Book Review: Oblations
By Nick Ripatrazone
Gold Wake Press, 2011
92 pp.; $14.00
“All things counter, original, spare, strange.” Oblations begins with an epigraph from “Pied Beauty,” the poem which gave Dappled Things its name. If I had to choose between adjectives, I would say that these Oblations are offerings of the spare. The sepia-tinted cover photo of a weathered barn prepares you for blocks of prose poetry with the austerity of Shaker furniture. The book is divided into five categories: “Barns,” “Baseball,” “Work,” “Parishes,” and for everything else, “Miscellanea.” Here is an example from the first section:
Parts hand hewn. Butternut? Probably black walnut.
Anne and Lawrence Dowd, couple.
Lawrence had an adze but he couldn’t hew. Stared at the barn for long minutes and said the roof had an uneven slope. Anne told him to stop staring at the barn; people would think him crazy.
He said they were in the house alone; who else would notice? She thought her own opinion of him was enough. She had lavish dreams about balls in that barn. Wondered if such a thing ever happened. Dreamt she danced with a blond man. She stared into the rafters and saw Lawrence crying, sitting on a bale. His tears did not bother her. Not during the dream, not afterward. She never much liked blond men before that dream but did afterward. Thought she should, having dreamt about one. Had no interest in other men, though, but did wonder if Lawrence could be blond. He was brown through and through: eyes, hair, even skin a bit dark. So she was stuck: this dream, this reality, this husband who stares and stares.
As a reader, I felt towards Oblations a bit like this wife feels towards her husband. I bring my own “lavish dreams” of poetry to whatever I read, and perhaps they interfere when I am trying to absorb a literary reality that does not value lyricism as highly as I do. My fantasies of reeling, single-sentence rhapsodies à la George Mackay Brown were never fulfilled, and I felt guilty for feeling disappointed, because this dark-eyed book has real virtues. So many contemporary poets, from the Language poets to the flarfists to Tony Hoagland with his half-despairing shopping mall odes, are drunk on information, media, and (post)modernity. Nick Ripatrazone, whose fiction has appeared in Esquire as well as The Kenyon Review, has a rock-solid faith in the sufficiency of narrative: not the sufficiency of neat epiphanies and portents, but the ability of a story to satisfy. There is a brazen weight to the silent loves and anxieties of his country people; his priests deal with everyday troubles; his ball-players are Homeric in their rituals and their prowess and their lack of introspection. Unmistakably American and Midwestern, if Oblations were a film from the last year, it would be Winter’s Bone.
Technique is not flashy, but its repetitiveness means that it is certainly not unobtrusive. All the poems are one page long. The sentences vary little in their length and rhythm. Characters are introduced with a few exact details in curt, headless sentences: a device that reminds me of the directions in screenplays. Each poem tends to end with a zinger. Here is a sampling:
All things only needed time to disappoint.
Only an inch of us needs to be cold for our entire body to know the feeling.
Living bodies plus dead languages equaled new emotions.
She never even knew he played the game.
The sketches flamed in a ten-gallon drum, going wherever smoke goes
and staying there.
He took the train somewhere, and wherever that was, he remained.
Are words really necessary?
What is truth?
None of these parting shots really resolve the narrative, but they goad us to reflect, and to re-read for missing clues. There is something bracing and manly about this book. If you like bourbon, baseball, and dirty realism, you should go for it.
Meredith Wise is a Dappled Things Assistant Editor and a graduate student in classics at the University of Kentucky. She blogs about poetry at For Keats' Sake! (forkeatssake.blogspot.com).