thaddeus rutkowski

Appearances by Michael Collins

By Thaddeus Rutkowski
The title of Michael Collins’ new poetry collection suggests more than one way of seeing things. “Appearances” could indicate things that come into view or into existence. It also could mean the superficial or surface look of things, the way things merely seem. Both of these ideas are at work in these poems of life among people and life lived next to nature.
Near the beginning of the book (published by Saddle Road Press in Hilo, Hawaii), I found this brief poem, titled “Creation”:


The fleshy snowflakes
twisting blissfully down
through the faint breeze

seem to have been made
in the image of the paperweight
I would gaze at as a child,

a tiny half world upended
in beautiful flurry, set down at will
by a suddenly gigantic hand

to quiet and awe the eye.
Each stanza, save for the last, is constructed almost like a haiku, and like the classical Japanese form the poem concerns nature, starting with a reference to snow. But the thought turns inward as it becomes a memory of a paperweight owned in childhood. Another shift occurs in the third stanza, with a reference to a “gigantic hand,” as if a supreme force could cause the fall of snow—and could “upend” the world. By juxtaposing the very large with the very small, the poem asks how big we are, or how important we are, in the whole of the world and beyond. We have only our perception, our “eye,” to answer that question, and at the end we arrive at a state of “quiet and awe.”
Nature is in the process of being tamed in “Portraits of Soul,” a poem placed later in the collection:
The harbor’s a flurry of work:
juggernaut mowers crop the lawn,
bushes are trimmed, the sand is combed
and brushed away from the walkways,
a team sweeps and lines the clay courts,
boats bustle with gossip and cleaning—
Spring is here!
This excerpt offers a fairly straightforward description of a beach being prepared for human activity as the weather gets warmer. There is a feeling of excitement and anticipation. The area will become a spot of play and recreation. However, the poem takes a detour toward the philosophical in the following stanza: “Forms must be in things / and beings ever shaping space, / and these eyes that we have seen through, / must return to their visions’ graves.” I read this as meaning that “forms,” or objects that we see, are always changing with the forces that shape the space we live in. And all must come to an end, if our eyes, or what we see with, return to the “graves” of their perceptions. The poem ends with a kind of Zen koan: “Make something of what can’t exist.” The paradox of being and nothingness, of existence and nonexistence, cannot be resolved through reason, though it can be accepted through enlightenment. In this way, the last line of the poem functions as a koan. (I use the words “Zen” and “koan,” but to my recollection organized religion isn’t mentioned in this book.)
            Many of the poems in “Appearances” contain a visual element. “Harbor Mandala,” for example, consists of blocks of type arranged in a circle, with a block of type in the center. This pattern allows you to read the poem in different directionstop to bottom, side to side, or around the border. The effect enhances the contemplative quality of the words. As the eye wanders around the poem, certain phrases pop out (I could say “appear”): “i apprehend the amorphous dream,” “your skin creating visions,” “invited you into my soul.” It’s up to the reader to put these thoughts into more coherent order, or not. That “not” might be Collins’ message.
            You can find the book here: appearances.html
Thaddeus Rutkowski is the author of the prose books Guess and Check, Violent Outbursts, Haywire, Tetched and RoughhouseHaywire won the Members’ Choice Award, given by the Asian American Writers Workshop. He teaches at Sarah Lawrence College, Medgar Evers College and the Writer’s Voice of the West Side YMCA in New York. He received a fiction writing fellowship from the New York Foundation for the Arts.

Guess and Check by Thaddeus Rutkowski



By Carol Wierzbicki

Thad Rutkowski has made quite a franchise—one might even say genre—out of family dysfunction. I do not say this lightly or facetiously. In his previous autobiographical fiction Tetched (Behler Publications) and Roughhouse (Kaya Press), we meet a father with a persecution complex; a Chinese mother who’s mostly quiet and submissive but makes the occasional barbed retort; and a brother and sister who are just as isolated as Rutkowski’s protagonist, recognizing the symptoms but powerless to alleviate them.

