BY MICHAEL SCHMELTZER
forget me / hit me / let me drink great quantities of clear, evil liquor
by Katie Schmid
Split Lip Press
42 pp., $10.00, paperback
Dear Katie Schmid,
I believe the great mistakes in nearly all reviews are their unimaginative failures of form, their devotion to organs other than the heart (of the book, the author, the reviewer). It’s sentimental, but I don’t know what other organ to trust.
The more times I read your prize-winning chapbook "forget me / hit me / let me drink great quantities of clear, evil liquor," the more I circle back to this one question; how does your book speak to memories of mine you couldn’t possibly have access to? The intimacy found in your poems is the same intimacy you’d find in letters, like two people speaking familiarly from far away. So here I begin, a simple epistle whose heart is this multi-chambered, beating thing, alive with the words you wrote. This could very well be a disaster, but if I am going to fail I want to fail in pursuit of something greater than me. If I am going to be fooled, let it be for the heart.
That’s the beauty of poetry, isn’t it? To speak to the heart of another whom you know nothing about? To keep us from being lonely. After tucking my two daughters in, after saying goodnight to my wife, I had this book to reminisce with and am grateful.
There is a consistency of tone in your poetry, the precise sadness of sons, fathers, and daughters. You write the soft implosions of bildungsroman, a melancholy that’s bearable, almost pleasurable. A good hurt.
"On weekends after church they disappear into uncultivated strips of prairie to tend their silent wounds. To inflict still more wounds upon each other. They call this happiness." (The Boys of the Midwest 1)
Reading your book then is a happiness, a tending and tearing of old wounds, the satisfaction of a scab peeled.
"I listened for the song she loudly sang," you write in Someone Eats Bitter. So it was with me, listening to the music of your lines. What a clear, untroubled voice filled with troubling things. Your book asks the reader to do the tender work of nostalgia, and so I have been working these past few weeks. I remember my hometown, the boys and girls beautiful with youth, tangled in smoke. Mothers "push the vacuum cleaner through the house" (The Boys of the Midwest 2) and fathers "name the dark things / for us." (Daughter Psalms: crows) If I could bring you to Elk River you’d see my father drinking beers in the Minnesota sun, shirtless, his skin reddening as he mowed the lawn. You’d hear my mother speaking Japanese, telling me to get my friends something to drink. I’m amazed a book can return me so accurately to another time, and then I’m stunned I can’t remember when it became another time.
"The charcoal briquettes are ashy gray in the grill and the trampoline is the most treacherous fun their homes are capable of. So they fling themselves onto it, again and again, until they have forgotten what it means to be a boy." (The Boys of the Midwest 1)
I, too, forgot what it means but now I can picture my friend Sam doing somersaults on the trampoline. I thought he looked so "cool" when in truth I meant graceful. It was a different language we spoke in childhood. Do you ever wonder how many languages we’ve lost simply by growing up? Recently, two ex-girlfriends contacted me on Facebook, both whom I treated with the selfishness of a spoiled child. If there is anything I want to lose, it would be the language of that self-centered boy I once was. I wonder if the boys in your book are ones you knew. Have they reached out to you and if so, did you have the language to answer them?
Most poets I know have been asked how much of a poem is autobiographical. In so many words I think what we’re really asking is whether or not someone is a kindred.
"Somewhere in Illinois, / my uncle is trying, very sincerely, / to die." (Homecoming) When I read those lines I couldn’t help but think of my own damaged uncle. I looked him up online, found his DWI arrest picture from several years before his death. My father once told me about a time my uncle called him on the phone; he said he was going to drive himself off a bridge into the river. To this day I’m not sure how my uncle died.
I never knew what to do with this story. It’s one I haven’t told anyone before. You can’t answer this question, I know, but there are some questions you can only ask strangers. Maybe you understand the need to ask.
So tell me, how did my uncle die? Are we kindred?
There are things I may never know but there are things I’ve known all my life. Let me tell you something I rarely tell anyone; I knew I would have a firstborn daughter. I told my parents this growing up. I told my wife this before she was my wife. I told her this when she was pregnant for the first time. It was something more than a yearning or desire. The closest word I have for this feeling is faith.
"A lone father / is easier to catch. / A lone father wants / a daughter to find him." (Daughter Psalms: the hunt)
Looking back on my "reckless / burning as a boy," (Daughter Psalms: blue bird motel) I think I’ve always been a father who wanted a daughter to find him. In other words, I was very much lost.
It’s late. No one is awake here. Even the cats are asleep. There are nights I just sit and ache and regret. There are nights I do nothing but want. Then there is your bitter-sweet book. There is this communication between time and space and across memories.
"I know the grief, I know the song, / I could sing it in my sleep." (Homecoming)
I think I know the song, too, and grief replays in my head but it’s a comfort to have your lyrical voice sing along. I can think of no compliment greater than that, and no book more deserving of such praise.
Michael Schmeltzer is the author of "Elegy/Elk River," winner of the Floating Bridge Press Chapbook Award, and "Blood Song," his full-length debut from Two Sylvias Press. He earned an MFA from the Rainier Writing Workshop. His work can be found or forthcoming in Black Warrior Review, LA Review, PANK, Rattle, Meridian, and Mid-American Review, among other places. He tweets ridiculous things at @mschmeltzer01.