Book Review

Richard Merelman, The Imaginary Baritone, Fireweed Press, 2012

Review by John Olski

Richard Merelman writes in his acknowledgements for “The Imaginary Baritone” that the book “distills ten years of work.”  The reader soon discovers a lifetime of experience compressed into three sections addressing 1) family and relationships, 2) the weight of history and circumstance, and 3) aging and the body’s vulnerabilities.

Many of the collection’s thirty-three poems will tempt readers to envision one unifying narrator.  Obviously the Polish-Catholic voice of “A Kind of America” can’t also be the Jewish author of “A Letter to Myself,” yet the two share more than a mid-twentieth-century history when the Jewish man writes of his own appearance:

                  Yes, you look a lot like a goy:
                  straw hair, blue eyes, chiseled cheekbones,
                  thin lips, long straight nose
                  level as Kansas….

It’s a writer’s prerogative to enter into different personas, and Merelman’s skill at this allows voices to resonate with each other throughout his collection.

Merelman’s personae struggle with limits and preconditionings.  “A Letter to Myself” cautions:

                  … Remember, however,
                  that history conspires.  Sooner or later

                  wages fall, prices rise, Wall Street tanks.
                  Won’t the Jews get the blame?

The world’s recent ‘Great Recession’ didn’t scapegoat Jews, but such wariness isn’t simply dismissed from the mind of someone with a personal or family history of World War II.  The imprinting of that era returns throughout “The Imaginary Baritone,” as with the poem “Lizaveta Petrovna,” in which a tourist describes how a Russian museum receptionist

           … fumbles among yellowed brochures
          written for visitors.
          Maybe eighty, she smells of borscht and herring.  We read that the citizens

           of Leningrad salvaged these exhibits when Stalin shut the Museum
           in 1949.  Our memory became his enemy
           the pamphlet concludes.  ….

Merelman’s poems succeed most when topics are addressed through telling individual experiences.  The narrator of “Synesthesia Without the Sense of Touch” reveals a condition of personal alienation through details of a museum visit, worthy of Billy Collins’ quirky meanderings.  “How I Think” presents the imaginary baritone of the collection’s title, with a poetic turn revealing just whose jazz-era daydreams are being recounted.

Unconvincing poems in the collection tend to be impersonal. “The Survivor,” a sestina with too little variation in its repeated words, condemns totalitarianism but doesn’t rise above counter-propaganda.  “At the Prom” brings a kind of surprise ending that Merelman is fond of, but the scenario remains generic.  

Yet, just as one might generalize that Merelman fails without a personal narrator, a poem like “A Map of Harms” entices with its rhetorical rhythm:

                  The body and the spirit and the planet aren’t
                  sponges.  God doesn’t siphon
                  toxins out of bones or sky or field.

The poem continues to list the world’s and the body’s harms aphoristically, its omniscient voice skirting the line of absurdity in connections such as “Paraffin heaters delay a freeze / as sex can stem the end of love / for awhile. ….”  It’s nearly oracular, and it works as an extreme point in Merelman’s narrative range.

Richard Merelman’s poems are not weighted with tropes or sonic devices.  There is some ground for generalizing to the author from the narrator of “Going to Bed with You”:

                  I’ll make it plain

                  To vitalize it.  Metaphors would blow
                  Dead air into this bauble.  The words I owe
                  To us are nearly prose.  I often pale
                  In verse.  ….

Merelman does write formal poetry, but his avoidance of strict meter helps to blend formal and free-verse poems. It also keeps his voice appealingly conversational, which tempts us to see the boy watching his undervalued father “In Uncle Paulie’s Buick” as the same narrator describing former wives in the sonnet “Me at 93 in Assisted Living.”  That subtle sense of voice ultimately unifies “The Imaginary Baritone” as a poignant exploration of human nature and vulnerability.

John Olski is a Library Service Associate for Brown County and a former adjunct instructor of college composition.