Guess and Check is really a retrospective of Rutkowski’s mostly previously published work, exploring his experiences from his rural Pennsylvania childhood through his college years and finally adulthood in New York City.

In spite of the deadpan narrative, you find yourself rooting for the narrator, whether he’s on an awkward date (virtually all of them are in these stories) or just trying to endure one of his father’s often shrill rants (“’Enough!’” my father shouted. ‘I’ve had enough of you kids for a while.’”). His narrator’s detachment forms an eerie counterpoint to such histrionics. After reading just a few of these scenes, you can easily conclude that it’s his emotional evenness and writer’s/artist’s objectivity that has enabled him to survive the often volatile environment of the family unit.

What makes his prose surprisingly engaging is that just beneath the surface of his deadpan tone is a passionate will to survive, whether the challenges appear in interpersonal relations or grim workplace politics. And who among us would not identify with that?

Guess and Check is an odd title for a book. I marked the two passages where this phrase occurred. The first scenario has the narrator’s mother helping him with his algebra homework:

My mother looked at the same problem, worked for a minute and came up with an answer. For her, x simply equaled 4. According to the workbook, her answer was correct.

“How did you get that?” I asked.

“I can’t explain it in English,” she said. “I know the language of numbers.”

“Maybe I’ll just guess and check,” I said. “I’ll guess at an answer: then I’ll check to see if it works out.”

The second scenario involves a frightening nighttime storm rattling his childhood home. When the narrator wakes up the next morning, the stream nearby has overrun its banks and flooded fields:

I could cross the flooded field and walk up the hill on the other side. The problem was, there was nothing but brambles and tall grass on the other side.

I put on my insulated boots and got ready to go out. I didn’t know what I would find. I would have to guess and check.

Then I ran across this passage, toward the end of the book, where he muses on the often zigzag paths he takes when walking the streets of New York:

I want to find the hypotenuse, the shortest way…

Where are the hypotenuses in the city? Was this city planned by “experts” who had no sense of geometry? Did these experts forget the teachings of Euclid? Euclid of Alexandria would never have stood for this street pattern. He would have added some hypotenuses. And if Euclid couldn’t get the mayor and the City Council to adopt his plan, he would have brought in the big gun. He would have called on Ptolemy. A heavyweight like Claudius Ptolemy would have straightened out the local politicians and planners. This goes without saying. It is axiomatic.

I found this to be Rutkowski’s most profound statement in the book, while also incidentally being the most hilarious. It gives you the key to his whole world view. To him life situations—from being rejected as a child by other children, to the often absurd and confusing interactions with other New Yorkers, to the humdrum tedium of office jobs—are problems to be solved, like a math equation. There are angles to be navigated, risks to be calculated. He reduces possible catastrophes to a theorem in order to manage them, planting himself deeply in the hypothetical. A couple of pages after the above passage, he contemplates the possibility of his apartment being burgled:

Inside, the thief would work fast, but he wouldn’t be able to get out the front door because it has an illegal lock that requires a key on the inside. He will have to pick up items and throw them (gently) out the window to his friend waiting on the platform. Then they will both have to jump down to the sidewalk and run. On one trip, they could carry a couple of thin computers and a flat-screen TV. If no one stops them, they can stash the first batch of stolen items in a fence’s warehouse and come back for seconds.

Now I understand the meaning of the title: In Rutkowski’s hypervigilant mind, it is always a question of look or leap. He must guess and check. And guess and check, again.

This is a rewarding read for anyone interested in family dynamics, or the challenges of coming of age and raising one’s own family in a big city, or who just wants a satisfying compilation of Rutkowski’s oeuvre. The long list of publication credits at the back of the book attests to the success of his “franchise.”

