G. Emil Reutter
“I am here/ in the terrible now,” G. Emil Reutter writes, penning lines like those carvings for which his book is named. “We are very much like the old oak trees found in a public park. People stop and leave their marks on the trees, carving with a knife, initials, hearts with initials, a piece of someone left behind,” reads an introductory note. “These poems represent some carvings in my life, some minor others lasting.” This is a fair enough assessment. There are plenty of pages here that read like so much garbled graffiti, but, on occasion, there is a voice of urgency. “I am alive,” says a poem, and there are sirens outside, puddles on the pavement, cold water in the taps.
Much of Carvings is given over to reflections on nature, which is perhaps a mistake. “I cannot write of the great Greek goddesses/ or the numerous flowering plants and trees/ for I do not know their names,” Reutter writes. It wouldn’t hurt to learn such things, honestly. By which I mean, poetry gathers visceral strength from the infusion of particularities, the texture of language. Instead, we are given “yellow leaves tumble away/ naked maples stand guard/ a lone blue jay/ perches upon the branch/ hungry cats prowl/ about tree trunk,” which is both vague and staccato, bluntly dull. Too much of this book features lines like “feelings flow from me as of roots of a tree/ spidering through the hard earth in search of/ water, only my roots set firmly and always/ lead to you.”
Reutter is more at home away from all the trees, like, say, at the pharmacy, where “Pork roll,/ spam, hot dogs are in demand.” Or at the bar, amidst the “stench of stale beer/ cigarettes/ of bourbon and scotch/ sickening sweet aroma of/ syrup and burnt burgers” where the narrator realizes he’s “wasted my beer and can’t/ order another…another beer, another shot/ empty glass/ another wasted night.” The bars here all seem a bit better-noticed than the trees; Reutter has a sense for the exterior and interior details of such places, “Smoke-filled room/ blues plays on the box/ smell of beer and bourbon/ mixes with stale smoke/ cheap perfume and Old Spice./ A place of whatcould-/have-beens/ avoiding what is,/ as each glass of liquid gold/ changes reality and time.” Not that there isn’t real beauty to be glimpsed, whether passing quickly in an airport concourse or sitting outside a café smoking menthols, or writhing to the rhythm of summer in the city:
Asphalt bakes in the street
as roof tar bubbles.
Sweat beads drip along her arching spine,
chest heaving forward—
moaning and alone.
Such evocative moments stand out, and deserve, frankly, their own, much narrower and better edited book, free of such half-formed musings as “if Rockwell/were alive today/ what magazine would/ his painting grace/ what would he paint?” The real poetic moments tend to get buried in the bad writing, the clichés, but, if one persists, there are those moments, like the knife-gouged marks in the tree declaring “I am here,” “I am alive.” Consider this small piece, in full—nothing about Rockwell here, nothing about not knowing the names of trees. No, here is something raw, vulnerable, and real:
In the middle of the night, I wake thinking I hear you
call my name. Stumbling down the hallway I see the
living room; I am not there, you are not here. You always
thought you were a burden; I told you not so and on these
nights when I wake, I look for you still and I miss you. It is
two in the morning and I am thankful for those last few years
we spent together in the solitude of night; sharing your
life with me as the light in your eyes slowly dimmed. Helpless,
I listened, hoping I had not burdened you.