A review of Thaddeus Rutkowski's Border Crossing
Sensitive Skin Books
Thaddeus Rutkowski is a sneaky poet. In this collection of poetry we first see a table of contents listing seventy-one poems most with short, rather pedestrian sounding titles: “Another Person” “The Crazy Fly” “Pizza Wish” “Anarchist Manifesto” “Hong Kong” and “Hong Kong Supper” and “Healthy Choices”. They don’t exactly foreshadow intricate or gut punching poetry. A few titles, “Holy Quixote” “Mistaken as Woodchuck, Wife Shot” and “Joe Machine”, might hint otherwise. So, we enter this collection carrying assumptions that not much lies ahead. And the size and shape of the poems reinforce that assumption as flipping through the pages show most of the work to be short and rather blocky. But we shouldn’t be so hasty in our judgement.
Rutkowski’s poems are not typical. They are well crafted, though somewhat odd. There is a surrealist mind at work in these compositions. Some poems are extremely surprising. Others are more subtly engaging, yet strong enough to make the reader head right back to the first lines to work down the page again, marveling at the odd point of view and the unusual arrangement of words.
The poems are drawn on very small segments of experienced moments, observations, travel, family and perhaps, seemingly befuddled mind meanderings. The opening poem, “Another Person” contains thirty words in eleven short lines. After two couplets of fairly typical thoughts –“Become another person,/ Shout, “Surprise!”//Clasp hands./ Make no noise. we arrive at “Touch foreheads./Suffer a shiner. Followed by five lines of, again, more typical poetic language. Those five words in the middle of this little poem immediately begin to show us that this guy isn’t typical.
Mr. Rutkowski is of Polish-Chinese heritage and many of his poems address this heritage and include observations about family members and the problems of dealing with racial discrimination. “Harassment” describes the family home being pelted by schoolboys throwing rotten apples, smearing the outside walls. The poem ends with “No one ever cleaned the walls./ The lumps dried onto the paint.” It is such an understated poem from the beginning until those final lines. Until then we might think that the narrator was not bothered at all by the childish prank of his classmates.
Throughout this collection we find surreal poems that are as humorous as they are puzzling. “Holy Quixote” begins “Miguel de Cervantes,/ in a mood like mine” and ends eight lines later with “Here is a dead Escudero./ Why today?” The eight lines between the opening and closing offer a strange narrative of finding a body and calling the family together – including his missing seventeen-year-old wife. It’s a funny poem, somewhat, in the way “Don Quixote” is often oddly funny. Another particularly strange poem “Spider Central” involves, of course, spiders and begins with the line “An itsy-bitsy spider vibrates”. Descriptions of spiders doing their work go on for five quatrains of language that is common yet arranged in a fresh and rhythmic way.
The poems of travel often focus on food or the very small encounters during the journey. A sequence of five poems about a trip to China begins with concerns about bathrooms on the other side of the border, street food passed up for chicken a la king at KFC, different kinds of rice in a Hong Kong Museum, enough acceptance of those differences to try street food, and finally a discussion about choosing a bus route. As much is revealed about the traveler as about places visited in these short pieces.
And that is the way of this entire collection. By the final entry the reader will have been engaged, amused and entertained, and perhaps a little bit enlightened by these border crossing poems. Some are just a tiny bit too clever as the poet stretches, but the rest are most satisfying as they draw us in and allow us to join in the poet’s slightly skewed view of the world. This collection is certainly worth the investment in time and hard-earned cash.
Jim Bourey is an old poet who divides his time between the northern Adirondack Mountains and Dover, DE. His chapbook Silence, Interrupted was published in 2015 by the Broadkill River Press and won first place for poetry chapbook in the Delaware Press Association writing competition. His work has appeared in Mojave River Review, Stillwater Review, Blue Nib, Paddock Review, Broadkill Review and other journals and anthologies. He is also a regular contributor of book reviews for the Broadkill Review. He has been an adjudicator for Delaware Poetry Out Loud and can often be found reading aloud in dark rooms.