You can find the book here:

Carol Wierzbicki’s reviews have appeared in The Brooklyn Rail and American Book Review. Her work has been published in Long Shot, Public Illumination, Evergreen Review, Big Bridge, Many Mountains Moving, The Otter, and The Bug Book (Poets Wear Prada).

Guess and Check by Thaddeus Rutkowski Released


Gival Press is pleased to announce that Thaddeus Rutkowski’s latest book Guess and Check, creative nonfiction, has been released.

The book, a collection of stories, which is a Giron/Valdez Series for Unique Voices in Literature Book has work praised by John Barth as “ . . . tough and funny and touching and harrowing.” And most recently the review by Kirkus Reviews states: “A stark, engrossing, Hemingway-esque portrait of a life spent in the margins.

“Story by story, Thaddeus Rutkowski snaps into place the puzzle of a mixed-race kid playing dumb in Guess and Check’s Appalachia. Much more than the postmodern sum of its parts, Guess and Check is spare, subtle and deadpan, Charles Simic married to Joyce Carol Oates. A beautifully constructed delicate narrative, a near dream of a book, a place ‘vulnerable to anyone who wants to break through the glass.’”—Terese Svoboda, author of Bohemian Girl

You can find the book here:

Rutkowski_Thaddeus_Crain's Staff_Copy Editor_

Thaddeus Rutkowski grew up in central Pennsylvania. He is the author of the book Violent Outbursts (Spuyten Duyvil Publishing), Haywire (Starcherone Books / forthcoming from Blue Streak Press), Tetched (Behler Publications) andRoughhouse (Kaya Press). Haywire won the Members’ Choice Award, given by the Asian American Writers’ Workshop in New York. He teaches literature at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn and fiction writing at the Writer’s Voice of the West Side YMCA in Manhattan, where he lives with his wife, Randi Hoffman, and their daughter, Shay. He received a fiction fellowship from the New York Foundation for the Arts. Visit him at

The King of White Collar Boxing


Review by Thaddeus Rutkowski


A friend of mine took me to see the only boxing event I’ve ever been to. This friend was a large man, a mixture of black and Asian, and he was a tough guy. He told me he was once attacked by a man with a knife, and to protect himself he simply took the knife away.
He and I had seats close to the ring in Madison Square Garden’s Felt Forum, where we could see everything—including flying sweat and spit—clearly. But what was appealing was not the boxers’ punches or footwork, it was the sight of blood. Whenever a gash would open on a boxer’s face or blood would drip from a nose, a roar would go up from the audience. The only thing better than blood was a knockout blow—a quick, final stun.
Imagine being in the ring, trading punches, hitting and getting hit. That’s where David Lawrence takes us in this memoir, with vivid descriptions of breaking an opponent’s ribs or, conversely, being knocked senseless. Throughout much of the book, Lawrence lives the lifestyle of a “white-collar boxer”—a professional who trains, spars and occasionally fights in scheduled matches. Most mornings, Lawrence (an insurance-company owner) is driven in his Rolls-Royce to a Brooklyn boxing gym, where he can get some action before starting the day in his Manhattan office. The Rolls, the associated wealth, and an exhibitionistic personality bring Lawrence media coverage. He becomes a niche celebrity, featured in society and fitness magazines, as well as on television. He craves the attention and continues to fight, even though he “turns pro” at a relatively late age, in his mid-40s.
Here is his description of one of his fights, against one-time welterweight champion Buddy McGirt: “Midway through the (third and last) round he caught me with a pretty good hook to the head. It was just a short tight little punch, but I saw stars for a moment. I shook my head and smiled, just to let him know I was a little shaken and I’d appreciate it if he didn’t take my head off. The bell rang and we tapped gloves. I didn’t want it to end. Yet I couldn’t wait to get into the office and tell everyone I had just fought a world-class fighter.”
This description contains more than a touch of humor and displays Lawrence’s writerly skills. He holds a Ph.D. in English literature from City University of New York, has taught at Hunter College, and is a published poet, with a collection out from Four Way Books.
On another occasion, Lawrence is invited to the “celebrity fights,” held in Donald Trump’s casino in Atlantic City. Former heavyweight champion Larry Holmes is Lawrence’s dressing-room mate, and Trump himself drops by to say hello to Holmes. Lawrence describes Trump as follows: “He was a chubby, arrogant man with hair that lay over his head like a gull’s wing. … He gave me a nod as if to say I didn’t exist. He was the supreme egotist. Worse than me. I’d seen him speak at an insurance engagement. Mindless. He had some sort of idiot savant talent for building.”
This description is prescient, written several years before Trump’s presidential candidacy. It can be taken as an exaggeration or a joke, but Lawrence has a gift for stating truths through hyperbole.
A couple of sub-storylines run through the memoir. One concerns a federal investigation of Lawrence’s insurance company—the crime is money laundering, and the feds have a strong case. Another subplot involves Lawrence’s relationship with his wife and son. It’s not easy being a family man, a successful business owner and an obsessive boxer, and something has to give. (What suffers is not the boxing.)
Still, what comes across most strongly is the deep psychology of the sport (or martial art) of boxing. Once addicted, the boxer never really loses the craving or love for the activity. He can never get enough. He just gets a little older, maybe a little slower. Throughout the journey, I’m glad to say, he stays feisty as ever.

