about the author

Staff Book Reviewer Spencer Dew is the author of the novel Here Is How It Happens (Ampersand Books, 2013), the short story collection Songs of Insurgency (Vagabond Press, 2008), the chapbook Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (Another New Calligraphy, 2010), and the critical study Learning for Revolution: The Work of Kathy Acker (San Diego State University Press, 2011). His Web site is spencerdew.com.

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American Ephemeral
A Review of American Ephemeral
by Justin Hamm

Spencer Dew

Lessons inscribe themselves upon us—slicing reminders into our flesh, like that Kafka tale about the prison, the machine. But, then, surely, so does carelessness, marking our bodies like a kind of anti-lesson, a disregard, even a relentlessly willful eschewal of rules, including the rule of moral consequences, of learning from one’s actions, of even naming them as “mistakes.” That kind of attitude—and that kind of scarred-up, half-mangled person, hunched over, “glyphlike” ink on their arms—plays a central role in this book of poems about time’s passing, about time lost and what gets lost along the way.

There’s a romance here, for train whistles and the free distances they imply, for rain-misted switchyards and barns gone scaly with age, like a snake caught mid-shedding. There’s a romance for blues harmonica, for a certain intersection of guitar string with finger flesh, bone, for the sense of “shifting jurisdiction” that comes from bravado, machismo, and maybe a little alcohol.

In one poem, a man stands on the roof of his trailer, one “sweltering Independence Day, caped / in a threadbare flag of our nation, encircled / by Budweiser empties, plates of burning incense.” In another, old men gather over hot coffee on a cold morning, “curing the literal truth / of its shameful lack of color.” One poem recalls a “drought year,” childhood, summer characterized by “the rumbling hum of window AC units” and “children, dirt-faced, tongues Kool-Aid red.”

But such scenes, with their gritty romance, give way not just to the progression of time but also to a kind of maturation along a trajectory of the domestic: the narrator who likes beer and Howlin’ Wolf becomes a father, a husband, familiar with “that special / travel chaos / families must endure,” aware, too, that what in memories is recalled as magical, near telepathic communication is, in this new, everyday world, like so much else, mangled:

This was not a good time in our marriage, though it was perhaps a little better a time than now, at least. I don’t suppose you remember how you turned, or how we looked at one another for a handful of seconds? I thought we were speaking to each other without words, a secret language of understanding. You thought I was being weird.

Family life brings with it new anxieties, new interpretations of the past. The narrator sits on the sofe with people he thinks are “now dead,” though he hastens to add: “I don’t mean this critically. We all die / a number of times before we cease biologically.”

Thus, it is the ephemeral that matters, and the ephemeral which art enshrines, preserving the particulars of feeling in relation to moment and material object, studying the inscriptions of experience and innocence, of lessons learned and of learning evaded:

Here’s an orange. Here is a guitar. Here, my father’s big shoulders. This is my daughter’s tiny hand. This: a book. These: the soft hairs on my wife’s neck. And this: today’s fleeting version of my face.

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