By: Brett Eugene Ralph
Reviewed by: Michael O. Marberry
Sarabande Books, 2009
In his poem “Firm Against the Pattern,” the first of twenty-nine poems in his new collection titled Black Sabbatical, poet Brett Eugene Ralph writes: “Closing my eyes, I extended my tongue / and pressed it firm against the pattern: / I tasted yesterday’s rain, / the carcasses of moths, / broken glances, tears, / the smoke of not-so-distant fires— / all those desperate gestures / we collect and call the seasons.” These lines, so reminiscent in their focus, set the tone for Black Sabbatical—a collection that frequently hopes to navigate the connections between character, place, and memory. Luckily, the poems here are more than “desperate gestures.” They are wonderfully balanced and insightful explorations into the southern United States, avoiding the clichés and pitfalls often accompanying such backward-glancing poetry.
Throughout Black Sabbatical, Ralph writes as if he’s part punk rocker, part prophet—encapsulating scenes in an oft-challenging but always honest manner. In his strikingly clear voice, Ralph has the rare ability to write about seemingly anything—from Buddha to braying donkeys to wrinkly dollar bills, often in adjacent poems—with relative ease, never trivializing his subjects but, rather, making them appear equally important in some grander scheme, if only for a fleeting moment. His poems wrestle with abortion, atomic bombs, and Mrs. Butterworth bottles brimming full with homemade wine. They take place among friends in farmhouses (“Firm Against the Pattern”), with lovers in a bar talking “above the roar / of a terrible metal band” (“Spooky”), and on a couch with perfect strangers, “bathed // blue” from the light of the television (“Handicapped Van Conversion”). Somehow, Ralph makes all of these things—very different in their own right—seem utterly at home with one another. It all feels very natural.
Yet, it’s a certain Southern sensibility and musicality throughout Black Sabbatical that will likely attract most readers. And though we do catch brief glimpses of traditional rural iconography, each work evolves beyond the classic image into something unique. Ralph effectively encapsulates the eccentricities and peculiarities that make the region so special, in a rhythm that feels at once like a throwback and, oddly enough, like something new and fresh. Better yet, he does all this in a way that isn’t backhanded, patronizing, or grossly exaggerated—which is the unfortunate mistake that too many writers make when describing southern life. Whether writing about mischievous teenagers (“Reindeer Games”), maniacal women (“Tree Limbs Letting Go of Snow”), or dead poets (“Elegy for Lorri”), there’s a certain charm in Ralph’s characters and their settings because it seems that Ralph himself admires and respects them, that he isn’t judging them callously nor does he feel the need to enact punishment on them. Ralph’s South, as he depicts it, is certainly a circus, but it’s no sideshow, thankfully. In fact, perhaps the only criticism of Black Sabbatical, if there is one, is that the poems without a clear main character lack some of the charm of their counterparts.
Towards the end of Black Sabbatical, in the poem sharing the same name, Ralph writes: “I’m free to prostrate myself / on the sidewalk, an acorn / consummated by raindrops, / free to lap like a stray // at an oil-emblazoned puddle. / No one takes note of me— / a miracle!” Let’s hope this isn’t really the case—that people will in fact take note of Brett Eugene Ralph and Black Sabbatical, a poet as honest and a collection as consistently strong as anything else currently out there. July 2009
Michael O. Marberry lives in Northport, Ala.