That Fall; Because I Wish To Avoid Extravagant Claims…
By: Greg Rappleye
CATHLEEN (begins to keen). It’s destroyed we are from this day. It’s destroyed, surely.
-John Millington Synge, Riders to the Sea We knew that salt cod is hideous, fouled with nematodes, its gravy worse, but had cartoons and were safe enough for now, watching a frantic mouse drop anvils on the head of a furious cat. We’d moved north to Bob Eisle’s, west of Marquette, his swoopy red convertible angled out along the Superior cliffs, its white canvas top tied back against the wind, Old Bob sipping bourbon, eating smoked chubs, greasy fingers sorting the jumbled wires of a classified gadget he’d cobbled up in a fish house near the Soo. A Western Electric crew followed him around, burying Bob’s secrets across the Keweenaw, his wires wormed down deep, To listen among the depths, was all Bob would say; to catch a whispered voice, strayed across the arctic. I can still hear her along those cliffs, singing as the big men wrenched and welded and dug, her blue sweater gathered about her ribs, raucous terns wheeling and those saltless waves heaving cold against the iron-gorged rocks, her lyrics unknowable–some slurred, some Irish, though mother’s songs in those days were already atonic, a word I’d know soon enough, and sad beyond the other songs of the earth.
Because I Wish to Avoid Extravagant Claims, and Because God is Patient with the Unborn
Among the nascent embryos, I was a poet of steel-cut oats, of Dingle cheese, of grilled hake and muck-till potatoes, of soda bread with salty butter. Then she moaned, and I was alive-o, alive, in the cheap-seats of a Tuesday matinee, halfway through a pint of Old Crow and an early cut of John Ford’s The Quiet Man. Our story: America staggers through the long count at Pusan. There are Nixon and Roy Cohn, Cyd Charisee and others to come and after these, a New Frontier of moon-shots and whirly satellites. But oh! I am coming, too— your tiny blue babby, loop strangling, wheezy, cursed, letting loose of Mum’s pretty pink womb and a wee bit drunk, baked for the requisite season. Call an usher! Summon the charnel cart! A redpoll lights-up a heavenly pine and God sighs and says, On with it, then. So I fold these scraps in oilcloth, say a knob’s prayer for safe passage and slide, so shanty Irish, to a wild indigo sea.
Greg Rappleye's poems have previously appeared in Poetry, Shenandoah, The Southern Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, and other literary journals. His second book of poems, A Path Between Houses (University of Wisconsin Press, 2000) won the Brittingham Prize in Poetry. His third book, Figured Dark (University of Arkansas Press, 2007) was first runner-up for the Dorset Prize and was published in the Miller Williams Poetry Series. His latest book, Tropical Landscape with Ten Hummingbirds, will be published in the fall of 2018 by Dos Madres Press. He teaches at Hope College in Holland, Michigan. Interview With The Poet: Cathexis Northwest Press:
First, we wanted to say that your voice just simply pop’s in both of these poems. There is so much nostalgia and sentimentality in these pieces, but also so much humor. They are both finely crafted, and have this conversational feel, as if we (the reader) are just sitting around listening to these stories. We were hoping you could give us a little insight into your writing process? Greg Rappleye:
Thank you for the nice comments. These poems are from a manuscript I’m working on titled Ventrilo, which is concerned in large part with the strange story of my Irish-American family. The truth is that I have no close relatives other than my three brothers and two sisters, and that we know almost nothing about either side of our family. Our mother was married before and her then husband died in a mysterious incident involving a shotgun. My older sister is actually my half-sister, but no one ever talked about this. I am the second oldest, but I was conceived outside of marriage. Its seems that both sides of the family disowned my parents because of my unfortunate timing, and as their circumstances and (later) marriage deteriorated, I caught a great deal of the blame for their unhappiness. I can’t pretend that we had a happy family life, because we didn’t. My parents were Catholic and angry and alcoholic, and we lived with the consequences. My mother’s reference point in particular was to an idealized Irish life, and she loved John Ford’s film The Quiet Man, thinking I suppose that had her mill-working forbears stayed in Ireland, her life might have been a kind of bucolic ideal. I do have a dark sense of humor, which often comes across in the poems, particularly in Because I Wish to Avoid Extravagant Claims. As far as I know, I was not born to an inebriated woman in the balcony at the Capitol Theater in Jackson, Michigan, during the second reel of The Quiet Man. But I surely could have been.
Both of these poems were originally longer—each two pages, single-spaced. They arrived very late in the manuscript’s drafting process, but I’d been thinking about them (however vaguely) for years. I could see where they had to go in the manuscript, but after I wrote them, I could see that the poems were too long to fit. I needed a couple of shorter poems. So I cut them and cut them until I thought I’d killed them. But I lucked out, as sometimes happens. I do like the poems in their shorter forms. Whatever happened when I got out the knives this time, worked. CNP: Food overwhelms the senses in the beginning of both of these poems, while both beginning with a scientific image (nematodes/embryos). Was that parallelism in any way intentional? Both these poems are heartily nostalgic, and there is science to back the idea that the olfactory sense is strongly tied to memory—coincidence? GR: Food was at the center of my family’s experiences. And we were clever kids. It was the early days of the space race. A technical word like “embryo” often meant the difference between success or failure in a Catholic school spelling-bee.
