Ryan Eckes, translated by Carlos Soto-Román
Libros del Pez Espiral, 2017
Fifty green stars on the cover; seven green stripes on the back cover, like something you’d see on a lounge chair at the beach. Are stars & stripes patriotic if they’re green? Is this patriotism a form of aestheticism? What is patriotism, anyway? With Eckes’ work, it makes sense to ask — not just because it’s the title, but because the poems read as variations on what living in the USA can involve, times when the “patriotic” doesn’t figure in obvious ways.
In “robert creeley” Eckes says that he and his ESL kids have been learning the English simple present. Back to basics, then. The poems “the money” and “the station” form a sort of dual portrait of everyday city violence, whether it be a stick-up in Philly or the violence of a subway name change accompanied by the fantasies inspired by a company motto (“Rethink possible”). Meanwhile, “a conversation” is just that, with topics ranging from voluntarily moves abroad to freedom of speech.
There is an unnamed cycle of poems in which every text begins “we’re…” (in mcglichey’s dancing to the juke-box; in a classroom, which is a store; in applebee’s, and you have a gun; in a greyhound station in baltimore w/ an hour to kill; doing unpaid work in the courtroom; driving down washington ave, listening to “wonderful tonight”). Anecdotal moments of injustice and meaningful but fleeting connections are chronicled. The scenes read like cleaned-up notes, tracking how hard it is just to stay focused and pay attention. Indignant sentiment about something happening in a far off country always seems to contrast with the insistent reality of a trivial thing going on right here.
Patriotism for Eckes and those he describes seems a lot like the fake chummy feel of a random group on a Greyhound bus, thrown together for a few hours. “so we’re a tribe. it’s communism, calm as a yawn till the next city, where we’ll be sucked out and dispersed by vacuums of identity. finally we board. the man next to me asks if i can watch his bag. sure i can.”
In “Dear Tom Paine, a letter”, Eckes recalls the time a hockey game was called “for patriotism”, in 2001. At the intermission, the big screen flipped to George W. Bush going on about America, Afghanistan, terrorists, cowards, bombs, etc.; the keyed-up crowd preferred to keep watching the president, rather than continue with Half 2 of the Flyers. The cancellation made Eckes feel ill and angry, and in his letter he anticipates the time when a game (or a war) is called for boredom.
The modern United States is tension-ridden and efficiently capitalistic, as everyone knows (“wal-marts and pet-smarts keep popping up all over”). But if unthinking patriotism isn’t the answer, what is? For now, Eckes suggests in an imitation cop lingo turned erotic, “let’s let this place be paradise before the next round of fires. take off all your clothes, and put your hands on my head”.
Eckes’ kind of poetry captures a moment and reflects what a lot of people feel capable of writing right now — something low-key, notes-y, avoiding bombast and capital letters, surreal when it fits the feel of a situation, realist at times a register is required. Poems by and about people who feel powerless or frustrated within the current version of patriotism (or patriotismo) and think that other absurd and beautiful realities might exist.
In Eckes’ “cooperation” a couple argues, but the situation is like a hallway in which “the stairs beg time after / time please separate us. but the operation / is too dangerous, the stairs must continue / to exist as a whole.” Is patriotism anything other than blind faith in the staircase?
— Jessica Sequeira