Voice in Contemporary American Poetry:
Two First Books

Pepper, Patric. Temporary Apprehensions.
Washington Writers Publishing House, 2005. (61 pages)
ISBN: 978-0931846755

Rathkamp, Josh. Some Nights No Cars at All. Ausable Press, 2007 (80 pages)
ISBN: 978-1931337359

Contemporary American poetry begins after Modernism when its predominant subject becomes the poet’s personal life. This confessional stream continues today through myriad currents and eddies. Yet our American Mississippi can be navigated back to the late 1950s, to the debut of Heart’s Needle and Life Studies written respectively by W.D. Snodgrass and Robert Lowell. Of course this river finds enticing rapids in Sylvia Plath’s 1965 book Ariel. Today one main feature in American confessional writing is the use the lyric “I” to look back upon the past, rather than to soliloquize a present-tense song. In the worst uses of this voice, lyric confessions over-dramatize their actions. They drench poems in tones of weepy nostalgia. Furthermore, while many contemporary writers focus on themselves as did Lowell and Plath, they do not import Lowell’s and Plath’s command of history, mythology, and technique; (both are notable for their use of assonance, consonance, slant rhyme, and “vers libre” metrics). Many contemporary confessional poets rely solely on projecting personal voice through line-length and enjambment. Open a copy of Poetry magazine in March 2008 and you’ll see a poem beginning with a line like, “If only I could forget him, the Frenchman.” Or let’s take: “Insanity is not a want of reason.” Reading these lines, what makes this language so different than either a diary or manual? What makes it not prose, but poetry?
       Two new first books by metrical poet Patric Pepper and free verse poet Josh Rathkamp likewise follow this post-WWII confessional trend. Pepper in Temporary Apprehensions blends his confessional urge with a deft use of meter, and homages to poetic influences. As an older poet, he offers a range of experiences from his life in Washington D.C. Pepper’s technical accomplishment and thematic range make Temporary Apprehensions a rewarding read. Rathkamp is a younger man who can embody a powerful voice on the page. However his debut Some Nights No Cars at All does not range much beyond a young man’s failed relationships and memories of childhood. Too many poems here seem nostalgic confessions written from a comfy, worn apartment couch. Too often his verse offers prose-like lines with enjambment as the only consistent poetic tool. And so a survey of first lines finds: “Thinks he’s alone / Although I presumed nothing bad would happen / When you unlock your body / The reason for my wakefulness is not / We hide behind a pine tree.” Where is the tension? Where is the diction? Where is the language that pulls me in? It’s been jettisoned for voice. Both authors are skillful poets. But Some Nights No Cars at All is more engaging in skillful individual poems than in its repetitive whole.

On the cover of Pepper’s Temporary Apprehensions is a jungle painting by the quirky 19th century French painter Henri Rousseau. Pepper’s poem to Rousseau will please Rousseau fans. It opens in line one with a fun, loud use of metrical spondees (with the stress on the first syllable):

Sunday painter, oddball, toll collector
on the outskirts of Paris, Rousseau hung on,
painted exotic lions that did not roar.

Pepper bangs the drum in line one using spondaic tetrameter, followed in line two with a quicker rhythm of three looping anapests and an iamb. The third line stops on a spondee with “painted,” but then continues with steady iambic rhythm. Temporary Apprehensions offers 50-plus-year-old Pepper’s inventory of personal poems; witnessed scenes; dedications to poets like Weldon Kees, Anna Akhmatova, and Thomas Champion; and social meditations. Maybe Pepper picks Rousseau for the cover and for a poetic dedication because—like that French painter who worked at the post office until his 40s—Pepper has spent the bulk of his adult life working, yet publishing “on the outskirts.” His debut won the 2005 Washington Writers’ Publishing House Prize, an annual prize for D.C. area writers. The book offers a glimpse of a life lived.
       Pepper’s expert use of meter that blends with conversational speech—rather than kills it—is an accomplishment few do well today. Temporary Apprehensions offers a variety of meters and vers-libre poems. It all is held together by Pepper’s sometimes wry, sometimes straightforward voice. The book has a handful of gems. In terms of his best, I will quote and examine the opening poem (in iambic pentameter) called “Blue Skies.”