When we were very young, my father decided that his children were insufficiently grateful for their bountiful lives. This would have been during the late ’50’s, very early ’60’s. He announced that henceforth we would all eat as if we lived in the depths of the Depression. So for six months we lived on salt cod, powdered milk, red potatoes sliced and scalded in powdered milk (I guess this was a sort of scalloped potatoes), and corn meal mush. We would all get together as a family, thaw the cod—which came frozen in large boxes—salt the fillets and hang them to dry out on the screened-in porch. It was our regular weekend project. The worms that are naturally occurring in wild cod often reanimated when the cod was thawed, and they were a source of much appalled amusement among us kids. We were bright enough to look this phenomenon up at the public library, so yes, we soon found out what a nematode was.
A couple of years later my father opened a root beer stand in northern Michigan. We lived in a trailer behind the restaurant, fifteen feet from the back door. Half of us kids worked the day shift, half worked nights. My father’s secret chili sauce recipe was his pride and joy. All of us—everyone, and everything—reeked of French fries, fried chicken, fried onions, hamburgers and chili sauce. Yes, the olfactory sense—the smell of greasy food—played a great part in our lives. CNP: With the strong narrative feel to both these poems, it absolutely blew us away how much milage each word makes sonically. “Because I wish” in particular is so full of rhyme, and is so much fun to read—the “alive-o” diction reminds me a bit of Salman Rushdie’s voice in The Satanic Verses—and I always laugh when I get to God saying “On with it, then.” Did you set out to write an echo-dense piece, or did that sort of happen while you were telling this story? GR: I did push hard on the sonic qualities of these two poems. A lot of this emerged as I cut away the dross. The more I cut, the better these poems sounded—it was almost like stripping overly lush instrumentation off a song that only needed a bass-line and a guitar hook in the first place. The “alive-o, alive” was lifted from the Irish song “Molly Malone.” It’s the sales pitch traditionally sung by Dublin street-vendors of cockles and mussels.
To the extent that rhyme (or off-rhyme, slant-rhyme) appears in my poems, it most often emerges organically during the revision process. I know it when I hear it, but I rarely work hard for it, though I am an obsessive reviser.
These two poems belong together—I’m grateful that you have both of them—and were written simultaneously, over the course of ten days or-so. They are closely related, if not of a single piece. My mother may have once fantasized that we would end up on an elegant diet of grilled hake and Dingle cheese. Instead, we had wormy cod and cornmeal mush. But we survived, and yes, I do know we had it better than many others. The dismissive, off-hand comment “on with it, then,” attributed to God in Extravagant Claims will probably cost me a couple of decades in Purgatory. But I can’t be the only one who wonders whether God spends too much time creating new stars at the edge of the universe. One can’t help but say “Pay attention, God! I need a little help, here.” Or so I’ve sometimes felt. Bob Eisle (from That Fall) was an uncle of ours who really did work for Western Electric in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. He had a big red Buick convertible, loved jazz and worked on mystery projects for the Department of Defense. This was during the Cold War, of course. He was sort of a bourbon-drinking Willie Wonka, and a great deal of fun. We felt safe whenever we were around him.
CNP: We were curious who some of your favorite poets are, and who has most impacted your style. GR: Well, I am a Michigan boy and Theodore Roethke potting flowers in his family’s greenhouse is an important figure for me. Back here, we still claim Dan Gerber and the late Jim Harrison as our own. They were also huge influences on me, before and after they moved to California and Montana, respectively. Dan in particular became a good friend and mentor and made me believe I could be a poet, if I was willing to work for it. Anytime I am out the door and into the field, I am following Dan and Jim.
I deeply admire the work of Brigit Pegeen Kelly and Deborah Digges and their untimely deaths were real losses to American poetry; ones I deeply felt. And I also owe a debt to Sylvia Plath. An example is hidden in the second stanza of That Fall. I have carried Plath’s Blackberrying around in my head for years, and am haunted by the end of that poem—where the speaker looks out over the sea and hears “ …a din like silversmiths / Beating and beating at an intractable metal.” I was amazed by the overwhelmingness of that language; by the clear-eyed, so nearly pitiless vision in those lines. So yes, I tried to borrow some of that for my little poem and transferred it from the ocean to Lakes Superior. I hope the reader (and Sylvia) will forgive me. CNP: You had your first book published in 1995—any advice for poets who are just now getting into the game? Have you noticed any shifts in poetry since you began your career? GR: I have an inordinate love for my first book, as one loves one’s secret, two-headed love child. Yes, I gave birth to it and I claim it. Some of the poems showed promise, some were even published in good places. But after it was published, I knew that I couldn’t get where I wanted to go as a poet unless I was a much better craftsperson. So in 1998, at the age of 45, I enrolled in the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College, and its the best thing I could have done at that time to advance myself as a writer. Is an MFA necessary today? Probably not, but it was necessary for me.
I am amazed at the many great new poets who have appeared one the past ten years, when I seem not to have been paying attention. The poetry world is so much more diverse, the work is so strong. Keep reading, support the good journals, keep writing. Don’t lose heart. I give myself that advice wherever I run out of steam. It’s the only advice I have for anyone. CNP: We just wanted to thank you for your time, and for submitting these wonderful pieces to us. We are thrilled to have you with us for our inaugural edition!