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TRICKS OF LIGHT – Selected Poems by Thaddeus Rutkowski – Review

Selected Poems by Thaddeus Rutkowski
100 pages, Great Weather For Media

I am one of those people who can find connections and associations between concepts and coincidences in just about any situation. I’ll be thinking about someone and then they call me or send me a message. I love connecting the dots of current events with astrological shifts and I have blamed mercury retrograde for unfortunate events as many times as I have thanked my lucky stars for good fortune.

Tricks of Light cover Thaddeus Rutkowski

I started reading Thaddeus Rutkowski’s book of poetry, Tricks of Light, in the first week of April. At that time the Governor of Arizona, (where I live) had announced that we were to observe “shelter in place” to help “flatten the curve” and reduce cases of COVID-19.

The speaker in Tricks of Light makes simple philosophical observations and engages with people on a limited basis, but for the most part, one could imagine him being in quarantine during a pandemic.

The odd coincidence of the feeling of the poems in this book, and reading it while living through a plague, made me think Rutkowski had hopped into a time machine and came back to have this book published before the Coronavirus was a matter to be taken seriously.

Many of the poems in Tricks of Light come from a place of solitude. Even if the speaker is in nature, as in “Claw Marks,” he is alone. He speaks of seeing evidence that a bear was once at the spot where he stands, and has left “dents just far enough apart / to indicate fingernails, or an animal’s nails, or the claws of a bear hungry for beechnuts.” But now, “The bear is long gone.”

While reading Tricks of Light and living alone (with my three year old daughter), I have felt a certain comfort in sharing the lonliness of the speaker of this book. With its expressive tone, conversational directness and philosophical observations, one could imagine the author of these poems being in quarantine right with you.

The first poem, “Just One Word,” gives the reader a sense that the speaker is isolated, in a solitary world.

“…I thought “my” might be more specific,
might let you know the window
belonged to me. And the whole text,
other than the word, was about me,
about my state of mind….”

A few pages in, “Being Alone” could be the anthem for people in self-quarantine:

When I’m alone with myself,
I am not where I want to be.
There is just me.
There aren’t two of us,
It is not me and my shadow cavorting.
There is only one,
and that’s not enough to keep me company.
Sometimes, I don’t want myself around.
I want myself to go away,
but I can’t tell myself to do that.

Each poem in Tricks of Light might seem simple, a vignette that is meant to be taken at face value, but are communicating concepts that reach much deeper.

In “Personal Space,” Rutkowski writes about his surprise at his daughter asking for a hug and wanting to embrace her fully. He speaks as a parent would when they know that their child has outgrown hugs, and is no longer a child, but still a child who longs for a parent’s comfort, “…I squeeze my hands against her shoulder blades / and say, “Bear hug!” as I pull her toward me. / If I’m going to hug, I want it to be strong.”

The tension between the parent who wants the child to remain huggable and protected and the teenager who wants to be protected, but also independent, is painfully real, to both parents and children.

Rutkowski paints scenes in light and dark and uses his gift of sparing but powerful language to conjure poems that make you stop and shudder or open your mouth to take in a gulp of air.

“Compulsion” and “My Brother’s Passing” cut right to the flesh of painful experiences like anxiety disorders and death, which many don’t want to share with others and keep hidden within.

The raw honesty in “Compulsion” doesn’t communicate frustration, but the details of compulsion: “Before I leave our apartment, / I check the door in patterns of threes and sevens.” The frustration between the speaker of the poem and his young daughter who doesn’t understand the compulsion and tries to rationalize it by asking, “Are you afraid of someone breaking in?” is more powerful than expressing how a person who has been diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder might feel and how it affects parenting. The line, “Though that would not begin to express my fear,” tells us that the fear Rutkowski feels is far greater than what is rational in his daughter’s world.

In front of every shadow figure, against a world of darkness there is light to remind the reader that a less painful tomorrow is waiting around the corner. In his closing poem, “Let it Shine,” Rutkowski writes of a dream where, “clouds roll away / after lingering for days, / and the sun comes out suddenly, bathing people, buildings, and a few trees / in bright total light.”

I might sound Pollyannish when I say that we must believe the sun will come out someday; whatever difficulties the world is experiencing, it is a dream that we can awaken from. Rutkowski assures us that, “The sun is really shining. / This is no dream.”

–Amy Ouzoonian


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