Review: Everywhere Home by Fenton Johnson

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Everywhere Home: A Life In Essays
by Fenton Johnson
Published 2017 by Sarabande Books
$15.95 paperback ISBN 978-1941411438

By Noah Sanders

You will, after reading Everywhere Home: A Life In Essays, want Fenton Johnson to be your life coach, your personal philosopher, your guide in navigating the shallow, treacherous waters of life. Johnson is, by trade, none of these things. He has, in his storied life, been a gay rights activist, a son of small-town, Catholic Kentucky, a survivor of AIDS, a mourning lover, a high school basketball player, and much, much more. Above all this though, Fenton Johnson has, for four decades and counting, been a writer of exceptional talent, and even more exceptional warmth. He is the kind of clear-eyed observer who is able to integrate his deep knowledge of faith and philosophy into his own perspective, his own experiences. The essays in Everywhere Home are a loosely chronological exploration of both Johnson’s journey from backwoods Kentucky to the Bay Area and beyond as well as his evolution as both a thinker and a writer. The subject matter can be disparate, but Johnson connects everything with his own hopeful worldview, a deceivingly simple one: the world is a hard and often cruel place, but in the lowest moments of our past and those we’ve yet to encounter, there is always love—clear and open-minded, big and small—to lead us forward.

The subjects in Everywhere Home range dramatically from Johnson’s upbringing in rural Kentucky to his breakdown of Oscar Wilde’s “De Profundis” to his exploration of a reintroduction of Pacifism in American politics, to name a few. With the author clearing the path amongst these varied topics, all of them become fascinating looks at our society as a whole, and at our roles as individuals within it. The book could be oversimplified into “past, present and future” but it is the intersection of these abstracts, where Johnson makes his most poignant points about love and faith. In “Safe(r) Sex” he becomes the erstwhile sex education teacher to his extended family, the recent heart-rending loss of his lover to AIDS helping to open a space where he can expand both his, and his family’s definition of love. “I had become for them,” Johnson writes, “a different kind of father: a comrade and repository of family history; a bridge between them and [their father].”

In “Power and Obedience: Restoring Pacifism to American Politics” Johnson uses three separate experiences—a tour of an abandoned nuclear silo, his decision to declare himself a conscientious objector, and his dissection of William James “The Moral Equivalent of War”—to argue that we can turn our innate lust for battle towards the real dangers that threaten our society. It is a prime example of what Johnson does best in Everywhere Home: he explains complicated philosophies elegantly, winding them into his own personal beliefs and experiences to help bolster and examine potential solutions. “What might we achieve,” he writes, discussing the brief amount of time it took America to concept and build out the Titan Missile program, “if our leaders motivated us not to destroy the Earth, but to heal it?”

Johnson lived as a gay man in San Francisco during the grim, early days of the AIDS crisis in America, and the pain and grief of that time is deeply etched into his writing. His exhuming of his own memories in “The Secret Decoder Ring Society” is as much a mournful remembrance of the loss felt by the gay community as it is Johnson’s coming to terms with the death of his lover, Larry Rose. And like in all his pieces in Everywhere Home, Johnson is able, like a thoughtful monk, to find both understanding and some amount of the positive in even the greatest depths of pain. “Love does not measure itself by clock and calendar,” he writes, “but is our entryway into the true world, shorn of the illusions of time and space.” The AIDS epidemic in America, horrible as it was, has allowed Johnson an avenue to look within himself, past the boundaries of his sexuality, to find his a spectrum of emotions, from anger to acceptance, and find hopeful meaning in it. “I did not choose to be gay,” he writes, “but I did choose to ally myself with those who find beauty in suffering – the wisest act of my life thus far.”

There is no limit, aside from page count, to Fenton Johnson’s reflection and insights into his own life. Any reader, regardless of sexuality, religious or political belief, will, if even the scantest amount of heart beats within their chest, put down Everywhere Home a little sadder, perhaps a little angrier, but full-up with the particular light of inspiration Johnson is able to pass forward. The author never settles for cliché or platitude, but instead grasps the full span of life’s emotional output—the good, the bad, and the utterly painful that he himself is a product of—and manages, beautifully, to derive hope.

