Everyone Just Wants to Drum by Kevin Rabas

Everyone Just Wants to Drum by Kevin Rabas

By Charles Rammelkamp

In the title piece of his new collection, in a brief section called “Prose Pieces,” Kevin Rabas, chair of the English Department at Emporia State University and poet laureate of Kansas from 2017-2019, tells the story of library night in Mulvane, KS, where he has been invited to participate. He stands by a sandwich board with an arrow pointing to Clowns & Activities and another arrow pointing to Poet Laureate. He stands by the appropriate sign with a table of books and his drums beside him. “I do a jazz poetry bit,” he tells us parenthetically.

Of course, nobody is particularly interested in poetry but makes straight for the face-painting and food trucks. But when Rabas begins with a measured, Brazilian beat” on the drums, a little kid with his mom gets interested, and soon enough Rabas is mobbed by kids wanting a chance at the cymbals, the snare, the tom-tom, “about 50 kids make their way through in an hour,” but of course  nobody sticks around for the poetry, he observes with good humor. “Everyone just wants to drum.”
But Rabas makes the point that the music is a form of poetic expression itself, and this theme holds up throughout the collection. Indeed, one whole section (the book is divided into nine sections), “Song Cycle: Poems at the Piano,” a suite of eight poems, was written in collaboration with the pianist Martin Cuellar. Each poem corresponds to a movement in a Tao Lin composition. One especially evocative poem is “Floating Clouds”:
Above us, clouds
sag with rain, as if they
carry heavy sacks. They move now
with weight. Then, rain,
and those clouds run,
sleek and thin
on to another pasture, another
town, water
rising and following.
Another section of ten poems is entitled “Music,” with titles like “Jazz Standards,” “Know the Notes,” “How composed music hopes” and “Quartet.” The poem “Crazy” is after the Patsy Cline song:
I know everyone,
every girl sings
Patsy’s Crazy
at karaoke, but
in this little rusted-
out bar my drink
burns with your voice.
Most of the poems in Everyone Just Wants to Drum are short, focused like haiku, more about image and reflection than narrative. Indeed, many have the impact of “Observations,” the title of the final, twelve-poem section. “Hail,” for instance, succinctly shows us a hailstorm:
How the hail, pea-sized,
  froghops on the lawn,
bright white, rock-like, misshapen,
  and sounds like bags
of marbles being dropped
  on top the roof
The sections entitled “Time Off,” “Words, Language,” and “At the Gym, the Gas Station, the Coffee Shop” are likewise little epiphanies of examination, celebrations of the everyday. What could be more ordinary than a gym, a gas station or a coffee shop, after all? “On the Road,” from “Time Off,” reads:
Rain coming, the black cows
lie down in the green and wait
for droplets, for a summer
shower like a lover’s
touch, all hazy
and indigo, late June
in east central Kansas
along the turnpike, driving
the grey ribbon
that never ends.
Simple but vivid, Rabas shows you the passing scene in all its modest, quotidian beauty, like something from a Japanese haiku indeed, as you drive along the mind-numbing freeway going from point A to point B. The cows settle in, the soothing, life-giving rain about to begin, the drab hypnotic pavement unspooling ahead.
Rabas teaches playwriting at Emporia State as well, and thus another of his short “observations” from the “Words, Language” section paints another powerful, dramatic picture:
That white noise murmur
of the house with the lights up
before the show, what
heaven might be like
at first, before we know
the words.
A short, five-poem section called “Disquiet” seems to address a time of mental anxiety. But the drum is back in “Mom Brings My Drum to Menninger’s,” an apparent reference to the psychiatric clinic in Houston.
How that
garage sale conga
held what I knew
and needed,
when I thumped
my story
across its skin.
And the orderlies
said, That’s ok, sonny.
You can play that,
play that again.
And thus we come full circle to music and expression and to poetry and the mental and emotional impulses that move and are moved by the words and the music. There’s a quiet wisdom in Kevin Rabas’ work, even a subtle “therapy” at work, as well, as if these are the very things you really need to stay sane in our turbulent world – the poetry, the music. Because face it, everyone just wants to drum.
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) http://poetscoop.org/manuscrip/Time%20Is%20on%20My%20Side%20FREE.pdf