charles rammelkamp

Alexander Pushkin Dies in a Duel by Charles Rammelkamp


A. A. Naumov. Alexander Pushkin’s duel with Georges d’Anthès.
Public Domain

Alexander Pushkin Dies in a Duel

How would you react
to an anonymous lampoon
awarding you the title,
Deputy Grand Master of the Order of Cuckolds?
We were sure it was the work of Baron d’Anthès.
He’d been sniffing around Pushkin’s wife
in Saint Petersburg society,
but to my knowledge,
the beautiful Natalia’d rejected him.
Married six years, four children,
Pushkin was as certain of her fidelity
as he was of d’Anthès’s mischief.
Sure, tongues wagged as they always will
when a stunning beauty’s involved –
some called Natalia Russia’s Helen of Troy,
and no denying she was a flirt.
She had so many admirers.
But the mock letter couldn’t be ignored,
and even though the Baron denied writing it –
and face it, it wasn’t exactly Eugene Onegin, 
the week after d’Anthès’s marriage
to Natalia’s sister Yekaterina,
the two of them met at Chernaya Rekha
on the outskirts of Saint Petersburg,
a cold day at the end of January.
Charles Rammelkamp is Prose Editor for BrickHouse Books in Baltimore and Reviews Editor for The Adirondack Review. A chapbook of poems, Jack Tar’s Lady Parts, is available from Main Street Rag Publishing. Another poetry chapbook, Me and Sal Paradise, was recently published by FutureCycle Press. An e-chapbook has also recently been published online Time Is on My Side (yes it is)

Playlist: A Poem by David Lehman

By Charles Rammelkamp
Reminiscent of his 2000 collection, The Daily Mirror, which is a kind of daily diary of poems, Playlist is also a collection of daily poems, these written from November 20, 2017, through January 15, 2018.  But more so than the previous collection, these poems are conceived of as a single work, a single poem in homage to and an elegy for his friend, the poet A. R. Ammons (“Archie”). As in the previous collection, but perhaps with a greater emphasis, more in the foreground – as indicated by the title – jazz and classical music form a sort of soundtrack to his thoughts and impressions. Movies, the weather, and poets are also recurring themes in both works.
Lehman explains his long acquaintance and collaboration with Ammons in a foreword. Indeed, the form of Playlist is itself an homage to his mentor, whose 1964 Tape for the Turn of the Year is also a long diary poem. Like Ammons, too, Lehman uses punctuation sparingly, basically just commas. This style mimics the free flow of jazz notes, a musical style to which both were devoted. Ammons taught at Cornell, in Ithaca, NY, and Lehman a hundred miles away in Clinton, where he is on the faculty at Hamilton College.  They met in 1974 and enjoyed a long, warm, collaborative friendship until Ammons’ death in 2001.
Several of Lehman’s verses directly address his friend, starting with the first, 11/20/2017, which begins:
Dear Archie, today
I drove past 606 Hanshaw Road
where you haven’t lived
since 1993…
Noting Archie had “left us // in February 2001, a week before / you would have turned seventy-five,” Lehman goes on:
I thought of your coil
of tape for the turn
of the year while I was driving
and listening to the radio
and deciding I would write
this poem to you, old friend.
