Book Review

Empty Shoes: Poems on the Hungry and the Homeless, Patrick T. Randolph (Ed.), Popcorn Press, 2009. $18.95

Reviewed by Paul Julien

Empty Shoes: Poems on the Hungry and the Homeless is a newly announced poetry compendium volume featuring a number of writers, and assembled by poet Patrick T. Randolph, a faculty member at Southern Illinois University, and his wife Gamze.  Randolph has published a previous volume, Father’s Philosophy, and has taught English language skills for 14 years at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, Andrew University in Berkeley, CA and in the public schools in Japan.

The volume highlights work by a number of talented Wisconsin poets, including Ellen Kort, Wisconsin’s first Poet Laureate; Linda Aschbrenner, publisher of Free Verse; and current Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets' president, Lester W. Smith. The volume also includes poets who were once themselves homeless or counselors for the homeless. The sincerity in the verse created by these poets, the depth and feeling, calls the reader to feel the condition and plight of the hungry and the homeless.

All proceeds from this collection will go to benefit local and national homeless coalitions and food pantries. It is a book of art and activism, with timeless scenes.

Empty Shoes turns out to mean any pair of shoes abandoned by their well-heeled owner, maybe a pair chucked into a street or alleyway, a pair that are then snatched up by some person who doesn’t have much, who doesn’t own a house or condo, or rent an apartment, or live on a ranch, and who has actually no place at all to live, no place out of the cold and the elements, someone classified by state authorities as “homeless.”

Poetry happens when you hold words up to the light to try to see what’s inside.  This work includes descriptions of many characters, who experience various feelings:

… Homeless woman’s hands:
Old, dirty, cuts everywhere—

We meet people in a variety of venues:

… paced the right side of Grace Street,

People not all American:

In Peru:
… a gypsy woman tried to hand me
a baby, pleading,
“Un regalo, un regalo.”

Some through the author’s eyes:

… a time in New York, when
I watched some police chase a homeless man away
from the front window of a sushi restaurant where
I was dining…

Some found homeless in a house:

… The house is empty,
Unshuttered …

Some who don’t want help, just dignity:

… No, I don’t want to go to a shelter.
Can’t stand the snoring…

It’s illuminating and moving to find in 248 pages the wide variety of cases here, larger and smaller, as if manila folders thick and thin from a city relief agency file cabinet were suddenly spread out in front of you and turned into compassionate color, sound, and motion.  It’s astonishing at turns, and heart-melting at others, and you can see where an occasional drop of guilt made a stain on the poet’s memory:

… I lost something by not being able to drop money
into his cup….

Some of the pieces have a rhyme and rhythm that is very pleasurable:

… I seeded my shoes for the journey,
not knowing the ending way,
Hoping the sun would reach them,
warming their roots each day…

This even happens on the fly, as we drive past the door of a city Jesus Saves mission:

… For God so loves the humble
And the poor He won’t ignore.
“Beans, Rice and Jesus Christ”
Was the message on the door…

Some pieces are very simple and spare, others longer and winding.  The variety of images come at the theme from different angles in many surprising ways, but all of them focus on the central topic, which makes a very compelling volume. This is a wonderful poetry collection that I think almost any serious reader would enjoy. 

Paul Julien lives in La Crosse WI.