Maryfrances Wagner’s books include Salvatore’s Daughter, Light Subtracts Itself, Dioramas, and Red Silk, winner of the Thorpe Menn Book Award. Her poems have appeared widely including New Letters, Midwest Quarterly, Laurel Review, Voices in Italian Americana, Birmingham Poetry Review, Louisville Review, Poetry East, Unsettling America: An Anthology of Contemporary Multicultural Poetry (Penguin Books), Literature Across Cultures (Pearson/Longman), and The Dream Book, An Anthology of Writings by Italian American Women (winner of the American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation). She co-edits the I-70 Review, co-edited the Whirlybird Anthology of Greater Kansas City Writers, has served as President of The Writers Place (where she still chairs the programming committee), and currently serves as secretary on the KC Creates Board of Directors. She has taught academic and creative writing and creative writing workshops at all levels.
It’s always admirable when a writer can, with only a handful of words, breathe life into a character. Kevin Rabas does that in poem after poem in his new chapbook, Eliot’s Violin. His characters are distillations and representative of his own life as well as the lives of most of us from the opening poem of Eliot making the sound of wind as he pulls a bow across a violin to the last few poems when he grows seven inches in a year, becomes a basketball star able to sink shots and win and win and win, and feel like Spider-Man, able to “sail down the sidewalk/held by the strand of a web, and from that hand:/spinnerets.”
Many of the poems in this collection are quite moving, capturing heart and spirit. In “Home Birth,” when father has to deliver his own son, his other sons are so happy to have another brother that they begin to “divvy toys, push toy trucks towards the new one,” ready to start playing, a tender moment in sharing. Unlike this poem, a common theme throughout the book is how the victimized overcome the wrongs done them. In “Slow Melinda & the Snow Ball Fight,” neighborhood kids are pelting poor Melinda with snowballs. Instead of reacting by fighting back, Rabas says, “. . .she does not wish/to hit her sisters, brothers with it./She keeps looking at her ball of snow,/misshapen, melting.”
Rabas has divided the poems into segments, and one particularly powerful segment includes five poems that address bullies. Bull Bill taunts the small boys by egging them on and one day brings along his bully friends to gut punch them until they cry out. Then all through recess, the bullies “make [the boys’] small sound all recess.” The small boys, though, learn to take care of themselves. In his poem “Dojo” they prepare:
Kids punch, kick;
The mirror, the bag, air,
of bullies, right outside.
They learn to “zero/in on that nose and go/all out, torpedo.” They learn to get back in other ways, tripping Bill with a stick or sacking him on the football field once the small boy is no longer small and can hit hard enough that it takes Bill a while to get back up. Over and over in many of Rabas’ poems, the human spirit triumphs, and that is the barometer of a good poem. Poems that can do that endure.
Another segment deals with the rite of passage years, the times of transitory love relationships, new experiences, and discovering how big the world is on the first trip to New York where the night taxis “swarm up the streets in clusters. . . . with headlights like hot eyes/in the grey-green night.” At a New Year’s Eve party, he’s unable to enjoy the game of Twister because all he can think about is the realization that he still loves the girl he’s come to see, but he sleeps alone on the couch and wakes up to find puke in his shoes.
Rabas is an accomplished drummer, and although many of his poems have those moments of sound and rhythm as with lines like “He’ll grow, though, and his hands/will be in everything: marbles, rocks, trucks, blocks,” the segment “New Music” really shows his ability to create music in his poetry. In “Sidewalk Drum,” he plays with three beginners who follow him once he starts playing, and a crowd surrounds them and listens: “Girls dance, and the men empty change from their blue jeans into/the cigar tip box.” But Rabas points out when the boys take a break, “I’m not used to taking breathers. I play through. You rest, you lose. You breathe when the show’s over. You drink when you’re/done. A woman knows this. A drummer comes with stamina, or/ he doesn’t come, doesn’t drum.” Another time when he has to carry his drums to his gig, “bumping down the subway stairs, people on all sides mean-muggin’ [him], grimacing like slanted jack-o-lanterns,” he gets to the club and doesn’t complain “because these dudes know [he’s] from KC, where you can just/drive up to the curb in your car with a full kit and step in.”
Kevin Rabas has the gift of giving readers connections to their own misfortunes and to the life experiences most of us have passed through, but as a poet, Rabas shows us in these concise and precise moments how determination triumphs over everything else, and the music of victory is its own reward.