Sunday, September 15, 2019

Eating Raw Meat by g emil reutter, reviewed by Gregory J. Wolos


                           Eating Raw Meat by g emil reutter,
                               reviewed by Gregory J. Wolos

            Reading g emil reutter’s new collection of poems Eating Raw Meat and other nuances of life is like entering a series of museum galleries full of life: character portraits abound, as do scenes of communal activity captured on a grander scale. Beware the final gallery, however, as Part II of this volume represents a descent into despair.

            reutter guides us through his museum, and as we pause to appreciate each poem, he explains his relationship to his work, as he informs us in “Silhouette”: “So I look at these captured memories of time and place, enjoy them without a care for what happens when I am gone.” Among these “captured memories” are portraits of individuals—character sketches—not necessarily flattering, but always true. In “Raw,” which lends its name to the title of the book, the poet depicts human frailty, fallibility, and, ultimately empathy in the brief anecdote of the elderly man, “just an old retired guy from the neighborhood,” who mistakenly orders the meat in his sandwich “raw” instead of “rare,” only realizing it afterward. There are other character studies which capture a moment or feeling as a painting might: “Quiet Men,” where we witness an elderly father and his elderly son smoking in a park; “The Politician” who “speaks to himself” loudly about his political opinions before returning by bus to his “darkened room of loneliness”; an elderly woman picks sandwiches from the trash at a food festival in “Good Times.” reutter neither condemns nor praises the characters he observes; rather, he reports the truth of their lives with a keen eye. He leads us to see that, like the mailman he describes in “It’s a Job,” whose name the poet doesn’t know though he watches him work every day, that these characters are “part of the fabric of life.” Those who reutter knows more intimately are also captured in his poems, as in the aptly named “Painting,” in which the poet frames his subject in a window, where “the sun gently silhouettes your body,” and “lights your green/blue eyes that stream across the room into mine.”

            In other galleries of reutter’s museum there are grand tableaus that teem with vibrant activity: scenes of city life witnessed from a park, at lakes, or in the streets. In Fox Chase II,” reutter widens his focus from a single character, situating the narrator in “the gazebo in a small park,” where he absorbs the sights, sounds, and smells of the shops on the bustling surrounding streets. The title of “A June Afternoon at Core Creek Park,” echoes Seurat’s famous pointillist painting “An Afternoon at La Grande Jatte”: reutter’s landscape depicting “the shore of Lake Luxembourg” is equally full of picnickers drawn to nature, where “In the midst of pavilions, barbeque, Frisbees, roller blades, a herd of deer prance . . .”

            reutter is hyper-aware of nature and its cycles, and his poems frequently record the tensions wrought by the changing seasons or weather. He seems particularly taken by the manifestation of the natural world within urban settings, as in “Urban Woodlands,” in which a “no name brook eases its way out of the city” along a “dirt path that snakes through trees and underbrush into a small valley.” Storms and heat oppress, and city life can be bleak and lonely, yet beauty often blooms where least expected. Many of reutter’s poems name flowers and trees, their names alone evocative, as if they are the sunflowers of Van Gogh or the water lilies of Monet: forsythia, hyacinth, tulips, easter lilies, hydrangea, azalea, rhododendron. Yet while nature as seen in natural cycles renews the poet, reutter, as he expresses in “Resting with the Moon,” feels the “tug and pull” of the moon and its “reflected light renews” him, “nothing will change. I am linear in destination, not circular.” The poet may recognize cycles, but though he is situated within their gyres, he preserves his own objectivity.

            reutter, in the first three-quarters of Eating Raw Meat, seems to draw inspiration from Whitman, whose doppelganger appears in “On the Bus with Walt” as a bearded fellow who reads to his fellow passengers from Leaves of Grass. The captive audience applauds the old man, who laughs heartily before whispering to the narrator, “There isn’t any money in poetry, my friend.” Poetry may not pay, but up to this point in his volume, reutter has shown the act of observation to be a noble enterprise that celebrates our shared human experience, reassuring us that there is beauty even in the contemplation of our losses, loneliness and poverty.

            The final poem of the volume’s first section, however, suggests that reutter is turning away from observation and celebration and investing the role of poet with a different kind of responsibility. The narrator of “On the Rubble” is no longer merely an observer—he is a harbinger of despair, declaring, “I stand on the rubble that is left of the American dream, pick up a brick, look at the glass ceiling, throw it, and watch it bounce off.” As the reader enters Part II of Eating Raw Meat, the museum of observations is left behind, and we seem to fall into a nearly post-apocalyptic world. Whereas the poems of Part I depict a kind of hard won beauty found in our human struggles, those of Part II portray defeat and desolation. The cycles of nature may still predominate, as in “Season to Season,” but it is the “harshness in the beauty of death and renewal” that is memorialized. reutter now directs our attention to desolation, and there seems very little to celebrate. Generalized social criticism replaces observation, as in “In Plain View,” where the narrator decries “a life lost in greed” in America and asserts that we suffer from “a divide as simple as the intersection of a crumbling alley and an avenue of greed.” In “Shadows, Dreams, and Reality” the narrator concludes that our hopes for a positive future are a doomed dream, a “[r]everie of jobs coming back deluded in the reality of what is.”

            Observation in Part II of Eating Raw Meat has become political commentary, and the keen, fresh eye reutter shows in the character studies of his earlier poems is sacrificed to jeremiads like “Pennywise,” which transparently describes our current president’s “grotesque comb over” and “plastic smile,” calling him a “dancing clown” who “sits on his gold throne on his tower of babble,” and leaves us smothered in a “sewer gas of despair.” Whereas the cycles described in the earlier poems of this volume suggest that if we look closely enough, we can find beauty entwined with our suffering, there is little such beauty in Part II: no flowers, peaceful lakes, or gentle snowflakes. What we’re left with are frightening scenarios as depicted in “Machines Ply Their Trade,” where, reutter concludes, “Though no one can see, the misers are dancing,” as “[v]iolence is the way of the world,” and “it seems it will never change.”

            Is reutter declaring that our world has become so inhospitable, our plight so desperate, that hollow ranting is all that’s left to the poet? Is shouting the only volume remaining for the visionary? It may be that reutter’s goal is to shock his audience into action before it’s too late, but the last lines of the final poem in the collection, “Hullabaloo,” tell us bluntly that the time for salvation is past: “Nirvana is empty, the second coming has been cancelled.” Apparently Whitman has gotten off the bus and has left no forwarding address.

No comments:

Post a Comment