and then his classmates called him "Chimpo" as a boy, for his long hairy arms. In her later years, his artistic mother even sculpted for him a long-armed orangutan, off by a bit taxonomically but still thinking of him.

Somehow this is the sense of play that wakes for me in reading and re-reading the poetry of Josh Rathkamp, who migrated from Michigan to Arizona before bringing out his first collection, SOME NIGHTS NO CARS AT ALL (Ausable, fall 2007). Rothkamp takes the simple situation -- driving cross country with a sleeping girlfriend who wakes and places a hand on his leg -- and peels the cover back gently, without tearing it, to reveal the fruit. He writes, "Because you ask, I lay down miles of myself / in front of you." And he continues, "How lucky I am, I say, for your body, // how it awakens on this road, / how it never wavers."

Yet love does waver, and it's not at all clear that the many intimate moments captured in these poems are with the same woman. They are clearly in different states, as Rothkamp drives himself and his words out of the "whirling whiteness above Illinois, Michigan, Indiana," to the moonlit deserts of the Southwest. Among images that have held in place for centuries, images of desert tribes long dead or of active admirers of the sun and moon, the flickering light of love can seem frail indeed. "Postcards I Should Send to You" opens with moonlight, lovers, roads, and anounces:

Once a woman and I made promises
and love in every state
between Michigan and Arizona.
Once in the car, once in a patch
of pines that grew crooked
and out of place, once I thought I was romantic,
taking her to the roof in the rain.

Now, if she asked about love, I'd say
I believe we made a mark.
However insignificant the things we build,
we build the thing.
We build and destroy, build and keep,
build and give away our streets.

These are gentle narratives that wind along edges of a landscape of hope. Some of them cluster under streetlamps, peering in the half darkness. I especially like the Missing City sequence, which concludes with:

... We have all loved
poorly. Along the street the bars
and their neon signs glow open.

The streets have names no one
here can pronounce. Some words
mean other things, some
just what they are.

The storytelling Greeks of ancient days used the road as the symbol of a man's life, and weaving as the symbol of a woman's (remember Penelope?). Rathkamp takes roads into most of his poems, one way or another. Yet he's not always journeying -- some of these roads are streets in a familar place, a town, a home. And in peeling open the scene within the car or under the streetlamp, he awards an attention that amounts to love. This tenderness resonates like, say, Cardinals in the Ice Age by John Engels. There are questions, and loss, and bewilderment -- but not fear, not anger. Even in this final poem, the comfort of a good network of friends winds through the piece:

Our Last Evening, after Launching from the Bottom of the Hoover Dam

for John, David and Lee

We play cards to drink
quicker than we would on our own.
The dearler'd say "drop"
and we'd slap the single card,
sweat-stuck against our foreheads,
down on the Coleman cooler
we brought to keep ice ice
five full days.

Now, after two, it all
went to water
warm enough to fish through in darkness.

The four women sit back behind us,
slouched in their seats
along the river's night rise,
and having made a small circle, talk
about the talk of us men.

How decency doesn't matter
on vacation; how nakedness is still
a surprise like the man in the hot spring,
completely hairless,
tucking his uncircumcised penis
between his legs and waving
with a nod while we walked
through the pools of thigh high water;
how screwed those young couples
we saw lugging kids.

No matter what
when someone clears the cards,
lifts the beach-stained lid,
he pulls out two. We refuse to believe
the other is done
so we wait to the end
drinking and cheersing whatever happens.
Tomorrow's sun on the river
will bite like a bug
and what little life we have left
we will spend.

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