The Field of Happiness
Reviewer: David E. Poston
Charles Rammelkamp’s new collection, The Field of Happiness, brought to mind Ted Kooser. In a 1992 essay in Can Poetry Matter?, Dana Gioia characterizes Kooser as striking “the difficult balance between profundity and accessibility” and goes to great lengths to defend Kooser as more than a regional poet treating mundane themes in a technically unimpressive style. Even after Kooser was named Poet Laureate in 2004 and won a 2005 Pulitzer for Delights & Shadows, conversations that rightly praised his considerable command of craft often undercut that praise with denigration of the concept of accessibility.
What does that have to do with Charles Rammelkamp, the kid from Potawatomi, writing poetry in the twenty-first century? It has to do with several ironies about the craft of poetry. Like all poets, Rammelkamp occupies a marginal space in society, but he writes from other marginal perspectives here: socioeconomic, educational, political. Here, Rammelkamp is the grandfather overhearing young people’s slang, the well-educated son remembering how his father talked to working people, the young college student on a summer job being teased by his co-workers, the financially comfortable white male observing young mothers who struggle to feed their children. These poems use his experiences and various created personae to offer insightful perspectives on society and human nature.
This collection is not a poetic tour de force. Some poems are flat, leaving one wishing they had been revised to sharpen the language and dig deeper into experience. Yet many get to the heart of the human condition, cutting through masks, deceptions, and self-deceptions to the frailty, suffering, or vulnerability beneath the surface.
“River of No Return,” from the first section, may not merit the critical regard of O’Hara’s “The Day Lady Died,” but it connects with readers in both familiar and unexpected ways. The magical reverence a ten-year-old boy has for baseball is coupled with the familiar trope of recollecting where one was at a culturally significant moment: in this instance, the death of Marilyn Monroe. The unexpected gift in this poem is the connection Rammelkamp makes at its end, returning home from a doubleheader baseball game:
Afterward, in the magic glow of the day,
we stopped at a filling station for gas
for the long trip back home,
and heard on a transistor radio
Marilyn Monroe was dead.
Even though I was only ten,
I’d have given anything to trade places
with Tommy Reffig, that child actor in River of No Return.
Like a flame blown out,
the day had suddenly lost its magic.
That first section is rife with nostalgia, hero worship, and sentimentality, often delivered from a child’s perspective. The poems about celebrity present ordinary people relating brushes with the famous: Jagger, Streisand, Pushkin, Michael Jackson. The encounter between Randall Jarrell and Johnny Unitas in “Meeting of the Titans” is a gem only a poet would give us, while the comparison of Lindbergh and Trump in “The Plot Against America” is wryly apt. Rammelkamp also presents poignantly heroic historical figures such as Salamo Arouch, forced to box for his life in Nazi concentration camps.
The poems in the second and third sections often use different speakers and personae to provide ironic twists. Brief encounters are described with humility, honesty, and self-deprecation, as in “A Whole New Gestalt.” A woman has asked the speaker for a ride home, and he tells her she is brave to ask a stranger for help in a notoriously dangerous city:
“Oh, I could tell you were harmless,”
she laughs in that musical sing-song,
waving her hand as if shooing a flea,
and though I take this as a compliment,
I can see the benign older guy she must see,
the one who has just learned his daughter
is pregnant with his first grandchild.
Every poem in the second section deals directly or indirectly with cars. Relating the experiences described in poems such as “Driving While Black” allows Rammelkamp to express empathy for people of all types and circumstances. It takes unflinching honesty to write a poem such as “Road Rage,” which begins with a woman cutting off the speaker in high-speed traffic, endangering him and his young daughter. Though the speaker first expresses a wish for a benevolent intelligence to watch over them, he ends with the shockingly, but shockingly recognizable statement, “How I wish I had a gun.”
In later sections the speaker—often the poet, it seems—gives us a look beneath the mask he wears. One of the more humorous examples is found in “The Sensitive Poet,” which recounts an incident in which Rammelkamp shared his poem “Attachment” at a reading. His watery eyes, an allergic reaction, were mistaken by his audience for an outpouring of sentimental longing for his old car. Another wry moment is provided by “Sit-Down Comics,” which reminds us how even the most celebrated among us may not escape an ignominious end.
In several poems Rammelkamp describes watching his father deal with the world, as in “The Kindness of Strangers”:
I remembered my father
downshifting into Aw shucks gear
to converse with blue collar types,
a college professor himself,
not a snob but afraid of appearing superior,
as if getting your hands dirty
were somebody else’s problem.
Many poems look back on youthful sexual desire with its welter of confusion and longing. One series of persona poems takes us into the back seat of cars, presenting the same experience from male and female perspectives. Another trio of poems, beginning with “Fighting Fair,” is inspired by a graphic passage from Deuteronomy and gives male and female accounts of a violent altercation. In the aptly-named “Pity,” a girl steps in to rescue her so-called boyfriend Jimmy from a bully. The third poem ends with Jimmy saying, “I ran. Rita was an admirable girl, / but I knew she wasn’t / so good for my health and well-being.”
The last three sections, broadly speaking, turn more to self-reflection, again with self-deprecation and unflinching honesty. The ending poem, “Now You’re the Metaphor,” brings us full circle from childhood in Potawatomi Rapids to reaching the age of Medicare eligibility. In “Father’s Day on Facebook,” reading a thread of comments about conflicted feelings about fathers sparks this self-assessment:
I decide not to add my two cents,
probably not worth even that,
but I know, with the bar set so low,
I probably wasn’t such a bad dad myself.
The poems here about aging, about health crises, about poverty, about desperately trying to find one’s way and one’s voice, all resonate with our human experience. “A Pocketful of Mumbles” recalls the speaker’s encounter with a man angrily twisting a woman’s arm in an elevator. The speaker is
A kid from the sticks
with old-fashioned ideas about women,
I muttered to the man
he should leave her alone.
When the woman snarls at the speaker to mind his own business, he is stunned. Who hasn’t left a confrontation mumbling the words they wish they’d had the courage or presence of mind to say?
“Low Cool” presents a moment familiar to most of us, but with a poet’s perspective. A mechanic has solved a crisis simply by adding coolant to a car’s engine. Even though he shows a bit of disdain for such basic automotive ignorance, he refuses payment. Rammelkamp ends the poem by asking, “What could I do for him in return? / Describe the rhyme scheme of a Petrarchan sonnet?”
A democratic poet, says Gioia about Kooser, addresses the reader as an equal. In Rammelkamp’s case, one feels like a trusted confidante. These vignettes—these character sketches and self-examinations—are not meant for the elitist reader. They are to be read aloud to a general audience that does not care so much about poetic techniques and pyrotechnics. Those things matter, but perhaps not to Rammelkamp as much as connection, empathy, and self-realization. I can point out flaws and lapses in craft, but I applaud his keen and honest insight into human nature. The best poems here illuminate the human condition with humility, insight, and self-effacing honesty. What greater service can poetry provide in these polarizing times?