Ten days later he writes, on 11/30/2017
Hey Archie,
I thought of dialing your phone number today
to see if I can still make you laugh…
He goes on to recall a joke they’d shared.  In 12/4/2017, there’s another joke, following a direct, loving poetic invocation:
Archie you must be my guide now
be to me what Virgil
was to Dante, what Rousseau
was to Shelley. I made you laugh
today we were talking about Lolita
the movie, with Shelley Winters
as the poor mother of the nymphet
and I said, “If Shelley Winters comes,
can spring be far behind?”
Archie, your guide was the wind
Mine is the voice
of Cecile McLorin Salvant, “Nothing
like you has ever been seen before”
Lehman refers to other female jazz vocalists throughout. On consecutive days, 11/24/2017 and 1/25/2017, it is Peggy Lee. Subtitled “Comes Love,” 11/25/17 begins:
I’d be a beggar or a knave for you
Peggy Lee, “Why Don’t You Do Right?”
and why Lee Wiley?
you’ll find my reasoning is logically sound
and if that isn’t love it’ll have to do
Ella Fitzgerald, June Hutton, Rosemary Clooney, Billie Holiday and others make appearances, as do movie stars. December 15, 16 and 17 are meditations on Alfred Hitchcock films and their stars. “I Live in Hitchcock’s America,” begins 12/17/17 . “Hitchcock’s America” is the title of an essay Lehman once wrote:
As one who has written on “Hitchcock’s America”
I keep waiting for a magazine editor to ask me to write
“Hitchcock’s Blondes”
who was the most beautiful of all
Stacey says Grace Kelly and I guess I agree though Ingrid Bergman…
The poem goes on to mention Kim Novak in Vertigo, Eva Marie Saint in North by Northwest, Janet Leigh (Psycho) and Tippi Hedren (The Birds and Marnie).
Similarly, The Godfather is alluded to in several poems (11/26/17 and 12/26/17). “‘One O’Clock Jump’ with Count Basie now / that’ll grab your attention…” the latter begins before muting the sound to listen to dialogue from The Godfather, and we can hear Marlon Brando: “I don’t like violence, Tom. I’m a businessman. / Blood is a big expense….”
On 1/8/18 and 1/10/18, there’s a focus on the stock market. “Jazz is the music of the stock market / As it zigs and zags…” in 1/8 and in 1/10: “and the Dow is now / in positive territory / erasing earlier losses”: ah, there’s the reason for the interest! That poem goes on: “The two most boring words / in the language are / ‘Russia investigation’”
Is it any wonder that the next day’s poem, 1/11/18, is subtitled “Fake News”?
On the last day, 1/15/18, Lehman laments he is
happy to be alive
sad to bring this
poem to an end,
propose a toast to Archie
and concludes sweetly
the music was great
from Ithaca to New York City
with you beside me.
On top of an impressive knowledge of music and movies, though never in the form of “lecture,” Playlist entertains and engages the reader and is a sweet accolade for a dear old friend.
Charles Rammelkamp is Prose Editor for BrickHouse Books in Baltimore and Reviews Editor for The Adirondack Review. A chapbook of poems, Jack Tar’s Lady Parts, is available from Main Street Rag Publishing. Another poetry chapbook, Me and Sal Paradise, was recently published by FutureCycle Press. An e-chapbook has also recently been published online Time Is on My Side (yes it is)

