The Youngest Butcher in Illinois by Robert Ostrom
There is much out there that implies an expansive existence, a belief that something exists beyond the human condition. It is not religion as much as religion is an effect of this instinctual interconnectivity; many of us want the greater, and many more feel its existence. Robert Ostrom’s The Youngest Butcher in Illinois confronts this inherent human ideal, but instead of wondering at it, obsesses with the inability to define or identify this ethereal immersion.
“Bone Map”, the title poem of the first section, offers these first two lines: “Here is the sweetgum in dirt. Here are the bones / rearticulated…” establishing a ‘from the ground up’ building of the whole book. The speakers in Ostrom’s poems are constantly trying to justify and explain the contradictory nature of growing from the earth while simultaneously growing back towards it. The poetry also tries to make sense of living in commune with an environment and surrendering control of one’s life to the directive nature of outside forces borne of that symbiosis. As in the poem, “From Time to Time by the Skin of Your Face”, “Nostalgia, the distance a sigh / travels before reaching its source. A torment / disguised as reverie. It is written on the side / of my skull. Did I have a twin? I had notions / that part of me grew toward the earth.”
Ostrom’s work is further permeated with these consistent themes of twinning and multiple definitions for what should be different objects, sounds, and ideas. In “The Pause That It Makes” (the first of two such titled poems), we see this interchangeable identity explored further: “This is the sound of a foreman driving the last of his nails into / comfort, a voice to another, or a horse falling down a flight / of stairs.” This aural amalgamation is not any one of these things, but a combination of them, inseparable from their resulting cacophony, but so precise in their individuality to offer some semblance of collective identification.
We get a key to the book with “I Hereby Declare You Island of Dogs”, where Ostrom assembles a sort-of defense: “I hereby attest I am unable to know what will come next or even / what has come next in the past, except to say, I might have thought / in a moment of weakness that my English was of a free impulse…” The poem admits to the reader that what they are encountering is nearly a stream of consciousness, that definition is not predictable, and even the steps taken in the past to secure the knowledge of a thing are unreliable at best and open to infinite interpretation.
There are two sections of the book entitled “To Show the Living”, containing “morphological transcriptions and phonetic translations” of a 1950’s interview with a member of the Crow Nation. These sections, though not directly confronting the theoretical questions of the previous interconnectivity, serve as one example of active praxis in the malleability of meaning. These poems solidify the emotional imperatives of this constant search for individualized meaning amongst so much rampant meaningless meaning. From “Provide a picture of your habitat” we get the stutter-step moment that weighs the actual severity and danger of the book’s intent with the lines, “At the edge of slumber one can sense / The edge of a lake. We are not safe here.”
The following section “In My Father’s Kingdom” furthers the emotional stake of the book. “This Is the Record of John” closes with the lines “How sunlight I thought / can yellow the hemline / of a dress. How gravel // can settle a body. And by / gravel I mean, here, / I give you all my clouds. // Comb back your hair.” Ostrom maintains the theoretical integrity of the first section of the book, evident with the interchangeability of the gravel, but the gentleness of the image and delicate delivery of language and pacing reveal of the fragility of the speaker’s concern for what reality has done to the perception of reality. “Confessions of a Forest Fire” takes this concern and purposefully shatters the hell out of it, as all good poetry must eventually do. “(A small house is a metaphor for anything). / And the woods? A small house of clamoring hours. / Woman, small house feeding its will, / Let’s go back to my room.” The danger that has been lurking throughout finally breaks through and makes itself present, immediate, and threatening.
If there’s ever a resolution to this danger, it isn’t readily apparent or necessary. There is a sense of resignation that organically surfaces near the end of the book, as much of the theories and ideas the poems play with are by definition irresolvable. When we hit the title poem, we find this resignation palpable and heavy, with the speaker finally giving in to the burden of being infinite: “Heretofore he watches the last / of the hour ooze into thirsty / sleep. Wait, head. Stayawhile.” And to finish: “His histrionics taste like / apples. Hello trial. Hello betrothed. / Attaboy.” Here we give in to patience and the serenity that comes with the inability to actively change the reincarnate situation of helpless multiplicity and incessant regrowth.
The book ends with another “To Show the Living” section, with small, sparse poems that offer curious one-liners that provide inarguable commentary for the exploratory marathon of the preceding pages. Most notably is the intensely appropriate closing poem entitled “Which is to say?” where Ostrom provides the opportunity for readers to come down from the book in near contentment, or at least free of immediate conflict: “You moved through my body without touching my body.” This close appropriately articulates how Ostrom’s poetry interacts with the reader, briefly and beautifully highlighting the imperceptions of the world. Ostrom’s book does what important art is supposed to do; brush along that line of reality and perception and pick a bit at the seams, only to sew them up again.
Robert Ostrom is from Jamestown, New York. He is the author of TheYoungest Butcher in Illinois and two chapbooks, To Show the Living and Nether and Qualms. His poems have most recently appeared in Atlas, Guernica, and Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art. He lives in Queens and teaches at the City University of New York and Columbia University.
Jeffrey Allen is the author of two chapbooks, Simple Universal (Bronze Man Books 2007) and bone and diamond (Forthcoming H_NGM_N Bks 2013) and holds an MFA from Columbia College Chicago. His poems, reviews, and interviews can be found in Another Chicago Magazine, Cut Bank, Forklift Ohio, Ghost Proposal, H_NGM_N, LEVELER, RHINO, and TriQuarterly. He serves as the Educational Outreach Coordinator for H_NGM_N Books and Poetry Editor for phantom limb.