» Book Review
Riding Out the Storm
The Night We Set the Dead Kid on Fire by Ephraim Scott Sommers
Tebot Bach, 2017
94 pages, paper, $16
In storytelling, the phrase “coming of age” is as ubiquitous as “once upon a time,” yet the trope has led to some of our most beloved and widely read literature, from On the Road and Catcher in the Rye to children’s book series like Harry Potter or even Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie set. Ephraim Scott Sommers’ poetry collection The Night We Set the Dead Kid on Fire, released earlier this year by Tebot Bach, carves out its own niche in the “coming of age” canon that reflects the raw realities of twenty-first–century family life and employs the creative use of language and musicality that makes poetry enjoyable as well as thought-provoking. It’s all there: the boozy adventures, the bad decisions, the wayward wanderings of youth, but you don’t need to have a long trail of destruction to look back on in your life to appreciate the themes, images, and wordplay in Sommers’ collection. There are many entry points into this fine work.
The starting point of Sommers’ journey is his family and friends in his hometown of Atascadero, California, which is a logical starting point for the sort of reflection this collection promises. There is a lot of alcohol. There is generational violence. Yet there is also a respect for and humanization of deeply flawed but deeply loved people. There is a warmth in the childhood memories of dirty work boots stomping down a hallway or a diesel engine idling just outside the bedroom window. The poet places a certain reverence on his family members and close friends through stark imagery, a hallmark of this collection. In “The Hardest Thing,” a poem about the difficulties of forgiveness, is Aunt Diane who “scorches / a pork shoulder with a blow torch / and spits Skoal onto the back of a golden / retriever[.]” In “Shotgun Christmas,” the poem’s speaker is a child waking from a nightmare to find that “Santa won’t arrive in your doorway, but your mother will, / barefoot, in a nightgown and curlers with a sawed-off / shotgun dangling from her right hand.” The members of this family lack polish, but are strong, protective, and fierce. The poems bear both ambivalence and undeniable love.
Despite the warmth and respect the poet affords the characters of his earlier life, many of the poems are starkly honest about the difficulties of life in Atascadero and the unhealthy coping mechanisms that the men and women of Atascadero—including the “I” and “you” speaker of many of the poems—have adopted as a result. While a bulk of the collection speaks to this idea, one of the best examples is the tragically complacent “A-Town Blood,” wherein heroin use is “great Pegasus rides to the dragon-heights / of clouds above a Chevron parking lot,” and where the best way to escape the boredom and the pure existential dread of drone strikes and mass shootings and nuclear meltdowns is smoking weed in a blue lawn chair. Meeting one’s buddies at the bar after everyone gets off from their construction jobs leads to drinking, snorting coke in the bathroom, and “shitting in a urinal or ninja-kicking / the sink off the wall” as a remedy for drudgery and malaise bordering on despair, for powerlessness parading as denial.
As the collection progresses, we see a shift toward stability, maturity, a shift toward a different type of profession, to a long-term romantic relationship, to the inevitable settling down. Poems like “Labor Day” and “Memorial Day,” with their hard partying and heavy drinking, give way to “Us Sleeping in on the Fifth of July,” where the early inklings of love are the high instead of drugs. The substance of addiction is a person. In “The Dirty Tangerine,” the speaker’s “greatest adult discovery” is “that not everything / of these bodies we share between us must be sexual[,]” and slowly we see committed-relationship love replacing familial love and the love of childhood friendships. The speaker and his lover create a new sense of home away from Atascadero.
Poems of California shift to poems of Michigan. There is a metaphorical and, at times, literal loss of family and old friends. It is a shift both in terms of geography and loyalties, and in the poems that result from that shift, we see the poet’s complicated emotions regarding it. There is guilt mixed with a strong sense of inner conflict, of wanting to run, of wanting to stay. “Tornado Warning” tells the story of a man riding out a storm in Michigan while his father lies in a hospital bed in California. The father becomes a stand-in for Atascadero itself, and natural disasters like drought and tornado are stand-ins for the family disaster the man feels is his own doing. This and poems like “Forgettable City” highlight separation and loneliness. Leaving Atascadero for good is wrapped up in leaving family, in abandoning while feeling abandoned. And the old adage about not being able to go home again proves true in “Judas Home for Good Friday.” Here, the speaker calls himself a traitor, “the local rat on his knees, / knuckling a front door bloody, screaming, I still love you, / Atascadero, you bitch!” Perhaps this is why so many poems toward the end of the collection have such a strong sense of farewell and bittersweet nostalgia, a progression that I found deeply satisfying as a reader.
But it’s not just the familiar coming-of-age themes that avid readers of poetry will appreciate in this collection. Sommers’ use of language is musical and just plain fun. For instance, he often turns nouns into verbs. A group of hungry drunks “hurricane” inside an In ‘N Out Burger. During a trip to the emergency room, “[t]he fragrance / of fear windmills through us[.]” And in “Ruby,” the speaker tells her that “no one in the universe can / black-dress and macchiato-skin / into Club Soda like you[.]”
And the entire collection is typified by a frenetic stream of consciousness that gives the reader a sense of tumbling headfirst down the page. In the midst of this not unpleasant madness, many poems are touched here and there with particularly lovely moments of melody and striking imagery, as in “O Hospital Holy” when “our questions grow down / from the ceiling, solidify like stalactites[.]” The images emerge in sudden bursts, forcing the reader to slow, to stop, to reflect.
The stream-of-consciousness style in earlier poems seems to mirror moments of wild youth. In later poems, the same style conveys a sense of being overwhelmed and overpowered, of asking, as Sommers does, “What will we do with all the world’s unhappiness?” It was only in reading these later poems that I realized the earlier poems do not function as mere nostalgia, but as attempts at self-preservation. To move beyond the past and make peace with a sometimes frightening present becomes a new challenge for the poet who closes the collection on a note of hopefulness, pointing out that “we are only beginning to live.”
The interplay between form and content creates a collection of very accessible poems. Whether your entry point is, as it was for me, the subject matter and themes or the crafting of musical language that draws many readers to poetry, there is a lot to appreciate here for longtime fans of the genre and newcomers alike.
We’re also happy to present two new poems by Ephraim Scott Sommers.