By Larissa Shmailo
Like a Chinese-Polish American cross between Rod Serling and Emily Dickinson, Thaddeus Rutkowski invites you to the portals of mind and matter in Border Crossings. In this first collection of poems, the fiction writer and performance artist presents carefully sculpted, deceptively simple verses of immediate interest to the reader, typically with an understated but potent twist.
Whether at the boundaries between cultures, the edges of human interiority, or the trespasses of racism, trapdoors usually closed shut are pried open in Border Crossings. “Light and Shadow,” among the poems opening the book, describes the poet’s initial conflict moving in and out of hidden places:
My father opens a trapdoor
and leads me down concrete stairs
. . .
I don’t want to stay.
Spiders scrunch in the corners,
and pieces of copper tubing—
. . .
litter the floor
. . .
Spiders notwithstanding, the poet finds himself liking the smell of horsehair cement in the cellar and wanting to stay there. The rest of the volume’s poems proceed to traverse borders to the secret and unknown.
As Rutkowski comes to love cellars, so he comes to love spiders. The collection reveals the rurally reared poet’s childlike fascination with spiders, bees, flies, rodents, raptors, tree frogs, and other animalia of crevices and corners. There is both a love for the honest presence of nature’s smallest and a vampire’s interest in “little lives”:
I can see and hear it now,
the crazy path of flight at blinding speed,
the inevitable, the unavoidable, hitting,
when the crazy fly comes into contact
with the eye, with the bed,
buzzing around upside down,
for the crazy fly has no great sense of equilibrium.
. . .
I stand back
while a hyper bird perches on a jumbo stalk
so another can feed on the multi seeds
next to the mad mud hole.
Perhaps these innocent animals offer a kind of escape from other, more malevolent creatures. From “Party Animals”:
I throw a party
. . .
Another guest says
he killed people
who looked like me
when he was in Vietnam.
The kindness of nature juxtaposes vividly with the descriptions of rednecks and racists literally at the poet’s door; the conjunction is reminiscent of Viktor Frankl seeing hope and life in a sparrow perched outside his Auschwitz barracks window. The violent racists cross borders in threatening trespass and are held back spiritually by the poet’s integrity and wit, with the help of small loving lives.
As a veteran performance poet and ranter, Rutkowski routinely crosses audience boundaries with épater-le-bourgeoisie material. A common edgy theme is sex, delivered with deadpan. From “Nine Rules for No Sex”:
No kissing with a cold sore.
No kissing with a sore throat.
No thoughtless pressing, rubbing or brushing.
No fingering with long nails.
No fingering with hangnails.
No foolish fingering . . . .
The motion is sometimes toward stand-up comedy, as in “Anarchist Manifesto” ( “I believe in anarchy, / but not if everybody goes wild.”) The same wry humor obtains as the poet finds his Asian roots in food and found poems; “Found Poem, Hong Kong Museum”:
When you are finished tilling the soil,
spading seedlings, weeding, winnowing,
hulling, grinding and pounding,
you may enjoy
the silky yellow rice,
the dry sticky rice,
the rat’s tooth rice,
the little flowery waist rice,
and the yellow husk full brow rice.
The poet encourages forays into the unknown, but with realism and caveats. Despite the “disappointing” toilet facilities of foreign places, and the shock of strange invertebrate foods, Rutkowski reminds us in the poem, “Border Crossing,” that “it’s the people we want to see.” And cautions his reader:
So let’s think twice before we cross
the twenty yards of no-man’s-land.
I know you want to get there
as fast as we can.
You can find the book here: https://sensitiveskinmagazine.com/books/border-crossings/
Larissa Shmailo is an American poet, novelist, translator, and critic. Her poetry collections are Medusa’s Country, #specialcharacters, In Paran, the chapbook A Cure for Suicide, and the e-book Fib Sequence; her latest novel is Patient Women. Shmailo’s work has appeared in Plume, the Brooklyn Rail, Fulcrum, the Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, the Journal of Poetics Research, Drunken Boat, Barrow Street, and the anthologies Measure for Measure: An Anthology of Poetic Meters, Words for the Wedding, Contemporary Russian Poetry, Resist Much/Obey Little: Poems for the Inaugural, and many others. Shmailo is the original English-language translator of the world’s first performance piece, Victory over the Sun by Alexei Kruchenych. Shmailo also edited the anthology Twenty-first Century Russian Poetry and has been a translator on the Russian Bible for the American Bible Society. Please see more about Shmailo at her website at http://www.larissashmailo.com and Wikipedia athttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Larissa_Shmailo.