Playground by Joe Benevento

By Charles Rammelkamp
The themes of regret and longing are so potent in Joe Benevento’s work. From his rueful observations about his father’s life and mortality in “Stay-at-Home Dad” (“At 89, a cane reliant diabetic”) to his memory of a girl he had a crush on in school (“Marilyn Meshak”), you can feel his heart aching:
Maybe she lives like me an anonymous life,
maybe she died young and is all the more my ghost,
either way, we are as far from our days
sharing a school building, a bus stop,
a neighborhood as it’s possible to be,
more time past only making my dreams more
redundant, pained, to wake up and uncover
how I’ll never tell her
what I felt, and, so, still feel,
how I’ll never know her, and, so
somehow making everyone unknowable,
unreachable, whether awake, alone
or, finally,
asleep together.
The poet recognizes this penchant for grief and remorse, with some ambivalence. “Miami Night with Marjorie and Todd” concludes:
            a suspension of my disbelief in the magical
            realness of my future possibilities, from this city
            with too much music, friendship and night
            life for me to insist any longer
            on my regret.
Life is so fleeting; how do we not regret its losses? Indeed, this is so succinctly spelled out in his sonnet, “Loser,” which begins with an epigraph from Whitman’s “Song of Myself”: “Battles are lost in the same spirit in which they are won.”
The qualities of loss often conceal
how winning is a limit and a lie,
since human nature would much rather deal
with touchdown dances than with kids who cry
their disbelief we just want them to try
their best. They know better, they know too well
winning gets parades, applause, proud eyes
that say well done, instead of damn it, hell,
how did you miss that pitch, that pass, oh, well,
            we’ll practice more, or send you to a camp,
some place where they do all they can to sell
you on the notion that there’s just one stamp,
one way to court the dark drug of winning,
to hide how life is loss from the beginning.
And so we feel the sting of his awareness that nothing is permanent, in another poem prefaced by a line from Whitman, this time from “When Lilacs Last in Dooryard Bloom’d”: “In the day, in the night, to all, to each, / Sooner or later delicate death.” In this poem Benevento is walking his ancient dog on the rain-dampened streets that are crawling with earthworms; it is his father’s 91st birthday, and the poet is “derailed by the near / certainty Dad will never see ninety-two.” The dog’s imminent mortality weighs on him as well; “and a tear trickles down for my dad, my dog, / myself, even for the worms I may be running over.”
As in his 2015 book, Expecting Songbirds, another sweetheart from his youth, Sylvia Ramos, makes an appearance and provokes his yearning. Even more than Marilyn Meshak, Sylvia’s memory fills him with longing and a sense of missed opportunities. In “After Driving to See Sylvia in Nebraska,” the poet encounters his ex-flame from his youth in Queens, a “mixture of beguiling beauty tempered by modesty,” and struggles with his feelings of what might have been but resolves “to remain // the faithful knight to her maddening Dulcinea,” a reference to Don Quixote’s ideal in Cervantes’ novel.
Another kind of regret is humorously expressed in “After I Realized I Didn’t Have Enough Money,” a poem about college tuition for his children, in which his longing and lament come back to haunt him when his daughter wants to go away to college: “she has spent her first eighteen years listening / to my nostalgia for a larger world.”  Call it poetic justice! The poem’s ending likewise brings a smile:
…I’m wishing I was bankrupt
enough to become an administrator,
or foolish enough to believe in the lottery,
some other magic means to protect my long
cherished claim money doesn’t matter.
There are eight “After” poems in this collection (“After Zoraida Martinez Saved Me from Divine Word Seminary” is an example); the very construction of such a sentiment, regarding an event in the rearview mirror, is likewise a trigger for misgivings and second guesses.
Poems, such as “No Competition,” “‘I’m never going to dream of fairies’,” and “After Math” are ones in which Benevento’s heart aches for his children, their expectations and future, let alone their well-being. In “Unsettled” he observes, he “never underestimates / the odds of disease, accident, or, at least / the predicted contempt of their teenaged years.”
 But in the final poem, “Physical Therapy,” the poet acknowledges his good fortune in the midst of all the inevitable loss that life entails. He’s getting help from a young therapist for “a right ‘shoulder impingement’” whose “shooting pain” is bearable, but in the long-run, compared to his siblings and mother-in-law, afflicted by various cancers, he’s been pretty lucky. He concedes:
I can live with the pain, or better still,
avoid it almost entirely, if I remember
evermore not to reach too far above
or for anything behind.
Keep your expectations low, and don’t go rooting around in the past for things you can never change? Is this the cautionary message? Physician, heal thyself!

You can find the book here:


Charles Rammelkamp is Prose Editor for Brick House Books in Baltimore, where he lives, and Reviews Editor for Adirondack Review. His most recent books include American Zeitgeist(Apprentice House) and a chapbook, Jack Tar’s Lady Parts ( Main Street Rag Press). Another poetry chapbook, Me and Sal Paradise, is forthcoming from Future Cycle Press.

Enforced Rustication in the Cultural Revolution by Jianqing Zheng

By Charles Rammelkamp
Ezra Pound, that great Imagist,
said, “Memories
are the white hairs of the heart.”


So begins the poem, “Memories,” in Jianqing Zheng’s collection of poems about the time he spent after high school in the Chinese countryside, during the Cultural Revolution, in the late 1960’s, early 1970’s.  Launched by Chairman Mao, the goal of the Cultural Revolution was to purge remnants of capitalist and traditional elements from Chinese society.  In keeping with this goal, urban high school graduates were sent to the country to be “re-educated” by the peasants.  These poems, then, are essentially Zheng’s memories of that time. They are also, notably, often written in the imagistic form, characteristic not only of Pound’s poetry but of traditional Chinese poetry as well.

Mao Zedong’s memory is central to this collection, as well. It opens with the poem, “Picture-taking in the Cultural Revolution,” on an image of the narrator having his graduation photograph taken, close to half a century ago. “With a Chairman Mao badge / pinned on my cotton coat,” he writes, the photographer directs him through the process, but just as the flashbulb goes off, Zheng blinks. “In the resulting picture // only Mao’s eyes were open, / not smiling.”.

The title of the penultimate poem in the collection, “Maostalgia,” a clever play on the concept of these memories, succinctly describes the whole rustication process he endured.