Always when there’s nothing much to say
like when there’s been a layoff at the plant—
because the customer has a million widgets
stocked up because the union’s going on strike—
and with manila envelopes the workers,
some sniffling,
              clean their lockers out and split,

you see that, cloudless as a baby’s eyes,
the blue cup of the sky that God has turned up-
           throwing us like some dice across
the earth,
                     pure; faithful; aloof;
and cat-like, therefore, in its cobalt beauty.

Pepper in “Blue Skies” uses the tools of meter, spatial composition, imagery, and grammar to make his investigation gripping poetry. “Blue Skies” starts with an opening line of sharp spondees, beginning with “After.” This possibly mimics the sudden pain of factory layoffs according to economic rules of supply and demand concerning “widgets.” Lines two through six then proceed in iambic pentameter, with just a few substitutions. When the poem begins discussing the sky, it segues into open-field composition to work in conjunction with meter in depicting the sky on the written page. This use of myriad 20th century poetic tools is admirable. Here formal tools participate in a meter-making argument that gives Pepper’s verse verve. Even enjambment is used in a playful, dramatic way when “up-” is broken against the rest of the phrase, “side-down.” Enjambment here reinforces how expectations of beauty, fueled further by the sky, are turned upside down on earth.
       This poem’s technical prowess especially extends to grammar. Pepper uses grammar to unite his poem within a single sentence and thereby lock the reader into a pace. The poem starts with a dependent adverbial clause “Always when.” This clause forces the reader to read further in order to make sense. However lines two through six present a simile using “like,” which delays the completion of the sentence. This creates competing counter-pressures, for the reader wants to understand the simile, but also find the anchor for this adverbial “Always when” dependent clause. The reader finally finds subject-and-verb anchor in line 7. “You see that,” it says. What we see—the direct object—is the sky, which is the rhetorical climax of the poem. The descriptive words (which form the direct object) are draped across open-field poetic composition. They float like clouds in the sky. We finish the sentence when we complete the poem and contemplate the sky’s “cobalt beauty.” This silent beauty is balanced against the opening triggering comment of “nothing much to say” (line 1) about “factory layoffs” (line 2), and implicitly about the other tumults of working life.
       Lastly Pepper’s poem uses visual imagery to paint its rhetorical theological argument. Pepper sees the beauty and silence of the sky above the suffering factory workers during America’s downsizing corporate era as akin to the age-old conundrum of a mute “God” over suffering humanity. He rues (maybe comically) that this creator is “throwing us like some dice across / the earth.” In this sense, the poem hints at questioning the very existence of any designer. Is there a creator behind the “blue cup of the sky,” described as “pure; faithful; aloof.” Faithful here is ironic, as beauty does not necessarily lead to faith. Yet the sky also is “cat-like” in its beauty. Maybe the sky’s “cat-like” silence is equally its winking mystery, which “cat-like” points to a greater reality like the silent waving of a cat’s tail. In the end though, there is “Nothing much to say.” The beautiful sky—likewise today market economics—both are unquestioned facts of human life. The most important question though is what lies beyond them.

Josh Rathkamp’s Some Nights No Cars At All displays in its title this author’s strong gift for emotionally evocative phrase-making. The title comes from the poem “The Winter of 1990,” a poem about memories of kids playing in snow and hitting passing cars with “ice balls.” The poem ends powerfully as children sneak up on a car where sexual activity is occurring. Rathkamp sees that moment as a window into his eventual loss of childhood and innocence. He recalls himself and others watching sexual activity in a car, and now wonders in hindsight: “Some gave chase. I know it. / Some sat frozen, / scared as deer.” The closing imagery contrasts how kids will approach their dawning adult worlds.
       The phrase “[s]ome nights no cars at all” may relate to the hushed world of snowfall as kids play-fight with snowballs. It could allude to kids waiting hidden in at night, hoping to smash some cars that never come. Maybe it evokes some sort of loneliness? This provocative yet vague phrase is typical of the book—its promise and pitfall. Many of the poems in this 86-page book offer emotional resonance without clarity and always relentlessly personal. After 20 pages, it feels tiresome. The title appears in a description of neighborhood snowball fights:

Some nights passed quick and dark

and we fought, choking each other
face down in the snow.
Some nights no cars at all.

