WORDS CATCH LIGHT, DISAPPEAR, RETURN TO SHOCK AND AMAZE
Thaddeus Rutkowski, his Polish and Chinese heritage made apparent by surname and accompanying author’s photograph, known for his brilliant work of short fiction, introduces to the world his first full-length collection of poetry, a book well worth the time spent reading, titled border crossings.
These poems are sparse, cleverly hot-wired, obsessively thinned-out musings, and observations, obvious in Mr. Rutkowski’s sharp and keen eye for clear and specified use of language.
The opening poem, ‘ANOTHER PERSON’, possesses the reader with a yogi’s meditative out-right request and demand on a person’s identity by suggesting we, Become another person. It comes across at first as diabolical children’s game, Clasp hands. Make no noise, then shifts to borderline overt masculinity, Touch foreheads. Suffer a shiner.
Rutkowski’s origin as a writer of short fiction is evident as these poems possess the charm of a man at a typewriter as revealed in a later poem, ON A MANUAL TYPEWRITER and not the ego driven solipsism of some modern poets.
The book itself touches in a subtle manner on the American male myth, mysticism of Sam Shepard, films by Jim Jarmusch and the sardonic humor of John Lurie. These are somewhat underlying interpretations because much of what the book is about borders naturalism versus modernism and the managing of a human element within these parameters.
Clear logic for Rutkowski’s set up for the book was to begin introducing the reader to his family’s background, poignant poems captured as painterly, filmic and photographic portraits. ‘GREAT-GRANDMOTHER’ starts from memory, moment when he reminisces, written with succinct openness and honesty.
Every time I saw her,
she was sitting in the same chair,
and when she spoke,
I couldn’t understand her.
It continues to share in its innocence, the relationship between him and his great grandmother, how she and his grandmother took care of him when he was sick. His youthfulness causes him to run past his great-grandmother, knocking over a vase and shattering it, something that had existed for years.
The very reflection of his youth balanced with memory of a family member is a form of placement, a theory which is expressed continually throughout the book.
The reference to childhood is given a different tone in the poem, LIGHT AND SHADOW, a psychologically dark theme reminiscent of Stephen King, whereby accompanied by his father, they make their way down concrete stairs to a half-cellar, where his father pulls a chain for lamplight.
I don’t want to stay.
Spiders scrunch in the corners,
and pieces of copper tubing –
remnants of plumbing —
litter the floor.
Physicality of the half-cellar is indeed a character, re-emphasized by the mention of copper tubing, remnants of plumbing, smell of old plaster, whiff of horse hair cement.
It adds to dimension of horror featured in the space, which causes him to say,
I’d stay longer,
but my father is finished.
He pulls the chain for darkness.
Overall understanding of identity remarked upon in the book centers on what defines the making of a home whether in suburbia, of a city scape or out in a forest of birds.
Home becomes a recurring theme, when described with notion of modernity, it creates a meaningfulness of fear, a family under threat and HARASSMENT, a poem about suburban shock, potential scars of racism on an ordinary night watching television, between the dialogue and laughs there’s a notion of oncoming terror. There’s a reluctance to respond or do anything.
The first time it happened
I went out to the front porch.
The streets were empty but there were
brown smudges of vegetable matter
stuck to the outside of our house.
No one ever cleaned the walls.
The lumps dried onto the paint.
A poem like THE CRAZY FLY is an early revelation into Rutkowski’s curiosity and interest in animal behavior. With this poem, Rutkowski showcases his knack for humor, a literary line which parallels the seriousness of the human landscape with nature. The animals in the book are often given an eccentricity comparable to wise men, BROODING BIRDS, BUTTERFLIES AND VULTURES, LEAPING BUCK ICONS, YARDBIRDS OF VERMONT.
Rutkowski makes it known he is at home in the wild. He writes with a peculiar distinction about his familiarity with screaming tree frogs – woodpecker -squadron of swallows – English sparrow – down north heron – hard-shelled arthropod.
In the ANARCHIST MANIFESTO he writes about his belief in anarchy.
I want to be the only wild one,
among law-abiding citizens.
I want to be the hyper-active youngster
among the fuddy-duddies.
I want to run amok
while everyone else goose-steps.
I want to be the loon
among the obedient geese.
His free-spiritedness calls to the defiance and independence of frontier men. There’s a resounding honor to the American landscape, that the world outside of forestry has a community onto its own full or order and language. A walk into this space is to be treasured, revered and celebrated.
Rutkowski lends his mastering of language and vision to a difficult and certainly almost impossible Robert Frost perception of love for nature and a seemingly careful ability to translate what he senses and sees into musical tones and textures at times minimalist but often adventurous in its intention and delivery.
The poem BORDER CROSSING is point at which Rutkowski veers off onto another terrain. Here he is confronted with culture shock of a deferent kind. The themes of humanizing and placement are once again front and center.
So let’s think twice before we cross
the twenty yards of no-man’s-land.
I know you want to get there
As fast as we can.
In the poems that follow, he deals with acculturation, especially that of a culinary nature. His familiarity of land and space is challenged, bringing awareness to his ability to adapt, grow comfortable in a strange world.
HONG KONG, the poem, brings to mind the adventurism of Anthony Bourdain.
I wanted to eat fried scorpions,
or at least chocolate-covered grasshoppers.
But instead I ate chicken a la king at a KFC.
I was told snake was a popular food,
and the idea of snake struck me.
but the reality was, snake was out of season.
The theme of modernism crosses over towards the latter half of the book when the poems broaden the scope of nature and land into a David Hockney transference and imagining of a city scape.
The inspiration therefore is survival and instinct, concerns for health, the poem ACUPUNCTURE, in which he writes about pleasant music and Eastern medicine, activities like bike riding, doing arm exercises, reference to panhandling and plastic surgery, all give an impression of the all-too-important shift in the approach to living, adapting to one’s surroundings.
The order for living changes from the animals in nature to neighbors and search for human life. The poem, NIGHT ROADS, features an appropriate line by Rutkowski.
I went around turns as fast as I could,
Snaking between illuminated trees,
Searching for the habitation
that was somewhere ahead.
With border crossings, Thaddeus Rutkowski brings his adept precision as fiction writer, at times comical with cynicism, courageous in taking a chance to say or describe something we are all too familiar with only he writes about it with serious and defiant fierceness, to a book about being a stranger in a strange land, at times welcoming, sometimes not.
He more than writes, but paints with a simple stroke, often he envisions a scene or moment which he captures as a potential film or photograph.
These are more than poems; they are necessary interventions in what would be somewhat of an ordinary life.
Here Rutkowski makes magic with air, words as reflections of an inner wisdom, they catch light, disappear, return to shock and amaze.