Thaddeus Rutkowski is the author of the books Violent Outbursts, Haywire, Tetched and Roughhouse. He received a fiction writing fellowship from the New York Foundation for the Arts.



Reader Picks For The Holidays


We have developed this list based on the top seven most popular reviews by readership.



Amber Necklace from Gdańsk



The Silk of Hunger



Time Extends Life To Those Who Survive






The Emily Fables



A Ranch Bordering the Salty River



Windows On Boland-the Poetry of Eavan Boland

Time Extends Life To Those Who Survive


(Click on title for full screen view)


Review by Thaddeus Rutkowski


These poems, written by Jim Feast and addressed to his wife Nhi Chung, are full of passion, sensuality and physicality. Feast and Chung might be in many ways ordinary people, but the poems bring out a side that is extraordinary.
Feast, a professor and member of the Unbearables group of writers in New York, tells us in his preface that he met Chung at New York City Technical College, where they both were working (she as a secretary, he as a tutor). On one occasion, she asked him to read a paper she wrote. It was the story of her escape from Vietnam by water. Her ability to swim saved her. Not surprisingly, the story caught Feast’s attention; he found Nhi “fascinating, charming and sexy.” Complicating matters, however, was the fact that Feast was engaged at the time and Chung was married (and pregnant). The book takes off from there.
The first section covers the early days of Feast and Chung’s relationship, as seen in this poem, “Nhi and Patty (or Vice Versa)”:
A brief, stringy cup of coffee
            tawny, ruddy at points, whitish, brackish
            a kind of orange, inside the peel.
            all those colors
            are in her skin
brown eyes with a trace of green like a fir in the dark
            the whites, straight across, but a little narrower at the pointed end
            wearing a coat too long in the sleeves, and cheap, a grainy fabric, mica
the way she comes up the street, let’s describe that.
            her legs are striding but the actual step is not long, feet planted as firmly
                        as the expression on her mouth.
            Patty waits for her.
            “It’s good to see you,” she says,
            then hesitates over whether to kiss her on the cheek.
            “And how are you?” Nhi says. “How are you,
I like the way the poem moves from a description of coffee—and secondarily an orange peel—to a description of skin. Similarly, the image of “a fir (tree) in the dark” works as metaphor for a woman’s eyes. Then, in the third stanza, the poem becomes a story. The woman the poet has been observing walks up the street and meets another woman. We learn their names and discover that the poet is describing his new flame, Nhi, as she meets his fiancée, Patty. The punchline is that when they greet each other, Nhi gets Patty’s name wrong. It could be a typical language-barrier lapse—or a signal that these two will never be friends.
            Later in the book, the poems become more philosophical, confirming that the poet’s understanding and appreciation of his partner have deepened.
Here is a later poem, titled “Gum Sik,” which means “Golden.”
You’re like a tiger on a burning bridge.
You’re like an eagle landing on a ledge,
the eagle of truth that never breaks her pledge.
You’re like a teacup that is filled with rice.
You’re like a goddess that averts her eyes.
How much the future involves the past.
How much the first time involves the last.
It may be painful but it is our task.
First, I notice the rhymes, which appear (uncharacteristically here) at the ends of lines, instead of internally. They are interesting rhymes, imperfect in places, as with “bridge” and “ledge,” “rice” and “eyes,” and “last” and “task.” They pull the reader through the poem, just as a catchy song pulls the listener along to the next verse.
But what is important is the meaning. The poet evokes powerful images or, more accurately, images filled with power. A tiger, an eagle and a goddess all have great, non-human strength. Yet the person addressed in this miniature ode is, I’m guessing, just a person, made mythic in the poet’s eyes. The imagery is not all large; there is also the humble teacup.
The third and last stanza transitions into a meditation on time (the theme of the book’s title) and how we experience it. To Feast, points in time exist almost simultaneously (“the first time involves the last”). And “our task,” which I read as “anyone’s task,” can be difficult, yet it is there, immovable and un-ignorable.
Throughout the book, I was taken with the poet’s use of sharp, playful, suggestive language, as well as his focus on his own experience. Feast has been lucky to be part of a love relationship that joins two complex people, from separate but long-established cultures.
You can find the book here: Time Extends Life to Those Who Survive