Review: Broken River by J. Robert Lennon

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Broken River
by J. Robert Lennon
Published 2017 by Graywolf Press
$16.00 paperback ISBN 978-1555977726

By Noah Sanders

Reading J. Robert Lennon’s Broken River can be difficult at times. Not because the book isn’t a remarkably enjoyable read, one that leaves you awake at 4:30 in the morning, bleary-eyed but unable to resist the urge to turn the next page, to find out what happens next. No, rather it is because of how imminently readable Lennon’s book is, that difficulty arises. As much as Broken River is, at its dark and rotten heart, a mystery and a thriller, Lennon is too good of a writer to allow it to be just that. Broken River is a story about the narratives of our lives, how they cross and tangle, how they grow from roots we’ll never see. It is a book about how when seen from above, our lives, as surprising as they may seem, are just momentary parts of a larger story, the same old shtick played out over and over. J. Robert Lennon has crafted a wonderful mystery, an at times pulse-pounding thriller populated by a nimbly realized family unit; so much so, that in the midst of frantic page-flipping, it becomes difficult to slow down long enough to truly appreciate the deeper themes at play.

Broken River begins like so many good thrillers do, with a small town, and a brutal rape and murder of a mother and father in the woods outside of the titular town. In Lennon’s telling though, the events are seen by a spectral Observer, a constant omniscient presence in the book, one that can see the overlaid threads of narrative that connect us all, knowingly or not. The Observer watches as the house declines over six years, before a new family renovates the decrepit mess and moves in. The family—Karl, Eleanor and their daughter Irina—have moved from the city to escape failed sculptor Karl’s inability to stave off his own promiscuity and through their own actions, and the slow, familiar bend of time, are brought face-to-face with dark stain of violence that still pollutes the house. To say more would be to deprive a reader of the sheer joy into following along as Lennon, pulls you, without seeming effort, down a dark, twisting and disturbing road to a brutal climax.

There are almost Stephen King like baddies in this book—physically disgusting personas who human or not, just barely clear the definition—and Lennon’s exploration of their motivations and fears is as thrilling as any of the more suspenseful scenes that pepper the book. It goes for Lennon’s approach to the whole genre of mystery/thriller: as much as his story is a darkened flesh pulled over their bones, he does so as a jumping off point into the notion of well-worn narratives, and how they cut through all our lives. He does this with the presence of The Observer, a ghostly, god-like figure, whose almost interstitial chapters give the author free reign to noodle around in a more metaphysical sandbox. Near the end of the book, in the voice of the Observer, Lennon writes, “The desire, in other words, for narrative has abandoned these people. They no longer wish to be governed by events, to set events into motion.” The Observer acts as the authorial voice, able to not only dictate events, but to shape them by its presence alone. The author himself becomes a part of the story, as he always was, but in the form of The Observer, Lennon is able to comment on both the power of narrative as fate and its almost redundant nature. The same things happen time and time again, and if we push in close enough, they’re populated by different characters, different locales, even different endings. But from the view of The Observer, the tale of Karl, Eleanor and Irina is just another thread in the big, ugly rug of life.

If the idea of mystery with this much existential thought at play turns a reader off, be assured, this is a book that hums along. Lennon’s characters scramble and claw off the page, and the story charges along at break-neck speed. The author loves to play with the tools of the mystery genre—he introduces a set of knives early in the book, knowing full well what it means to do so—and his more action-oriented scenes pulse with baseline terror and grit. Lennon is quite adept at slowly bleeding out the secrets at the heart of his story, pulling his readers along page-by-page, hoping for resolution. And resolution does come, though it may not fulfill every readers hopes. Lennon is using the tropes of genre to make some lofty points about story-telling in general, but if you happen to miss them while reveling in the sheer enjoyment of the story unfolding, no matter, it’s still a damn fine read.

Review: The Leavers by Lisa Ko

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The Leavers
by Lisa Ko
Published 2017 by Algonquin Books
$25.95 hardcover ISBN 978-1616206888

By Noah Sanders

Lisa Ko manages to weave in a healthy pile of themes into her debut novel, The Leavers. The book manages, with an enjoyable ease, to be an immigrant story, a mystery of sorts, a coming of age novel, a story about New York City, a sideways glance at the discovery of the American Dream and even, at times, a glance into the lowest rungs of the career of a fledgling musician. What draws together all of these seemingly disparate threads is a sense of regret. The characters in The Leavers have made awful choices in the name of survival, or had those choices forced upon them, and with each decision, burdened themselves with a longing that chains them in place, unable to move forward. Ko’s main characters—the orphan Deming Guo and his mother Peilan—yearn for something else, a life untethered by their pasts. As much as The Leavers is about unchaining ourselves from what came before, it is also about the freedom in recognizing how important the experiences of the past are in shaping who we are, or what we want to be.

