When reading a collection of poetry, I carry with me a pack of simple, inexpensive colored bookmarks. Using a color code, I rip them into small pieces to mark important poems, poems to re-read, or poems that just don’t work. In the end I am left with a colorful, vivid first impression of the work. It is interesting to later look back and see if my opinions have changed; often I am less open and more critical of the work on a second or third reading. The bookmark rainbow created while reading The Rhubarb King by Sharon Chmielarz is mostly made of humdrum hues with the occasional brilliant flash of raw, unflinching color.
The Rhubarb King is broken up into three sections titled “The King” (the shortest), “Russian Garden”, and “Rooms” (the longest). This book is an exploration of Chmielarz’s roots and contains many poems concerning her father; sentimental, tender poems mixed with direct, confrontational poems aimed at his violent tendencies. Placing such poems side by side in general makes for interesting reading, enabling the reader to see the conflict of emotions created by the father. Many of the tender poems are quite lovely, taking the more mundane aspects of the man and humanizing them in the eyes of the daughter. But some of the poems only skate us across the surface, as in the closing of the poem “What He Handled or The Feel of Things”:
He never got over the feel of things.
When he was old, he took up a pen, that
awkward, little tool. On family-tree pages
he printed in names and dates, strikemarks
on a thin, papery wall, showing he’d been here,
made some elbow room on his way passing through.
She contrasts this compassionate image of an aging man with a clear picture of the violence he inflicted in “Washing My Face”:
This morning when I cupped my hands to rinse my face,
when I lifted them, eyes closed,
the image they carried
up out of nowhere, out of the water, after all these years,
that same old thing,
my father, bent over,
beating my mother; her twisted face. Bent over
This picture certainly jolts the reader, but doesn’t quite go far enough to imprint it in my mind. I sense a certain amount of distance from the terror of witnessing the act and I really wanted to be there with the daughter, to comfort her with my dismay. In another poem, “Duet In A Little Blue Church”, Chmielarz hints at schism between father and daughter, but never gives us enough information to get there with her:
Listening to him,
you’d think sorrow
joy the rose
light on snow.
You’d even think
sitting in the back pew,
unfrozen from frowning,
had opened a mouth, as echo.
Not all of Chmielarz’s poems are lacking, however. Some are generous, leaving us fat and satiated. There are two particularly ample poems in the second section: “From the Photo Album: The German Russians, Their Houses” and “Rosina, 1890”. Both pieces are richly detailed, using ordinary language to bring us in and keep us in the space of the poem, exemplified by this excerpt from “Rosina, 1890”:
Rosina at her little, clothed table will have pleasure
knowing she has saved the entrance fee,
ten American dollars, and the land officer’s
four dollars by staying in the U.S.S.R. After the war,
she’ll die for free, among the first, the old, the Germans
taken from their communes and starved under Stalin.
Another brilliant piece from the collection is “Garden”. The language, once again, is ordinary, but weaves together into distinct, clear images: “Parched gumbo skin; the face, a house of north and south / passages; ears, like yours and mine, caves; eyes, grottos.”
Reading Chmielarz’s The Rhubarb King, I moved smoothly from poem to poem, section to section. She brings us along on the necessary search for her father and explores her German Russian heritage with simple language and detailed descriptions.