The Forever Notes by Ethel Rackin
Parlor Press, 2012; 78 pp
Reviewed by Paul French
Ethel Rackin’s The Forever Notes (Parlor Press, 2012) is a book of true variety. It’s one of those collections in which shifts in style and tone can be felt swiftly as new sections unfold (Rackin has three sections in this book: Notes, Pictures, and Songs.
The Forever Notes’ language is playful and even a bit wild at times (though this wildness is asylumed in stanzas of noetic control). I wasn’t surprised to see Susan Stewart, author of one of my favorite books of poetry, Columbarium, among the names listed in the book’s acknowledgments, as, like Rackin, she attempts to balance the cerebral and the whimsical together (often through ekphrasis). However, unlike Stewart, Rackin’s sense of humor is more prominent in her poetry. Most of the poems are very light—their frequent punning and quick delivery reminded me of Suzzane Buffam’s 2005 Past Imperfect.
Although The Forever Notes contains a lot of sterling work (poems like "Walking in Asheville" and "Ode to the River" for instance), there are several pieces (especially in the first section, Notes) that don’t make the mark (See Closer Poetry #3 below for an example). This is Rackin’s first collection, so it’s very possible she’s just getting warmed up. And I’d have to recommend it ultimately because of the potential this book’s author showcases in its hits.
Closer Poetry #3
Note: Before I start, I’ll point out how difficult it was to choose a poem for this installment. I struggled to select a keystone piece within The Forever Notes. The only one, I think, that approaches a condensation of major themes or that represents a mosaic of aesthetics is "Ode to the River," whose length makes it an onerous choice for bonafide close reading. So I sat the book down and spine tested it like a romance novel. After all, the only justice in the hardcore cruel world of poetry criticism is chance. Unbiased. Unprejudiced. Fair. Anyway, here’s what I landed on:
A Boat That’s a Raft
points toward the Atlantic in the shape of a star.
Its basic shape can be taut, is the song on a piano when played
so that the side facing a hand is the hand on the face that says
I’d really rather not.
Then there are those knots on the side of a sculpture born in 1999--
the year of graduation when cake was a substance to sink into
as garden is wander if you’re a wanderer, which you happen to be.
Title + Lines 1-3:
With her first line adding sentence to the title, Rackin subtracts any sense of static meditation by charging the piece with immediate momentum. From a poem that begins impatiently like this we can expect a lot of swift turns. The amending that-clause of the title is shifty—sort of silly in its excess (Why not call the poem, “A Raft”?)—and establishes a light tone. The first line tells us that this boat that’s a raft is “pointing toward the Atlantic in the shape of a star.” The raft image, at least for me, evokes Huck Finn and the idea of fast-flight adventure. It’s a symbol of independence and rebellion, which couples well with the star image that follows. However, at the same time and unlike a boat, a raft can easily represent isolation and endangerment, especially when pointed toward the vast Atlantic (this of course is suggestive of nationhood, as the so oft star-emblazoned U.S. of A. could be thought of as a shape pointing toward the Atlantic). And indeed it seems that Rackin’s poem does want us to think about shapes since the next line says, “Its basic shape can be taut.” This line…well, I don’t get it. I realize that what Rackin really wants us to hear is “taught,” but good wordplay has to work at least two ways. A shape that “can be taut”? I don’t see it. What does that look like? A shape that isn’t necessarily taut but that can be taut? Anyway, the reading of “taut” as “taught” moves us through the next half of line 2 and line 3 as we associate the idea of teaching with pianos. I say “piano” and Yahoo says “lessons” (yes, I know I’m an idiot for having an email with Yahoo, but hey, Rackin does too. I know. I looked). The “slightly flat” line, when read with the previous one, forms a riddle: What is a shape that is a song on a piano when played slightly flat? No clue. If you figure it out, email your answers to firstname.lastname@example.org . For my money, a sharp would make a better raft (#), but let’s move on.
In line 4, Rackin continues the light tone by saying that a hand that faces a hand is a hand on the face—“facing” having a double-meaning here. Since the facepalm is a ubiquitous image of displeasure, it follows that “I’d really rather not” would follow. Although, I’m not sure what kind of action is being resisted here. Is this an allusion to Bartleby? If so, why? Rackin uses “not” as a homophonic transition to “knots” in the next line where the speaker describes a sculpture “born in 1999.” (Speaking of “knots” there’s not much holding these lines together. I think my random spine strategy may have turned up one of the book’s weaker poems. Trust me when I say there are good ones. I mentioned them in my microreview above.) I think that this sculpture with knots to which the speaker is referring is a wedding cake since that’s what follows in the next line (I’m thinking those knotted trims on fondant cakes). I’m not sure what a wedding cake adds to the rest of the poem though (there might be too many ingredients here). In the final line, the speaker makes a strange analogy: “when cake was a substance to sink down into/ as garden is wander if you’re a wanderer, which you happen to be.” I don’t really have much to say about this one. “Wandering” might pair well with those rafting ideas I mentioned in my discussion of the first three lines, but by this point in the poem the raft has shrunk quite a bit in our rearview. I don’t know what the garden is all about. Are we talking about Adam & Eve wandering out of the garden? How is the garden “wander”? I’ve looked up the complete etymology of “wander,” and I still don’t understand. I’m a bit stumped here with this one. But maybe you’ve got better ideas. As always, feel free to start a discussion with us on our facebook page.