Ko’s novel begins in New York City with a six-year old Chinese-American boy, Deming Guo, discovering that his mother has disappeared. She, Peilan (or Polly) Guo is an illegal immigrant who has given up her cherished freedom in the name of making a life for her and her son in the nail salons and shirt factories of the bustling city. When she vanishes without explanation, Deming is moved to a small college town upstate, where he is raised by two progressive professors, Kay and Peter Wilkerson. The book jumps forward and Deming has become Daniel Wilkerson, a talented musician and gambling addict, deep in debt, failing in school and still dealing with the fallout of his mother’s disappearance nearly two decades prior. Though the search for his mother is central axis which the entire book spins, the story flits and darts into the dark corners of a Daniel’s life, one spent with only fractured memories of the mother who he believes holds the keys to discovering he really is.

Deming Guo (née Daniel Wilkerson) is a character idling through life in neutral. His mother’s surprise departure years earlier, and the drastic shift at an early age from the big city to a small, quiet town, has left him fragmented, spinning in circles, unable to find his path in the present. Ko bounces back and forth between Deming’s present day search for Polly and the past where she escapes a small fishing village in China, to give birth to her son in New York City. Both of these characters are exceptionally rendered—Polly a cigarette smoking, spitfire who loves her son but is weighed down by the responsibility that holds her back is especially well conceived—with Ko excelling at sculpting them into living, breathing creations grappling with the multiple layers of identity that seem to define them.

If Polly is held in place in the past by her own sense of obligation to her child—and Ko’s microscopic peek into what, and who, it takes to raise a child as an illegal immigrant is both harrowing and heartfelt—then Deming stumbles under the heft of other’s expectations of him. His identities—Daniel Wilkerson, Deming Guo, Chinese-American orphan, pop-rock guitarist, gambling addict—blanket him, as do his attempts and failures to live up to each, but none ever define him. In response he pushes away from everything—his friends, his adopted family, his education and his life as a musician—stumbling over and over again in an attempt to delineate himself. While Deming searches for his identity and for Polly, she hides his existence from those who populate her new life. His past is a mystery, hers a secret—both rooting them into their current places.

Ko spins a good yarn and The Leavers is a literary page turner, the mystery of the why of Polly’s disappearance dragging you from one page to a next. And though Ko shines at creating realistic motivation for even the worst of her characters’ decisions, she tends to overstuff their stories. Deming’s musical career—and the long sections about his ability to see sound as color—is well composed (as is his gambling addiction, his 10,000 dollar debt, his relationship with his adopted parents, and so on and so forth) but there’s so much, and the story of Deming and Polly so interesting, everything else feels, on occasion like undercooked distractions.

In Ko’s telling of Deming and Polly’s separate stories, we see reflections of their desire to pull themselves out from under the weight of their own choices, to free themselves from what is expected of them. Only when they come together—and Ko navigates a twisty plot with aplomb to get them there—are they able to see the full spectrum of their lives, to shake the regret for the lives that came before. In doing so, both characters are unshackled, allowed the freedom to make progress, to attend to their futures, instead of wallow in the past.


Lisa Ko will be in conversation with local Bay Area author Donia Bijan on Monday, June 5th at Books, Inc. Alameda at 7pm. For more information on that event, please click here.

 

Review: Large Animals by Jess Arndt

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Large Animals
by Jess Arndt
Published 2017 by Catapult
$15.95 paperback ISBN 978-1936787487

By Noah Sanders

There is an abundant feeling of being lost in Jess Arndt’s debut short story collection, Large Animals. The characters in the diminutive volume float through various forms of limbo—emotional and physical to be sure, but also geographical. It doesn’t matter if Arndt’s mostly nameless narrators are roaming the streets of New York or festering in a shack in some hellish desert landscape, they drift from situation to situation, attempting to espouse meaning where none may exist. The stories collected in Large Animals are about characters in the midst of transition, in the long endless moment between Point A and Point B where the boundaries of our lives have broken down and possibilities seem—for better or worse—infinite. These are worlds where the normative rules of existence haven’t been broken, just temporarily sidestepped on the way to whatever might be next. The past has occurred, and the future is inevitably barreling toward these characters, but Arndt’s aim is the often times harsh grey space that lives between them. In Large Animals, Arndt explores what it means and what it looks like to be what we as conscience beings always are, in the process of change.

