This is Not About Birds
by Nick Ripatrazone
Gold Wake Press, $12.95 paperback, 83 pp.
While Nick Ripatrazone’s This is Not About Birds might seem, based on its title, to be tongue in cheek collection; the title poem reveals this book to be deeply focused on loss. As the poem unfolds, a series of vignettes focused on swallows begins to gather momentum, and suddenly the poem seems to blur before your eyes as the focus shifts from, “ forked, cream-spotted tails sputtering/ through wind” to something more sinister: a bird, “promised that one day it would be/ on our table, center gutted, a prize for us to eat” and in that moment the reader might realize that this is a poem (and a collection) centered around the quiet brutality of growing up. How we must learn to hurt and to be hurt, to begin to ask a stream of questions for which there is no clear answer. To accept the loss of a world we thought was timeless, and ultimately that whatever is given to us in this lifetime never comes without sacrifice.
Ripatrazone has an ear for the density of sound, and the poems’ shapes reflect this attention. They are solid blocks on the page, overgrowing with sections, the odd couplet, even a few staggered lines. The poem “Ann”, a poem about the speaker reading to his mother, offers us a directive to, “savor/ the sounds like good caramel”. This is sound advice for a reader. This is not a collection that can be devoured in swift bites. Read these poems aloud, let the pockets full of alliteration and the rhythms melt on your tongue, “spooling and spinning, feathered chervil/ fluttering like paused breaths”(Mildew. Minnesota).
But for all of Ripatrazone’s attention to sharp, forceful diction, some of his poems soften and become playful. It is in these poems that the poet is at his best. One gets the feeling of being a part of the past world where many of these poems take place. It is as though the poet is still able to inhabit the world of his teenage self, thrust into the liminality between understanding what it means to be an adult and beginning to feel like an adult. One of the best examples in This Is Not About Birds is a poem titled “Marilyn and Carl”. In it the poet simplifies his diction, “she liked/ that, and also liked his hair/ brushed back”. The poem brims with nostalgia, filled with bikes, forked roads, and secrets. Even the internal rhymes in this poem seem to suggest that these personas are not far removed from their childhood. For them, the sadness is only just beginning, and takes the form of innocent love kept from its recipient.
Yet, this collection is not simply focused on the loss of childhood. There is a deep vein of longing for a simpler time. This longing is reflected in poems like “Jill” about two children exploring, “the last automat in the world”. Ripatrazone writes:
meringue and huckleberry pie slices,
baked beans cold, pasted to the plate.
We ran extension cords back to our deck
and lit the food again after all these years.
I felt like coffee but my nickels dropped
straight toward the return slot. No need
to turn the knob. No reason to wait.
Here, the final image reflects this longing through a relic, broken and unable to give to the speaker what he desires. This is the thread that weaves throughout the collection, the sense that struggling against the quicksand of time is futile. That the simple diction, the simple time of finding abandoned places and riding bikes is gone forever, but the poet does offer glimmers of hope here and there, and these are perhaps the poems that will most firmly lodge themselves in the readers psyche.
One such example of a glimmer is in the poem “This is How You Remove a Hook”. The poet writes, “ the trout will die/ unless you learn to move// with a mixture of speed and care” and perhaps this is the answer to the question that the entire collection seems to pose: how do we resurrect anything? These things might be those discarded in the woods behind a house, places long forgotten, people, a pigeon at the train station, even the trout that this poem centers around. The solution seems to be that we cannot try to hold on to these things for too long, that we must hold them briefly, capture them only momentarily, and then release. This is something at which Ripatrazone succeeds.