Thaddeus Rutkowski grew up in central Pennsylvania and is a graduate of Cornell University and the Johns Hopkins University. He is the author of the fiction collectionViolent Outbursts (Spuyten Duyvil) and the novels Haywire (Starcherone/Dzanc), Tetched(Behler Publications) and Roughhouse (Kaya Press). All three novels were finalists for an Asian American Literary Award, and Haywire won the Members’ Choice Award, given by members of the Asian American Writers Workshop in New York. Haywire reached No. 1 on Small Press Distribution’s fiction best-seller list. Tetched was chosen as one of the best books reviewed in 2006 by Chronogram magazine. Thaddeus Rutkowski


Thugs, Con-Men, Pigs and More


From Contributing Editor g emil reutter

Thugs, Con-Men, Pigs & More- (Red Dashboard Press) Short Stories- Print Edition – Nov. 1, 2014 

“There are few neatly wrapped endings in Thugs. The reader meets men and women who are, for the most part,living lives of quiet desperation, some seem perfectly at home in the depths while others are trying to claw their way out. A lazy reader accustomed to knowing which are the “good guys” and which are the bad will likely be frustrated. Every character is a little of each—and that is what gives these stories their momentum and emotional punch.”  – The Lower Bucks Leader, December 13, 2014 Read more here – Page 20

“Reutter is so adept at feigning lack of literary style that you get swept up in a sense of pulpy authenticity.” – Matthew Kirshman

“Great collection of short stories. Reutter sheds his unique outlook through the characters he brings to life in these tales which range from grim to heartwarming. Excellent read; couldn’t put it down.” – George Wylesol

“Reading these short, muscular stories by G Emil Reutter is like walking into the lives of good people who experience bad things. When trouble comes, these people do the best they can, but often it isn’t enough. Violence and heartbreak are just around the corner, and most of the stories end with a twist—perhaps the twist of a knife. As you keep reading, though, you find the humanity, community and even love in each difficult situation.”

—Thaddeus Rutkowski, author of Haywire, Tetched and Roughhouse

“These are stories that knock you back with short powerful jabs of empathy.”

–           Stephen Page – The Type and Byte Review