Book Review

Evening, a new chapbook by Ethel Rackin, is an exquisite collection of poems that uses song to intermingle self and place, creating a fluidity born of incantation, repetition and permutations that is primal and hypnotic. Rackin’s language is rich with wordplay, double meanings and subtle cross-references that never distract us from her pure lyricism and unflinching insights.

Rackin has published two full-length collections: The Forever Notes and Go On. She wrote Evening in-between these collections. Evening begins exactly where The Forever Notes concludes, in a section called “Song,” with the line: “This must be the place.” Rackin evokes evening as a transitional time: from daylight, to the golden hour, sunset, twilight, and the dark. It’s a time when changing light reorders sight and awakens feelings that the day has dulled. It’s useful to read the poems in chronological order to appreciate the carefully crafted links between poems and the arc of evening itself.

“Homing,” the first section in Evening, initiates an intense interrogation of place that exposes its paradoxical “circularity” (home/trap) as well as its fecundity with “summer opening / once more.” In “St. George’s,” we are told, “This is our inheritance— / for we have come back” to a place untamed by the “brick road that leads to the new hospital”; to the “mournful cries” of “cahow birds singing—” In “Composition,” which begins with “She’s a sewer of phrases,” words become slippery; “sew” and its homophone “sow” harmonize in a spell-like song that leads us away from any concrete place (whether “in Long Beach or Long Branch”) and into a psychological landscape in which “she thinks evening—and the surf comes in.”

These transformative lyrical actions are not without risk, as “No Need for Epiphany” makes poignantly clear:

Each word, a solitary thing.
A moment drawn on a branch.
A moment in which repetition
Becomes a gnawing, haunting thing

Alone, the speaker doubts anything that connects words: syntax, grammar, or the tug of the line. The imagination fails to provide release: “A moment drawn on a branch” sinks into abstraction and cannot become visible, in contrast to Pound’s famous haiku that this line echoes. The phrase “A moment” in the next line is a refrain named as repetition, and this naming immediately transforms it into “a gnawing, haunting thing,” not at all like song but instead its opposite—silence—materialized “as a wren flies over / an area’s dive motel.” The song breaks down as the last stanza offers a last hope:

Or could this music
Harbor such sadness
Carry it to the mouth
From which flows
The strongest tide?

The primeval, oracular “mouth” threatens to consume the speaker, while the poem refuses to explain itself, resisting the binary as well as the transcendent in favor of a lonely and terrible music that offers no certainties beyond song itself.

“Homing” concludes with “House on the Other Side,” which ends with the couplet, “as if the older one grew / the more transparent.” Here, we find ourselves at the end of the place “on the other side,” our selves now “transparent” and untethered from the physicality of our bodies and of place itself—yet the feeling of entrapment remains, even intensifies.

Now, Rackin significantly pivots from loss to praise in the second section, “Ode.” This sequence of titled poems follows the ode’s tradition of praise in a song form, here infused with a Buddhist acknowledgement of suffering and paradox. This is the golden hour that “Green,” “Evening,” “Path,” “Friends,” “Dog,” and “Jay” all celebrate with wit and humor. Then, in “Celebrity,” the light darkens. The repetition of “existence” and “stones” creates a rough-edged song where praise competes with mortality. The gravity of the poem is offset by its musicality, disarming us until the last line, “some acquaintance in stone,” which mocks the fleeting nature of celebrity with a headstone that offers “acquaintance” with remembrance, not a real relationship.

“Ode” praises paradox as a means of insight. In “Day,” “Those who came / came to the park to be glad—” although they finally desire a more ambiguous “way to be built back in.” In “Room,” disrepair and brokenness are praised as a catalyst. The “settling foundation” lets “dreams arrive in you—” as the “sofa begins to drift / the wingback turns—” Here the poem leaves us in a tilted, unsettled place that includes praise and the haunting effects of time, a coupling that in turn incites the “dreams” that inspire these poems.

Evening fittingly concludes with the section “Vespers,” referencing a song-centered ecclesiastical evening service. In “The Night Sky,” the speaker echoes the night sky’s words, “be calm, waves / be calm,” and so experiences the natural world with newfound confidence. She chants, “be calm, waves, I said / be calm night sky, and wait/stay still, bird, breathe—”

Song (as incantation) holds the poem together, but breath is now not only a precursor to song, but also a reflex that must be controlled as we “stay still” in a darkness that includes unseen peril. “Something It Is” disperses this predatory presence through a humorous play on the name “Bluebeard,” referring to the flower but still retaining another, sexual reference in the childlike round “only in rain— / under a canopy / in a canoe.”

It is a short respite. The raw declaration of “What in the World” relocates peril inside the speaker who simultaneously states and asks:

what in the world would I do
what in the world would I be doing
if not loving you
what in the world would I do
I who have so long loved you

Repetitions and permutations reach a fever pitch in “Decay Song,” which begins, “Every second of every day I’m dying / in my cheap shoes and expensive dress” and concludes, “I’ll catch a strong breeze / under the still nameless tree / and keep dying.” The final poem “Grapevine,” deconstructs song itself as the repetitions of “this way” and “that way” are first sung. “This way is candy / that way is fruit in the trash,” then stripped out as the poem falls into a prose list: “this way is candy, fruit in the trash, lipstick stains . . . ” and finally, “treasure.” Night falls, and just as darkness isolates and obscures, so each word or phrase is isolated in a list that offers no promise of more to come. The seeming finality of night is the opposite of the circularity of song, but do we believe everything we hear on the grapevine? Morning will come and we will go on; this final unspoken truth is perhaps our “treasure”—or a trap—a perfect example of how Rackin’s poems set the mind ablaze.

About the Reviewer

Randall Potts is the author of Trickster (University of Iowa Press, 2014) and Collision Center (O Books,1994) as well as a chapbook, Recant: (A Revision) (Leave Books, 1994). He attended the Iowa Writer's Workshop and has taught creative writing at the University of San Francisco and California College of the Arts. He lives in Bellingham Washington.