The art of losing wasn’t hard to get. I lost my voice in the Chinese Cultural
Revolution brandishing Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book and shouting
my heart out for his long, long life.
The process, for Zheng, goes from initial fervor – or at least accepting the validity of the goal of his rustication – to if not exactly bitterness, certainly to weary resignation.  The poem goes on:
One afternoon while I was picking cotton under the September sun, a
local peasant came over to tell in a casual voice that Mao died. “Oh!” I
responded and went on picking.  I was hungry; I cursed the sun for not
sinking faster…
The poem ends with a Pound-like image:
Great Wall tour –
each souvenir still sells
Chairman Mao badges.
In the poem that immediately precedes this one, “Responses,” Zheng writes:
We line up toward the Memorial Hall,
my four-year-old son twitters,
“Papa, who’s Chairman Mao?”

The short answer, of course, is “he’s the guy who completely shook up my life when I was a teenager.”  But Zheng merely points to the portrait above the gate of Tiananmen and replies, “He’s hanging over there.”  Zheng, who immigrated to the United States many years ago, now lives in Mississippi, where he works for the University of Mississippi Press.

But the bulk of the poems in this collection are indeed imagistic, without editorial comment, and take us through the daily and seasonal tedium of life in the country, working in rice paddies, planting and picking cotton, interacting with a variety of co-workers (Yi, Pigsy, Horse among them).  “Night Life on the Farm,” “Morning Chat,” “Lunchtime,” “Break,” “Before Supper,” “Rice Planting,” “Man on the Front Porch,” “Playing Solitaire”: the titles of these poems and many others like them tell you the quotidian subjects of the verse, the implicit tedium that is not without a certain serenity as well. “In the Cotton Fields” begins: “Cotton picking is as drab as reciting / Chairman Mao’s little red book.” If this wry observation is not enough to convey the thought, consider the gorgeous image of the final stanza, like something out of a French Impressionist painting:

My eyes blurring,
straw hats float like life preservers
in a white sea of cotton.
The food is as bland and uninspiring as the work. “ At / night, our life was as flat as our farm work, tasteless as rice and pickled / turnips we ate each day.” In “Lunchtime,” more of the same:
Back from the rice paddies for lunch, we slump down on the porch, listless
as dogs. Chopsticks stir slowly in bowls to pick out tiny rocks; white
rice and brined turnips are tasteless as day.

The poem “Hunger” continues this theme of bland tedium.

Are you hungry? If you are,
stop and graze by the creek.
I’ll try the sunset.
I don’t even have ten fens
to buy a bowl of re gan mian
in a roadside eatery.
The setting sun on the horizon
is like a piece of ham
my stomach keeps rumbling for.
Later on in the poem he writes:
The sky is growing ash-gray.
The sun has set within me.
I’m full, full of rumbles
in my stomach. I want to slip
into a dream, a dream of feast…

By the time we get to the poem, “Waiting,” we can feel the desolation brought on by the tedium. “When can I also go back to town? / I’ve been waiting the whole winter….” The poem concludes with his resignation: “I clench my desperation, listening / to frozen rain tinkling the roof….”

In the next poem, “Goodbye,” Zheng gets his wish.  He leaves the farm before dawn, his college admission letter in his pocket, going without fanfare, not wanting to endure the goodbyes of his workmates

Looking into Hu’s eyes
black as bullet holes and desperate
as if with claustrophobia,
I crook a faint smile,
my mouth twitching without words.
Last night he cried over wine
at my farewell party. A handshake,
I throw myself into drizzle.

There’s a calm stillness in these poems that belies the seriousness of this time for millions of lives, but the impact is nevertheless felt in these spare, imagistic verses.

You can find the book here:


Charles Rammelkamp is Prose Editor for Brick House Books in Baltimore, where he lives, and Reviews Editor for Adirondack Review. His most recent books include American Zeitgeist(Apprentice House) and a chapbook, Jack Tar’s Lady Parts ( Main Street Rag Press). Another poetry chapbook, Me and Sal Paradise, is forthcoming from Future Cycle Press.

The Middle Ground by Jeff Ewing

middle ground

By Charles Rammelkamp

The characters in the nineteen stories that make up Jeff Ewing’s new collection, The Middle Ground, all seem to be trying to come to terms with bleak realities for which they bear some responsibility but whose fuzzy dimensions go way beyond their grasp. Indeed, as the story “Coast Starlight” begins: “Clifford could have been anyone, though no one from around here.”