In “Beside Myself” Arndt writes, “Recently I’d been gripped with a phobia about places. It seemed to me that places were inevitably marked by their future potential.” The fear of what comes next or what happens when someone actually arrives wherever they’re supposed to be, weighs heavily on Large Animals. The collection is replete with characters who aimlessly wander and find solace in skidding to a halt just on the edge of actual arrival. The final destination in Large Animals isn’t an achievement, it’s a burden, a far heavier one than the continued pursuit of a hazily defined existence. More than this, Arndt seems to be saying that there is no actual demarcation of moving from one phase to the next, but rather we exist in a state of perpetual transition. Our arbitrary wants and needs propel us forward, but we do so as a chaotic jumble of thoughts and emotions hog-tied together into a constantly shifting bundle we loosely refer to as our identity.

And there is an urge to categorize the stories in Large Animals as primarily about gender transition, but a reader would be amiss to limit their scope. These are stories about characters who may identify as transgender, but Arndt allows them to be vessels for questions about the general act of navigating the multiple identities contained within. Many of the stories in this slender debut feature characters grappling with another entity—subconscious or otherwise—living beneath their skin. In “Together”, her narrator grapples with both a Mexican-born parasite and her own relationship and identity ennui; in “Jeff,” the narrator fantasizes about abusing a thick-necked, sexually aggressive bro she fears she might be. “Jeff” is the crown jewel in this outstanding debut, an unsettlingly funny tale in which Lily Tomlin mistakenly refers to the narrator as Jeff, hurling them into an identity crisis. The brief story captures both the anxieties of transition—physical, yes, but life’s as well—and how they bleed into our relationships, our friendships, the very core of who we are.

There are times in Large Animals where the writing veers towards the experimental, the overly surreal, and the sense of being lost overwhelms. Arndt’s writing is the compass that guides though, the angular prose darkly humorous and disquieting but still steeped in a warm bath of humanity. We stumble along with these characters, grasping for their coattails, their sense of being lost mirroring our own. Arndt is a cartographer of the steadily changing landscapes of existence. Her stories don’t map with the intention of revealing a destination, but rather at illuminating the nebulous territory that precedes it.

Review: Sunshine State by Sarah Gerard

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Sunshine State
by Sarah Gerard
Published 2017 by Harper Perennial
$15.99 hardcover ISBN 978-0062434876

By Noah Sanders

The Florida of Sarah Gerard’s Sunshine State isn’t the one the West Coasters and Northerners of the world have much experience with. Oversaturated with media consumption, the Florida most people know is a kooky mélange of sunshine, citrus, oddball characters, alligators, swamps, a dash of Cubanos, a coastal manse here and there, and a slew of political scandals that we’ve all spent a few hours shaking our heads at. These exist in Sunshine State, atmospherically lingering on the periphery, but Gerard isn’t looking to further our stereotypes about the most southeastern of American states. The essays in her debut collection are small stories of Floridians in urban settings, seeking happiness, understanding even in the often times poisonous embrace of large-scale religion, business, drugs, and family. Gerard explores the bigger pictures inherent in the state, but does so through the lens of the individual, a motley community seeking to pull themselves from the gutters and achieve some semblance of happiness, of the American Dream. But, as Gerard asks of herself and her subjects, at what cost, and what sacrifice does our happiness come?

There’s always a bigger force pulling at the subjects of Gerard’s essays. In “Mother-Father God,” it’s Christian Science and the allure of its cheerful, supposed negativity-free community to Gerard’s own family. In “The Mayor of Williams Park,” it’s a homeless man-turned-charismatic preacher, who fights for improving the lives of those who live on the street, while battling his own dark demons. “Records” focuses on Gerard’s senior year in high school, where EDM, drugs, and sex create a dangerous umbrella the author narrowly escapes from underneath.

It’s the essay “Going Diamond” that hits the nail on the head the hardest. Gerard’s essay about her mom and dad’s brief, but deep involvement, with Amway, the international pyramid scheme owned by the multi-billionaire Devos Family. Amway presents a condensed, accessible version of the American dream to the Gerard family, one steeped in an overarching belief in America’s true god: Capitalism. To join the club of Amway, one must aspire to buy up and sell down, to achieve their wants and needs on the shoulders of those below, from the hand-me-downs of those above. Amway, often believed, rightly so, to be a large-scale pyramid scheme, offers the potential of monetary success—with all the gleaming trappings—with nothing more than your money and time as the entry fee. “In order for our dreams to feel real,” Gerard writes, “we had to construct them from material things.” The paper-thin life security Amway offers the Gerard family, and millions of others the world over, does not come without cost as the deeper they trod, the less of a family they become. It is America, and the false hope of the American Dream, laid bare: anyone can be a success, as long as you sacrifice yourself and your own ideals to achieve it. This is Gerard’s Sunshine State, a place where sad-eyed outcasts found solace in joining—a church, a social group, a noxious business—but lose themselves in the process.

