Review of “Something to Cry About” by Robert T. Krantz
By: Alexandra Umlas
The cover of Robert T. Krantz’s new chapbook, “Something to Cry About,” is a photo by the artist Jeanne Wilkinson from her series, “The Painted People,” where former Barbie and Ken dolls are painted and repurposed as art. It is a fascinating creation, one that sets us up for poems that speak to how we, too, are doll-like, painted, placed into the world without having much of a say in how or where, and yet there is a beauty to it all that comes through in the stoic nature of the dolls’ faces, in the way they have become something else, something unexpected and thought-provoking.
Krantz’s poems are full of the natural world: ocean, land, plants, moon, and all of its beauties and terrors. In the first poem, “Whitman in Canada,” the natural world becomes a simile for a relationship when a first kiss grows “like / cities on plains— / spears of wheat, / new roots earth-desperate...” and where hanging over head is the “clear-eyed moon / speaking bold yesses / to its own hovering.” Krantz leaves us with a striking reverse at the end of the poem, where Whitman is read “last page to first— / beginning with death, / ending with light.” Just as the natural world cycles through its seasons, each of Krantz’s poems is a sort of rebirth, a reimagining of a moment in time, an opening up of that moment so that it can be shared, so that we, too, can experience it. Isn’t this one of the reasons we read? To have more than one life? Nature here is a way in to the exploration of relationships and time—a step away from death into the light of poetry.
Krantz’s poetry often focuses on how relationships change over time. One of Krantz’s strengths is a clever way of using the meanings of words to fully encompass a feeling in a poem. In the poem “Caesura,” the idea of the caesura, or the break or rest that can be found in a line of poetry, is also used to describe the space between two people, who “argue like lovers— / in silence, / iambs sliced in two,” and then there is a break in the poem— a physical white space that gives the reader some silence through which to also traverse before the path of the words pick up again. The form of the poem becomes interlaced with the content of the poem, providing the reader with a fuller, more complete experience.
Nature in Krantz’s poetry is also a vehicle by which to talk about how we change and morph, just as the dolls on the cover of the chapbook have been changed with paint, repositioning, and the lens of a camera. In “Pearl,” the speaker in the poem talks about the span of time two people spend together and ends the poem with an apt metaphor for a relationship: “The half shells we find on beaches / were once a thing joined together, / breathing, and grinding / new pearls into place.” The idea of the splitting apart of two people continues in the next poem, “Row,” which ends in another separation:
some nights come full circle
the rim of a drum beating
a cadence that keeps
my enslaved shoulders pulling
away from safe shores
and faint fires now burning
on your foreign sands
and yet in the poems, the human desire for closeness keeps returning. The non-linear nature of the poems, the circling around of ideas and things, mimics how life works, and so there is a sort of comfortable rhythm that emerges from the collection, an echoing of the cycle of distance, intimacy, and then distance again, that we are all bound to experience.
While these Whitmanesque poems return again and again to the natural world, and how we find ourselves in relationships, they also speak to the way we see things. “Daedalus,” asks the reader to consider instinct vs knowledge, reminding us that we too have “waxed wings” that provide only momentary flight. The turn that comes at the end of the poem suggests that we are both brutalized by life, which Krantz compares to “a bloodied knuckled bully / at the end of an alley—” but that we can also be brutal ourselves. In these poems, the natural world meets our man made world, and paradox ensues.
In “Relief,” the speaker says, “I color your eyes black / and shape your lips / into a smile, every drag / of cigarette turns the trodden arc / into an O—” doing, in the poem, what the writer does on the page and what the artist has done on the cover, repositioning the things and people in our lives so that we can make sense of them, so that perhaps we feel that we have some control over our situation, over our wings, which are waxed after all, delicate, temporary, and fleeting. Perhaps there is some “relief” in writing, but “relief” has many definitions; in this poem it is as if a more “middle-aged and weary” couple has suddenly relieved the younger one. Also, the poem embraces the idea of art, and so its last relief is a carving, “goodbyes / in sunken letters / chiseled like an epitaph / into this granite heart.” Krantz’s title works on multiple levels, imbuing the poem with a sense of flux as one “relief” is replaced with another, but also with a sense of permanence as the final “relief” is one that is “chiseled,” and therefore perhaps enduring.
Poems like “Wreck” are sonically beautiful and haunting: “I swim in a wordless cloud behind the rusted rudder / no new lexicon will resurrect this hulk...” and remind us, “we are all drowning,” and yet there is a hopeful thread that weaves its way through the poems. The “I” returns to “we,” and in poems like “Call,” even when no prayer seems to help, there is still a sign of something transcendent when “An elm’s twin seed / drifts earthbound, / silently swayed / by the hand of God.”
In the love poem, “Dirt,” “A new flower tattoo / for each disappointment” reminds us that we, too, are the painted people. We have, inscribed in our hearts and on our bodies, the intentional and unintentional scars of life. In the poem “Anchor,” we are carried “toward the end / of all things” but “We all have dings and dents / where we want them least, / and launch these iron anchors / into tempestuous waters—” so that each poem becomes one of those anchors, hoisted by Krantz into the roiling sea (which we have fallen into because our wings are waxed after all).
The last poem of the collection, “Puppets on Pegs,” ends with the speaker repeating, “I turn my head / and turn my head / and turn my head / to see you / when I say / I will,” and this is what each poem does, it pegs us, it anchors us, it places us, offers us Robert Frost’s “momentary stay against confusion.” The title, “Something to Cry About,” are words that parents sometimes use when their children are already crying, suggesting the parent can offer something worse, something really worth crying about. Krantz’s chapbook offers us an alternative to crying over everything. Instead, he hands us poem after poem as an anchor, as a seed, as a bone, so that we are always tethered to the world, and by allowing us to grasp and hold on, we can cry about “something” without feeling overwhelmed, and that is, paradoxically, something to smile about too.
Alexandra Umlas is the author of the poetry collection At the Table of the Unknown, available through Moon Tide Press. Her work, which has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and for the Best of the Net Anthology, has appeared in Rattle, Foothill Journal, and New Limestone Review, among others. She serves as a reader for Palette Poetry and holds an M.F.A. in Poetry from California State University, Long Beach.
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