(Full Disclosure: I am a graduate of the University of South Florida's English: Creative Writing undergraduate program and Katherine Riegel was one of my professors, from whom I have taken one course (Intro to Poetry) and from whom I would have taken many more, had the slots not filled up like lines for registers on Black Friday. I like her, she's a nice person. I also took classes from her husband, Ira Sukrungruang, who is also a nice person, and one hell of a disc golfer. Know, however, that as much as I like someone, I am not afraid to savage the things that they do or make. Not that I plan to do so, as I was enthralled and enraptured by this work, but you know, honesty and all. That said, let us begin.)
It's a poetry collection, but it isn't. These pages drip with honeyed truth, with lines that ache in reflection and refraction, with memory through thick stained glass. There is more than creation here, more than whim, more than words made wonderful through selection and style. There is truth here. I can't just call it poetry. It is, to co-opt a term, poetic non-fiction.
From the earliest memories of failure in "Art" to the ones that have yet to be remembered in "After Both My Parents Are Dead," the poems of Castaway go beyond the dichotomy of truth and beauty to turn a life lived into a scattering of polished gems. They bear their cracks and weatherings, they resemble the pressures under which they were formed, but they come out shining and beautiful. There are rhythms here that one hears only in the afterglow, in the reflection of memory upon which one gazes in the quiet moments, after the dust has all settled. These poems kick up the dust, throw open the windows, spread a new light across old memories.
Many of the poems deal in memories of the Midwest, of the long flat plane of Illinois, and a childhood spent there. There is a conception of late that between the coastlines is a fly-over country, a vast expanse between points of interest. It is so oft forgot that these places between the seas are home to the same trials, the same joys and the same sorrows, that one finds in any other place, but that in these spaces in the middle, one can still see the sky light upon the soil, see the sun setting between the branches and dip behind those amber waves of grain. This is sail-over country, with winds that whip and wail, people tossing in the storms. The poetry of Castaway is the poetry of the great land-sea between the borders, of rurality and the people that grow between the fields and the forests of America.
The other overriding theme threaded throughout this collection is one of family and the ways in which families become not what one imagines them to be, or wishes them to be, but what they will be. There is absence here, and longing, staring at the edges of a thing torn apart, not at the seams but at the heart. And yet, there is also joy in these words, and balm, for though family can change by proximity, it still holds itself together within us, a layer of our conception of self.
To pick out favorites is to place some memories before others, when all are part of the parcel. And yet I will attempt to do so, if only to let their example speak to the wonder of the whole. "My Father in Illinois" displays the speaker's difficulty understanding why one place is not as good as another, why the grass looks so much greener in a place away from home.
I want to know/how he could not love/this farm, this barn/with its good strong wood/that he precisely cut and nailed,/the beams and rafters becoming the frame of the ship I sail in dreams/ever after.
This land between the seas is a multivaried place, a collection of names with different faces, that speak to us, each to each. And yet though one has ties to family, another has ties to memory, and the rope pulls so taut sometimes that it cannot help but fray, leaving us standing, holding onto broken ends.
And, because I promised joy, a joyful poem: "After Watching A Colin Firth Movie, I Think About Quantum Mechanics."
In this piece, there is the blending of the self and the selves, those other people who live our lives just like we do, but make the little different choices that we're faced with every day. It acknowledges the what ifs and what could have beens, through the theory (a personal obsession of mine) of many worlds, of the ever branching of the present, with lines to different futures for different choices that we've made.
I would like to explain/how I do things without consciousness, the way,/driving, I find myself home with no memory/of any turns, or, after a stop sign, wondering/if I did actually stop, or just blew through/oblivious, lucky no other drivers/moved temporarily through worlds where they/had no stop sign, worlds where our straight roads/turn on themselves, where voices call out/to negate our silences, and kisses/tumble from the sky like ripe plums,/sweet soft orbs that have no idea/whether they're falling into this world or the next.
Finally, but by no means happily, as I'd love to point you to them all, I will single out "Afternoon" as my favorite, though "Art" ran a hell of a race and should be given more than a flimsy ribbon for its effort. The rhythm of this poem danced inside me as a read, truth in a beat thumping only in my head. I can't excerpt it, can't bring myself to, so you get it all.
All we need/hovers before us/a dream of gold/wheat and sky/shimmering warm (but/what kind of pass/do you need to get/into a place like that?/we wonder, fumbling/in pockets and muttering sorry/as though the cashier waited/impatiently, popping/her gum).
All we need/is entrance into/serenity and if/we find it in a deserted/movie theater who/can blame us?
Need is/a lion waiting/by the front door,/a dun going/down to the other world,/Hold me, we say./We say, let me go./Need is not the leaf/carried miles on the/surface of the water./It is, of course/the water.
Truth is beauty and beauty, truth. You'll get both, here, and so much more, and be so glad you did. I could heap praise upon Castaway until the mountain ran over into the sea, but the best praise I can give it is that you should see it for yourself.