Gerard is best known for her novels, and in Sunshine State, the strongest pieces are those that allow her to deep dive into lyrical descriptions. “Records” and “BFF” thrum with personal revelations, each carved from Gerard’s own painful experiences. Pulling from her own emotional center, these essays allow her a greater ability to paint scenes and characters through a more enjoyable, if potentially less factual sense. The more journalistic offerings of “Mother-Father God” or “The Mayor of Williams Park” never stumble, but drag slightly when Gerard is explaining, or dissecting the ins-and-outs of the Florida political machine or the history of Christian Science. Only “Sunshine State” —the strange, morbid tale of a bird sanctuary gone awry—combines Gerard’s knack for character description and pained confession with straight forward fact; her descriptions of the eccentric, obsessive Ralph Heath and his family and staff, deftly captures not only the living history of The Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary, but its squandered aspirations.

Florida, to many (this writer included), is a swampy mirage that dangles off a far coast. Its utterance invokes humidity and tropical drinks, elderly Jewish couples and dense swampland. In Sunshine State, this vision isn’t proven incorrect, just superficial, a thin mirage those who’ve called themselves residents, have concocted. Instead, Gerard shows us that though our stereotypes may sometimes ring true, bubbling beneath them is a population of people simply yearning for happiness, whatever it might take to achieve it. In this, Gerard shows that below the assumed eccentricities, Florida is just another place where the American Dream has failed.

Review: Imagine Wanting Only This by Kristen Radtke

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Imagine Wanting Only This
by Kristen Radtke
Published 2017 by Pantheon
$29.95 hardcover ISBN 978-1101870839

By Noah Sanders

When we look at physical ruins—an abandoned city, a former military barrack, Cambodia’s killing fields—there is the illusion of permanence. The idea that these destitute structures announce not only the end of a place and all the humanity inherent to that place, but also a capturing of a moment. As if the vine-covered concrete, the broken windows and human detritus contained within them are vessels for the eternal imprint of whatever sliver of life once dwelled there. In Imagine Wanting Only This, Kristen Radtke’s debut graphic memoir, the author’s own obsession with physical ruins leads her down an internal rabbit hole, where the truth of the matter rears its ugly head: there is no such thing as a captured moment. Instead, everything changes, everything disappears, and all that can be hoped for is a fleeting glimpse out the rearview mirror and the hope that the image that lingers does so forever.

In the wake of the death of her favorite Uncle Dan from a genetic heart condition, Radtke, a struggling artist in Chicago, becomes unmoored, in need of escape. The event shatters the illusion for Radtke that things exist forever, Dan’s existence suddenly only accessible through photos, recollections and her own memories. “I’d been consumed by the question of how something that is,” she writes, “can become, very suddenly, something that isn’t.” The author abandons her live-in boyfriend, Andrew, and departs for Italy, a country where the ruins of ancient civilization, the memories of what came before, are kept behind velvet ropes. Where society once ran rampant, now stand empty stones, facades that give hint to what once existed there, but are now nothing more than decaying destinations for emotional tourism.

The idea of disintegration and decay permeates much of the book. The first apartment Radtke shares with Andrew, her boyfriend-turned-fiance-turned-spurned-lover, has floorboards that disintegrate into lairs of silverfish; a mold problem that in a series of 8 panels slowly subsumes the bucolic routine of their life together. Radtke is a talented illustrator, and the panels are nearly identical, snapshots of key moments in the fledgling relationship—a new kitten, sharing a bed, paying bills. A hint of mold in one corner ends up filling the walls, Andrew and Radtke trapped within it. These moments, small as they may be, like all others, degrade, rot, and eventually fall away altogether. They are, to hit the obvious point, emotional ruins, snapshots of our inner self, worn down by the forward progress of being alive. This isn’t a bad thing, it seems that Radtke is saying, but instead the natural way of living: we grow out of the dust of what came before, and something else will grow out of the dust that we become.

