By Nick Ripatrazone


Gold Wake Press
April 2010

Reviewed by Andrew David King


Through a series of verbal portraits that hover over the line between compact prose and elusive poetry, Nick Ripatrazone's Oblations focuses on the most ostensibly atomic component of human society: human beings themselves. To refer to the "characters" in Oblations as such would, therefore, be a kind of mistake. From baseball players to priests, bad girls to train riders, the living ghosts that Ripatrazone conjures are far too real to be described with a term that likewise applies to cartoons. Fictional though they may be, while reading Oblations, each person (yes, person) exudes an unmistakable life-likeness.

Ripatrazone's skill with verisimilitude extends also to the environments around these people and the scenes in which they act. Situated largely in anonymous rural communities of some imaginary Midwest or elsewhere, these subjects are as defined by the empty space around them as by the small blocks of texts Ripatrazone provides for them. Against a backdrop of wilderness, human society protrudes awkwardly and unnaturally. What results is a sort of red, white, and blue existential crisis. The idea of isolation is as physical as it is mental—and even, one could argue, steeped in America's unique political history.

The last two stanzas of "Montoya," the first poem in the section titled "Miscellania," embody the best permutations of the style that brands Oblations. In this prose poem, about "a hostler from San Fernando" who "said he fought in two wars and wore scars on both thighs," every detail of the body becomes a detail of, perhaps, something more like a soul:

Said he had a woman in Pomona. He showed us folded sketches that creased along her thin nose. Her eyes were wide almonds. Later my husband said a lack of photographs is a lack of love.

Did we see that man cry. Leaning against the paddock, a montero on his head, gloves on his hands. The sketches flamed in a ten-gallon drum, going wherever smoke goes and staying there.

What saves these lines from sentimentality is their proud starkness, an honesty that rivets because of its plainness. The implicit narrator has nothing to hide, and that which is unknown—"wherever smoke goes"—remains detached from the thus-ness of the present moment. If each life or event in Oblations is analogous to a tree, an organism with a multiplicity of features, then these prose poems are samples drilled from their cores: the heart of each person or thing, the years and trials, made apparent.

Such an approach could easily trample over nuance, favoring instead predictable details and pseudo-answers to overarching questions. But in place of talky sophistry, Ripatrazone drops huge blocks of silence, uncomfortable but unmovable. Throughout the collection, it is these silences, these spaces, that either crush the individuals fatally or sculpt them into who they will become. One such space appears in "Barn: Thayer," which renders the odd rift shared by a Catholic man and his Lutheran wife on whose barn the Army Corps of Engineers painted a white cross to mark the limits of their property:

…Bill didn't think it a big deal. Thought about staining it chestnut but Tracy wouldn't let him. She walked, double-gloved, through the woods to find the next property. Brought a canteen and flashlight. Came back at dusk; Bill, on the porch, wore a told-you-so-look. She never told him what she'd found. But she did let him stain away the cross.

And in "Flophouse, Room 107," when a tenant complains about a leak in the ceiling, the owner arrives to inspect it, and ends up examining a makeshift object of worship:

A cross was painted along the ceiling sometime between 1976 and 1980. Tenant died. Owner stood on a chair, then a ladder, whitewashed the mark. Next tenant—a former ironworker from lower Detroit—repainted the cross. Painted it black with a purple outline. … Owner got on his knees, pressed his palm on the floor. Looked up. Thought that cross looked better than the previous one.

In these prose poems, notions of religion are hard to pin down because of their ambiguity. For the people who inhabit Oblations, the activity of praise is not separate from the act of living; every action can be interpreted metaphysically, if not spiritually. These hybrid poems are more than brilliant character studies: they rise to the level of miniature hagiographies. If there is an existential crisis in the heartland as conjured by the book, it seems to be backward, with essence preceding existence. What mists off all of these individuals and their lives, their situations and desires, is something like what might be called the "American ethos," if such a thing exists.

Reading Oblations, Edgar Lee Masters's Spoon River Anthology, for which Masters famously composed monologues for every grave in a fictional town cemetery, inevitably surfaces from memory. The people in Oblations interact less directly, tied together more by their similar obstacles than physical connections, although the latter are certainly there. Consider, for instance, that several chapters are dedicated to material structures like barns and churches. These homages to ways of life lend credence to the attempts by these modern-day townspeople and rural "settlers" to subdue not just the scenery but the emptiness it brings with it.

What Ripatrazone has achieved with this debut is nothing minimal: he has re-done Masters for the present day, and without much of the elder author's pompousness or pretension. Instead of copying him—a near-futile task, given how different colloquial speech and social norms are now—Ripatrazone presents an updated version of his project. Oblations distills that which defines a person down to a paragraph, and this emotional ore is precisely what the collection mines. Inside this book, consequently, handfuls of novels hide—though, mercifully, the author has chosen to present only their most compelling parts. Taken as a whole, the collection refutes the annoyingly persistent notion that, maybe, verbal concision and complexity of meaning are mutually exclusive.

The slow-burn style might not suit every reader; the collection occasionally slogs, but one gets the sense that the repetition of the prose-poem form is crucial to the taut yarn the book aims to weave by its end. More disruptive, though, is the collection's tendency to smear the portraits' subtler textures with bright red arrows, didactic clarifications that are well-intended but unnecessary. These moments are too many to be ignored, but not too many to be forgiven. Minor instances of these echo the thick straightforwardness of particular people; at their weakest, they unmask an external, semi-moralizing narrator. Such is the case with "Divine Providence," a poem from the section "Parishes," which ends as follows: "No answers to the small questions results in ignorance of the bigger concerns."

And yet the book contains a cornucopia of redemptive moments where Ripatrazone's knack for insight hits a target so perfectly that to not gawk at the bull's-eye would be impossible. In these places, the penetrating perceptions override any concern about "we" declarations and conjecture whatsoever. Take "To Luck," for instance, which ends as follows:

…We try to illustrate you through example, to trick you into revelation: we say that you are the element that allows a knock-kneed boy to cross the white finish line first in some indiscriminate Indiana school race, teachers and parents leaning over the fence, mouths agape, praising the boy but, between spoken words, thanking you.

Overall, Oblations fares well for all its audacity: it takes not just familiar objects but individuals whose seeming ubiquity has tamed them into tired archetypes—the crotchety farmer, the down-home baseball player, the everyman, and the no-man—and exalts them, allows them to transcend the boundaries of the community and country they hail from, to identify, ultimately, as human before American. The shakiness of the latter idea of nationality is still preserved, though, and with it a more accurate construal of the tug-of-war of the self's search for resolution. 

Though it may be true that the oblations these laypeople undertake contradict each other, they somehow constitute a whole. The people studied in this collection are, at different points, idiosyncratic, selfish, transcendental, misguided, eccentric, gifted, malformed, unwell, immoral, and even, in some respects, immortal—but whatever they are, they are genuine about their motivations. They see their lives as landscapes to converse with, to conquer and be conquered by in turn. And, most importantly, they live outside the book and emerge within it. They are "authentic"—a word that typically eludes definition but which, after reading Oblations, becomes entirely clear.