In the story, Clifford, who may be a con man after all, fills a waitress’s mind with fantasies of movie stardom. Elena. Elena’s daughter asks her, “Don’t you wish something exciting would happen to you just once?” Elena remembers Clifford, then. Elena is married to the dull but reliable Matias. When she makes an impulsive trip to Los Angeles (aboard a train called the Coast Starlight) in a half-baked plan to pursue the dream of stardom, only to return to the stoic but forgiving Matias, you’d think there might be a moral here, like something out of The Wizard of Oz.  “No place like home.” But no, at the end Elena, if somehow wiser, is still indecisive, hovering ghost-like in the middle ground.

What is the middle ground? In the eponymous story, another one in which a parent and child clash over dreams, Ewing writes of the son, “He was one of those who can’t think any further than the negation of things. No nuance, no middle ground.” In the middle ground there are no clear answers to the situations people find themselves in. Maybe this, maybe that. Some of this, some of that.

Indeed, several of the characters in these stories deal with an unexpected celebrity that seems to shine a light on their lives, but only in a confused and upsetting way. The little girl Anna in “Lake Mary Jane” who is bitten by an alligator while she is swimming becomes a fleeting figure of interest, and she is forced to consider events in a new light. “When the gator had bit down, it was just a thing that was happening to her.” Then come the doctors, the reporters. Her dad and a character named Emily (mother? sister?) react in complicated ways. Finally, somebody shoots a gator in the lake they claim was the one that bit Anna. But her reaction? “All she knew was it had left its mark on her, which is what love does.”

In the first story, “Tule Fog,” the narrator remembers his high school girlfriend Lisa who became a celebrity of her own, giving motivational speeches, selling books and DVDs, on the subject of “Moving On.” She clearly moved on from the narrator, who feels stuck in his bleak California town where “no one anywhere, not even the dead, will wish they were here.” It should be noted that Lisa dies in an airplane accident near Lake Tahoe. “It took over a year for the wreckage to be discovered….”

Similarly, in “Coast Starlight,” as she’s finishing her shift at the diner, Elena comes upon another waitress, Shelly, flipping through a National Enquirer and, “tsking and shaking her head” at the shenanigans of the dubious famous people whose shenanigans are detailed in the scandal sheet.

“These people got everything you could want, and nine times out of ten they piss it away,” she said.

Elena asks her coworker, “You think it’s different here?”

“Jesus, yes. Are you kidding? Nobody’s got anything to piss away.”

It’s strange and perplexing how right there in the middle ground where nothing is clearly one thing or another how events will make you feel your insignificance. And certainly this seems to be the great challenge for so many of the characters in these stories, this urge for a meaning to one’s life. The very title of the final story in this collection, “Hiddenfolk,” gives a hint to the great trials most of these characters face. “Dick Fleming is Lost” gives another, a story in which the protagonist, George, becomes obsessed with the whereabouts of a former classmate, who has gone missing.  “Maybe Dick Fleming would be found,” the story concludes, “and maybe he wouldn’t. Either way he was no longer alone.”

The stories in The Middle Ground are bleak but thought-provoking and end with the same ambiguity with which they begin, though indeed there is always a kind of resolution. Nothing ever quite ends “happily ever after,” but the characters all reach a kind of self-understanding that makes their destinies easier to accept.

You can find the book here:


Charles Rammelkamp is Prose Editor for Brick House Books in Baltimore, where he lives, and Reviews Editor for Adirondack Review. His most recent books include American Zeitgeist(Apprentice House) and a chapbook, Jack Tar’s Lady Parts ( Main Street Rag Press). Another poetry chapbook, Me and Sal Paradise, is forthcoming from Future Cycle Press.



Shame by Iris N. Schwartz


By Charles Rammelkamp

The fifteen stories that make up Iris N. Schwartz’s new collection of stories have a sort of New York Jewish sensibility and magic that make one think of Bernard Malamud. The characters are Malamudian – lonely, neurotic, vaguely troubled, slightly clueless. Take Joseph Fein, a character in the title story. Joseph is 38 and for some reason is in Hudson View Rehabilitation, wearing diapers. It’s apparently a temporary condition. He hopes to return to full continence soon. In the meantime, he needs assistance changing his diapers, and the story goes into great detail as the nurse, a woman named Giselle, maneuvers him around his bed, protecting his modesty as best she can while doing her job, wiping him up, securing him in the diaper. Joseph is plainly mortified and doesn’t get the woman’s name – she’s just a function. But if Joseph is the one who is ashamed in his isolation, we get the sense that Giselle is also alienated. She’s rescued at the end by a cup of coffee.