Throughout Imagine Wanting Only This, Radtke seeks meaning in physical ruin. She wants the relics of the past to contain the proof that emotion, memory, life itself are immutable. That we can at any time return to previous experiences, previous lives even, and in retrospect they’ll remain the same. The author seems to want to push back on the tenuousness of life, by chaining herself to the facade of permanence. Quickly, conflict arises; Radtke’s search for answers in the past unhinges her from her presence. She becomes emotionally ethereal, slipping away from the foundations of her own life. Radtke’s delicate art buoys the sense of perpetual limbo, her images often skewing into the surreal, her grasp on the form helping to better invoke her quiet loneliness.

Near the end of the book, Radtke visits a resident of Gilman, Colorado—a town entirely abandoned when a silver mine poisoned its water supply. Lois, the first survivor, describes the time there as “the happiest in her life” but when the water is found to be poisoned, she picks up and leaves, her life moving onwards to whatever comes next, happy or sad. It rattles Radtke, “I wanted her to say that they’d lost something irreclaimable, as if it’d show me that maybe someday I could claim anything with as much ferocity.” Permanence is a facade—concrete, skin or otherwise—Lois seems to say, happy as we are, things won’t always be the same. “When one mine closed,” Lois tells Radtke, “we went to another. There will always be new places to dig.” In this, Radtke finds if not an answer, a sense of temporary meaning: her obsession with connecting with the past, is robbing her of a meaningful present. “The floors will rot, the carpet will be torn,” she writes, “and someday there will be nothing left that you have touched.” Eventually everything about us will be gone, it’s inevitable, and dragging our heels as the future pulls us forward, will leave us nowhere but lost in the past.

Review: The Night We Set the Dead Kid on Fire by Ephraim Scott Sommers

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The Night We Set The Dead Kid on Fire
by Ephraim Scott Sommers
Published 2017 by Tebot Bach
$16.00 paperback ISBN 978-1939678348

By Noah Sanders

There’s a moment when you’re hungover—head pounding, mouth dry, your stomach twisting—where inevitably you find yourself staring, slack-jawed, at some unimportant item—a zipper, a book you’ve owned but never read, a line on your palm. You will look at this object and, your brain a sodden mess, you will find meaning, memories, perhaps even revelations, in a thing that previously held nothing. The poetry in Ephraim Scott Sommers’ The Night We Set The Dead Kid On Fire feels akin to this experience. His poems, almost in their entirety, paint exploits pulled from his own life in his hometown of Atascadero and beyond. Almost all of them are fraught with violence and booze, pedophilia and broken relationships; the release valve of choice nearly always booze or drugs. Sommers’ work is rooted in the momentary. The best of the poems in the collection use a singular event as ground zero for both a claustrophobic stroll down the alleys of memory, and a drunken lurch into the consequences. Sommers takes his individual experiences and turns hangover’s hindsight upon them, each rusted, damaged object, an entry point to his own life’s expansive ripple.

There is no doubt about Sommers’ ability as a storyteller. The richest of his pieces in The Night We Set The Dead Kid On Fire are nearly prose poetry, densely massed thickets of visceral description tightly wrapped around an oft times brutal memory.
In “Trina and I at the End of the Earth,” one of many poems about a particularly toxic relationship:

“How you smear out/lit matchsticks on your chin, how you pinch/a dip in your lip and spit on the walls with your shark’s mouth”

“Cryin’ Bryan” wraps itself around the memory of fight in a decrepit yard. As important as the act of the titular Bryan catching one upside the head is, Sommers contains the altercation to a few ferocious lines; the meat of the poem instead the build of the narrator’s recollection and the short, sharp prediction of how it all might end. A memory isn’t the end-all in Sommers’ writing, it’s the starting point, the catalyst for reflection and introspection, sad and harsh as it may be.

This is a dark collection, a sometimes trying parade of not only painful, morbid images, but of what lead to them, and what spun out from them. There are moments of hope buried within—a grave digger in “Shovel Psalm” finds a glimmer of joy in the simple task of tilling the earth—but for the most part, Sommers seems to be expounding on how, if we let it, our pasts trap us in a holding loop. In “Mass Shooting In Kalamazoo” Sommers writes,

“The world’s/engine has stalled, and this is a moment.
Let me stay inside it.”

We spin outwards from a trying event, only to canter back to try and find where it started; we grasp blindly in hopes we’ll find some future meaning. The circle expands and contracts, but we always rotate around our memories. On and on, until somehow, maybe, we move past it.

A hangover eventually passes, the object we thought said so much, recedes back to where it once lived in our minds. In this, The Night We Set The Dead Kid On Fire, and the consequences of a hard night of boozing differ. In Sommers’ writing, what you do clings, pulling you down, and only of your own struggle, your own volition, can you pull yourself back up.