Some nights a door opened.
A dog barked from behind a fence.
It recognized nothing.

I like the sense here of kids playing in a dark hushed world of snow. Here, “some nights a door opened,” or “no cars at all” passed through. A dog barked. This poet displays gifts for evoking moods. When the “dog barked” above, I could imagine its eerie echo. However Rathkamp’s writing runs into problems here too. There appears no apparent reason why this poem is written in three-line stanzas. It may be for a jazz sense of having a three-line rhythm as a base to work from. Is that enough? Some lines like “Some nights passed quick and dark” are powerful. Notably, this line is abetted by strong stresses in four out of six syllables. It uses consonance to weld itself together (quick, dark / some, passed). Then a line like “face down in the snow” uses none of these devices. It appears prosy. Does it really need its own line? Over the length of a book, slackness adds up. Attention drifts. A line like “It recognized nothing” again is indistinguishable from prose. The tinny “it” sound clashes with the “o” assonance found in both “recognized nothing.” In fact the line would have been better as “Recognized nothing.” Rewritten this way, it emphasizes the low “o” and high “i” sounds in the two words; it better coalesces. This may seem picky, but most poetry lovers demand this type of attention to language from our best poets.
       In the opening stanzas of “The Winter of 1990,” stanzas one and two set up the scene well. They describe a scene in two traditional subject-then-verb sentences. In line one, the assonance of “i” opens the poem on a happy high note. Line three takes on low “o” sounds of foreboding. I quote:

We hid behind a pine tree
waiting, sometimes for hours,
crouched low to the ground,

our bodies tangled in its limbs.
We cannonaded piles of ice balls,
each one dipped in a bucket of water. . .

However stanzas three through seven follow with different, seemingly unrelated grammatical and poetic structures. This creates a randomness not called for by this poem’s subject matter. The stanzas offer some non-essential description, and show off similar mistakes already noted.

then set out to freeze,
hard as algebra.
They were indestructible.

Each time we threw them
with the wind-up and release
they left strawberry bruises on our chests.

One of us always cried.
If it snowed, we started early
faking paths through the field

so our tracks were scattered and distant.
We knew each other’s flight
by shoe size, and the field. . . .

“The Winter of 1990” ends powerfully, but takes too long. In the same way, this book’s 86-pages could have been cut down to a blazingly good chapbook. Rathkamp has a lot of talent. For his next book, he needs to edit more as well as sometimes write about the myriad issues around him.
       Recently re-reading Philip Levine’s A Walk With Tom Jefferson, I journeyed with a powerful poet who possesses a fierce voice and uses it to look at his own past, the lives of those around him, and through that, explores and illuminates American history. A Walk With Tom Jefferson is a powerful book; it also is notable that while Levine looks deeply into his personal past here, he often confronts his memories in a present-tense poetry of experience. He does not plod through memories, but recreates scenes. Importantly Levine follows his personal past through his family to touch on its connections to the immigrant experience, his hometown of Detroit, and through Detroit industrial America, and into the river of the American experience. In the same way Sylvia Plath’s Ariel is thought to be a quintessential book of confessional poetry, yet it connects Plath’s personal vision to an audience through mythology and metaphor. For instance when Plath says about pregnancy in “Morning Song”: “Love set you going like a fat gold watch,” she uses non-personal metaphor to assert a universal statement about pregnancy. Of course Plath says it in her characteristically dark and humorous way. Pepper’s Temporary Apprehensions displays a range of interests including and also beyond himself. That is where contemporary poetry needs to go. Like other aspects in America today, the pursuit of personal voice at the expense of all else has left many people very alone.

Gregg Mosson is the author of a book of nature poetry, Season of Flowers and Dust (Goose River Press, 2007), and editor of Poems Against War: Music & Heroes (Wasteland Press). He has an MA from the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars, and lives and work in Baltimore, Maryland. Visit him at .

Boxcar Poetry Review - ISSN 1931-1761