In some stories dreams and waking consciousness are confused together with an effect like some of Malamud’s stories in The Magic Barrel.  Belle, in “At Liberty,” dreams of her wedding gown, which she has discarded along with the man she married. She’d married Benjy impulsively, almost out of desperation, but it soon became all too clear how limited he was.  Not only was he a boring lover, but Belle “often imagined casting a fishing rod into Benjy’s throat to find and reel in synonyms superior to the words he chose.” Especially the word “nice.” Benjy drives Belle nuts calling everything “nice”: clothing, movies, food, everything.

Belle’s dreams are full of guilt for the wedding dress, which she has tossed into a garbage can in the basement of her apartment building.  She dreams she sees the wedding dress soiled in a nearby vacant lot. She dreams an older woman commands her to rescue and bury the dress. Yet when she wakes up and goes for a walk, she discovers “between every shrub and flowerbed, were sleeves, hems, bodices,” and she is happy, no longer feeling guilt. “Her gown had found a home — ‘a very nice’ home.” Try not to laugh reading that line!

Similarly, in “Fur,” a woman named Dahlia is starved for the affection of a cat; she feels “feline deprived.” She falls asleep and is awakened by the doorbell. When she opens the door, she is greeted by a Maine Coon standing erect on two feet, wearing a blue suit. He asks her if she is ready to go shopping for cats. “Dahlia smiled. ‘Give me ten minutes, please. I’ll need to get dressed and get my coat.’” Which is the dream, which reality?

“Safety First” is another story in which dreams and guilt mix potently. Narrated in the first person by a divorced woman, we learn that the protagonist dreams of her ex-husband trying to kill himself.  “He was gasping, red-faced, kicking his legs over a knocked-over chair.” Again, she dreams of him, picking at a nail on his big toe, blood bubbling from his foot. “By the second dream, I knew I couldn’t save him.”

All of these characters are seemingly stuck in their sense of remorse, their shame. This is true not just of Joseph and Giselle, Dahlia, Belle and the unnamed narrator of “Safety First,” but of the anal hygiene-freak protagonist of “Franklin Is In” and Paula Baumgarten in “Ever After,” the longest story in the collection, which also involves a failed marriage and the sense of regret that inevitably follows.

Two stories, “Nickled-and-Dimed” and “Dime-Store Bandits,” involve a pair of sisters, Imogene and Lenore, girls who have not quite reached puberty yet. In the first, Lenore, the younger sister, swallows a buffalo head nickel and Imogene calls 911. The upshot is that they have to alert their parents, who are out on a date together for the first time in years. In “Dime-Store Bandits,” Imogene watches, fascinated, as her younger sister pilfers candy from a Luncheonette, “nabbing Chunkys and Bazookas by the handful and shoving them into a back pocket.” Imogene, who like all older siblings is something of a cop, reporting bad behavior to their parents, is nevertheless “impressed” by her younger sister’s boldness and decides not to rat Lenore out. “After all, Mother didn’t need to know everything, did she?” Inspired, she goes to Woolworths and shoplifts herself! Childhood is full of stories of guilt and transgression.

A handful of the stories in Shame – “Gifts from God,” “Dogs,” “Yellow,” “Excuses,” “Age” – are micro-fictions that strike with the force of epiphany. Indeed, all of Schwartz’s fictions are succinct and dreamlike, hypnotic and enchanting, with the beguiling charm of Bernard Malamud stories.


You can find the book here:


Charles Rammelkamp is Prose Editor for Brick House Books in Baltimore, where he lives, and Reviews Editor for Adirondack Review. His most recent books include American Zeitgeist(Apprentice House) and a chapbook, Jack Tar’s Lady Parts ( Main Street Rag Press). Another poetry chapbook, Me and Sal Paradise, is forthcoming from Future Cycle Press.




Ghostographs: An Album by Maria Romasco Moore


By Charles Rammelkamp

Subtitled An Album, Ghostographs is like the memoir of an alternate universe. In her Author’s Note, Maria Romasco Moore mentions buying a Whitman’s Sampler box full of fading photographs of strangers at an antiques market in Altoona, Pennsylvania, when she was a child and imagining the lives of the people in the snapshots. That’s Ghostographs in a nutshell. The thirty-three short fictions that make up the book are all accompanied by the photographs that inspired them. Yet they all add up to a picture of a small town in post-industrial America, though with certain magical additions.

