Alone with Love Songs by Edwin Romond. Grayson Books, 2011. $15
Reviewed by Caroline Collins
In its own way, Edwin Romond’s fifth collection is itself a series of love songs, blending past, present, and future in a tone of endless longing. Alone with Love Songs teaches us what it means to be human, in poems that are by turns wistful and ironic, vulnerable and hopeful.
From the beginning, memory emerges as a central theme. In the opening section, the poet recalls his younger days in a rented room in Wisconsin overlooking Lake Michigan: “in the company of solitude / I fell in love / with love songs.” He aptly describes the wintry view, “vast as the future when / you’re 20 and in love / with the promise of love / from James Taylor / or Joni Mitchell.” The poem’s closure splendidly blends nostalgia and irony:
I’d feel a blizzard of flames
Inside me as I listened
deeply hour after hour
to haunting ballads blurring
distance between the romantic
and the real, and I,
love’s lonely apprentice,
taking it all in,
getting it all wrong.
Another early poem, “Johnny Cash,” pays tribute to the Man in Black, whose songs bared the scars of his hard-won wisdom: “No man’s voice is dark / as a shadow in a coal mine / without having lost / almost everything / and earned the life to tell about it / in songs of freight trains / and prisons, death / and addiction, women / who broke him / and the one who made / him whole.” In line after line of such compelling rhythms, Romond’s Cash stands “growling songs of regret / and gratitude, teaching / your heart how to die and live.” Like the musician whose songs he emulates here, the poet’s work is equally wise and carefully earned.
Within the book’s tripartite structure, the second section often explores the grim realities of adult life. In “To My Lifelong Friend Going to Prison,” the poet must align pleasant memories from a lifelong friendship with his new role as the father of a young boy, coming to terms with the reality that his friend, now a Catholic priest, has been convicted of child molestation and sentenced to prison: “I felt the chaos / of grieving what I had loved about you / as four decades of friendship crumbled / like an altar of ashes.” Indeed, Romond is at his best in exploring such complex emotions. In “Crossing in Fog,” an elegy for a friend “forsaken / by lover and family to suffer alone / the last lash of AIDS,” the poet turns his considerable lyric gifts to a difficult subject, arriving at a fitting metaphor for his friend’s fear as well as his own: “To cross a bridge in fog is to memorize fear / one step at a time, to believe in the danger / of life and water and the eternal / nothingness of one wrong turn.” Although the poet agrees to his friend’s request “to hold him,” he cuts the hospital visit short:
In 231 a man who was my friend
would not see another summer,
would never know that I scrubbed my skin
raw, erasing all of him that I could,
my face red as shame in the fogging mirror.
A lesser poet could never confront himself with such unflinching honesty. “Crossing in Fog” effectively indicts society’s fears no less than the poet’s own.
Romond is a poet’s poet, and his sheer joy in playing with words and sounds constantly delights and surprises. In “Snakes,” he approaches his subject with a delightfully sinuous wit and ingenuity: “Perhaps it is the sound of the word, / that snake / rhymes with stake / and hints of Dracula’s ripped heart.” Sound can be innocuous and deceptive, as the poet acknowledges: “I feel a bit calmer with reptile, that friendly long “I” and the “L” / from smile but that’s only / wrapping razors in whipped cream.” Just as there are no ideas but in things, there is no way for the poet to mediate the reality of what causes his trepidation:
my stomach numbing fear
at the sight of them slithering, coiling,
their mouths wide as an opened grave,
venom waiting for fangs to find
the closest warm vein.
In other poems, the poet shares his experience as a teacher, limning his dealings with young people, usually with gentle humor and compassion. Although “He is Quitting School Today” conveys a sense of loss for a soon-to-be high school dropout who was never a successful student, “One” captures his finest teaching moment, when a special-needs student holding a copy of Macbeth waited for the room to empty, “then with sunrise eyes / looked at me / and whispered, / ‘Mr. Romond, / I cannot believe // I am understanding this.”
At times the humor is wonderfully self-deprecating, as in “The Other Mr. Romond,” in which the poet learns of his porcine namesake, christened by an eighth-grade student. When the family invites the poet over, he is initially less than flattered: “Shelby carried over the ugliest / one of them all who smelled like Dr. Scholl’s worst / nightmare.” Yet, at their face-to face meeting, the poet-teacher is eventually quite taken with the other Mr. Romond’s personality and finds him stunningly handsome: “his eyes widened with all / the affection a pig could give a non-pig.” Eventually, when the pig returns to his own kind, he sets himself apart: “He spit and stomped slop upon the others as / I watched him with pride, a pig among pigs, / the other Mr. Romond, drooling, belching / carrying on the family name.”
Throughout Alone with Love Songs, Romond explores the joys and fears of experiencing fatherhood late in life, noting key moments in his son Liam’s passage to young adulthood, from his first steps to his first duty as a pallbearer. Instead of opting for a chronological ordering, the poet connects these pieces subtly. “First Hair Cut,” which presents a father-son visit to the barber, is followed by “Bald Spots,” which traces the marks on the lawn left by the pair’s endless games of pitch and catch. The book’s final section begins with “In Case You Ever Wonder,” a poem recalling his son’s conception:
Beneath my arms you began your miracle
of multiplication, one cell becoming
two, two cells becoming four, cells
upon cells, like dots in a Seurat portrait,
shaping into you, the son you will become.
The result is a no less tender and memorable than Galway Kinnell’s “After Making Love We Hear Footsteps.” Indeed, in the book’s final section, Romond blends past and present most skillfully with the future. In “Believing Like a Child,” the poet’s toddler recognizes in a old photograph the deceased grandmother he never met, explaining matter-of-factly the time he spends with her in his dreams: “He says she kisses him, / combs his red hair /with her fingers and whispers / she loves him.” Watching his son sleep, the poet cannot help but wonder:
Could it be
there really is a God so kind
he would open death’s door
for my mother to see my only child
in this world? But this is crazy,
I am thinking; this is beautiful.
Like Hamlet and Horatio, the poet opens himself to what is beyond his knowledge:
by his side and begin to pray
for the impossible, believing
like a child, whispering
into the mortal darkness.
In a companion piece entitled “Painting,” the poet patiently passes down his late father’s teaching, joining the generations in a process that ends with the perfect imge:
the exact words of my father
and hear him speaking with me
then feel his hand upon my hand
holding his grandson’s hand
as together we guide Liam’s brush
across the ramp, reaching back
to go forward, our brush marks red
as a bloodline, seamless, beautiful.
The final poem, “Shifting Gears,” echoes and reverses an earlier entry, as the father accepts his son’s invitation to take a ride: “my love blinds my fear.” He soon becomes a somewhat nervous passenger on his son’s motorbike. The shifting of gears becomes an apt metaphor for making a transition and facing the future:
How quickly it has come to this
shifting of gears that I, his father,
depend upon my son for safe passage,
that I now trust him as he trusted me
to steer through all the twists and turns.
Alone with Love Songs is a splendid volume, one that readers will want to return to time after time.
Caroline Collins is an assistant professor of English at Quincy University. Her poems have appeared in such places as Fox Cry Review, Wisconsin People and Ideas, and Arkansas Review: A Journal of Delta Studies. Her chapbook Presences is forthcoming from Parallel Press.