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.