An example of how Moore’s imagination works is the story, “Aunt Beryl.” First, though, you must realize that there are a handful of aunts, as we learn in the story, “My Great Aunts,” accompanied by a photograph of five middle-aged women surrounding a child. “I had more of them than was strictly necessary,” she writes, displaying her sly sense of humor. “Everybody said so.”

Aunt Beryl is one of these aunts. The photograph that inspires her story shows two small children in the foreground, the black-and-white photograph overexposed as family photos tended to be back in the day, the faces washed out, hard to distinguish. The shadow of a woman in a hat stands before them; the sun behind her, her shadow shows a figure wearing a floppy hat. The story begins, “I’ve met her many times, but I couldn’t tell you what she looks like. I never once got a good look at her face.” She goes on to describe the floppy hat. “In my memories of her, it is the hat that stands out most. I would recognize that hat anywhere.” Indeed, the hat on the shadow figure hangs over each side of the face like forlorn donkey’s ears.

Moore sketches the town with its iconic landmarks – the abyss, a potent metaphor, like Hades in Greek mythology (“We were proud that a town as small as ours had an abyss of its own.”); the river that runs through the town. Back in the day, the river ran milk and people brought their glass bottles there to fill them. Then came the factories, and soon the milk was gone. In its place, molten glass, irregular jeans, clusters of caramel popcorn. And then the factories disappeared, and this indeed is how small-town America has evolved over time. This story is accompanied by a black and white snapshot of what appears to be a family swimming in a river.

“The River” is followed by “My Father,” with a photograph of a man standing in the river. “…my father made his living fishing for phantoms.” He “sold his ghost fish to the butcher, who knew how to prepare them….”
Thus Moore casually sneaks in references to her most potent theme – the haunting of the past that leaks into the present. And isn’t that what “an album” is? Take the photo album off the shelf, blow away the dust, look at the photographs of yourself and your family decades ago! Indeed, this is the secret of the title, Ghostographs – for just as “photography” literally means “writing with light,” these are the stories of ghosts caught by a camera lens.

It’s no surprise, then, that light and shadow, light and darkness are apt metaphors in Ghostographs. In stories like “Different Kinds of Light” and “Light” and “God in the Garden” we learn, via her grandfather, about the many kinds of light. (“Time is a kind of light, my grandpa told me,” she writes in the story, “Time.”) A girl named Tess, whose story is accompanied by an overexposed photograph of a little girl in a white dress, such that the girl glows, luminescent, is so radiant that “Moths migrated from miles around just to throw themselves at her…It hurt our eyes to look straight at her.” Later, Tess loses the light and in the children’s games of hide and seek, she is impossible to locate!

Three of the stories are entitled “Hide and Seek” and this is yet another of the threads Moore weaves through her collection. It’s easy to make the connection between visible and invisible, light and dark, the dichotomy of ghost and person in that pair of words.

Moore introduces a number of memorable characters, in addition to Tess. There is Lewis, a disdainful contemporary who grows in stature and at last becomes unrecognizable. There are the aunts, Edna and Ruth, Beryl and Millie, a woman named Hannah, the postman’s wife, who sends away for a mail-order baby. There is Rhoda, who adopts a baby pig, is rumored to suckle it at her breast. “Lewis saw her holding its front trotters in her hands, trying to teach it to walk on two legs.” (A photograph of a woman cuddling a pig accompanies this story.) There is Mabel, who “slept all summer and only woke up when it snowed.” And there are her father and mother and sister and grandpa.

The final story, “Ghost Town,” is almost elegiac in tone, accompanied by a photograph in which nothing can be clearly distinguished – only ghostly images. It’s about that unnamed hometown, which might be Altoona, Pennsylvania, but could just as easily be Potawatomi Rapids, Michigan, or a thousand others like them. “…they aren’t the people I used to know. The people I used to know are only ghosts.”

Maria Romasco Moore has a vivid and empathetic imagination. Her stories honoring that very real alternate universe are a delight to read.

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Charles Rammelkamp is Prose Editor for Brick House Books in Baltimore, where he lives, and Reviews Editor for Adirondack Review. His most recent books include American Zeitgeist(Apprentice House) and a chapbook, Jack Tar’s Lady Parts ( Main Street Rag Press). Another poetry chapbook, Me and Sal Paradise, is forthcoming from Future Cycle Press.