Temporary Apprehensions: Poems by Patric Pepper. Washington Writers’ Publishing House, Washington, DC, 2005, 61pp. $12
Review by Martin Abramson first published in Book/Mark, Spring 2006
The glossy reproduction of Rousseau’s Rendezvous in the Forest that adorns the cover of this collection is probably worth the price of admission alone. There’s even a poetic tribute to the artist inside. It’s a good poem and there are many others in this (dare I say) slender volume. For example, Ground Zero p.33, is a nearly perfect sonnet in which the author describes himself as ‘second rate’ and goes on to prove the opposite. Mr. Pepper is one of the few formalist poets who uses form out of mastery rather than curiosity. His use of form is prefigured by the material, not the reverse, and varied when appropriate. One of the strongest poems: Words for Weldon p.17, uses rhyme and meter flexibly but with stunning effect. He describes some crows, identifying their ‘tattered song’ with what I take to be the rough and impoverished life of his friend Weldon Kees; and clinching the merged metaphor with consummate skill:
And lacking your finesse,
they nonetheless will sing their big crude truth—
though not today, as the day you didn’t sing,
but flew from the Golden Gate,
no word or wing.
But formalism doesn’t always work in Mr. Pepper’s favor. He is sometimes harmed by random reinforcement. Knowing that he frequently uses rhyme and meter in conventional ways sets us up to anticipate their appearance throughout, but we are often jarringly disappointed. A good example is Sunday p.59. Stanza 1 sets up a pattern of 4-foot lines. Stanza 2 shifts suddenly to pentameter in the first 3 lines and then to unaccented prose in lines 4 and 5. Stanza 3 wanders all over the place. Mr. Pepper also sprinkles internal rhymes passim: room/groom; money/honey; tune/soon; bread/weds; which, again, create anticipatory disappointment when we find no end-rhymes.
The poems in this collection, while well worth reading, are too often marred by faults of form and/or diction. In Yearbook p.54, Peppers lulls us pleasingly with perfect rhymes in the sestet, then in the octave hits us with the jarring: chagrin/children; kiss/axis. Accentual mayhem. Otherwise pleasing poems are brought down by single bad lines: e.g. In The Mist p.51, the last line is not merely innocuous, but also unrelated to the preceding description. And I’m tempted to bring up the same ‘last-line’ problem with Channing Street p.39, an otherwise moving poem, but ...“oh same, oh same, oh joy tonight.” The irony is the author’s not the reader’s who is still resonating to killer lines like, “Some teenage boys in baggy pants,/slow as turtles, quick as ants”.
10:00 P.M. p.42, is a lovely double study of evening, with a fine ending couplet:
Our open doors will close by twelve o’clock;
we’ll fill with dreams as silence fills the block.
But the unjustified violence of the second line had prejudiced me against the rest. “...blasting bolts of laughter down the lawn.”
For those whose lovers have been gone for months or years, the author’s soulful whining about his wife’s one-night absence in While You Were Away at the Cape.58, seems a poor excuse for another average villanelle. But in the same (open) vein, Breakup p.56, shows authentic feeling in fine lines that build to a powerful, cumulative impact. The tragedy of impending estrangement is symbolized by the German shepherd –a cohesive force in the relationship—to whom the author addresses his displaced plea:
She woke amid their things, and the dog stretched.
The family portrait, which he had overdrawn,
beamed back the morning sun as any day:
her golden bangs, his brown cowled eyes, detatched;
their shepherd’s mouth agape and panting, Stay!
And still on this topic, The Truck Driver’s Husband; A Letter p.47, is a poignant update of The River Merchant’s Wife that never hits a false note.
Some poems should have been dropped altogether: I could list Interview with a Lump of Coal and Life’s a Picnic as obvious choices. But having inoculated you, dear reader, for the worst, I take pleasure in pointing out the best.
Chagall’s The Rooster p.60, is a perfect achievement that enhances the art-work, sexual love and the sonnet form. The colors of the poem, like those of Chagall, are intoxicating.
The Dancing Hat p.5, is a chilling foreshadowing of doom. In a dream of death, a dancing Tai Chi instructor gives a friend a hat: “a manless, gamboling hat, and only answer/ for David’s strangely real, impromptu cancer.”
The Judas Tree p.12, is a distinguished work as noted by R. Espillat on the back cover. Ground Zero p.33, is a powerful poem that merges the author’s first experience reading his poetry at a Tribeca gathering with the close-by horror of 9/11. When a fellow poet says, “You guys were great”, Pepper writes
But I don’t feel that great, too old to fight,
too mad to love my enemies as Jesus
preached, too wise to hate, too scared to focus
on stuff, except for this: the poetry of night,
and us, benumbed that day at the abyss,
which didn’t Stevens call the nothing that is?
Wallace Stevens seems to be an important influence on Pepper’s work. In Marcus Aurelius at Carnumtum p.27, he does his predecessor proud in a deceptively simple, philosophical analysis of death. “All things,” he begins, “are less/ complicated than they seem./...Death does not caress,/nor inflict. You cross the stream...” (Unfortunately, Pepper’s stabs at philosophy are not all as successful. Reading Kant Again p.24, doesn’t do much for modern life or Kant.)
I found the return of adults to a childhood home in A Pittsburgh Ballade p.53, quite moving:
After the church, with trembly gown-up will,
you took me home to 93 North Euclid,
the “3” crooked, the steps crumbling. Ill-
ness wracked the shingles, gutters, porch and yard.
Maintenance Mechanic p.38, is a flawless miniature oil-painting of a back-country working man. In D.C. p.36, the author has compressed a full-length autobiography into 19 lines. He chooses to live in the nation’s capitol not in spite of tawdriness and terror ...“but because of it.” Very strong.
The Brilliant Ticks p10, reveals a ready sense of humor abetted by a deft hand at rhyming quatrains. And in Paving Parking Lots p.8, evidently dedicated to Whitman, the poet takes so much pleasure in “tattooed arms rippling from/ their sleeves”, “glistening black/necks” and “godly muscles,/ gorgeous shoulders”, one wonders if the thrill is all Walt’s.
At any rate, I’ve enjoyed my exposure to this collection and look forward to subsequent publications by this talented poet, with the single reservation that he wield the editorial pencil a bit more stringently next time.