Reckless Constellations   by Grant Clauser   Cider Press Review , 104 pages, January 1, 2018

Reckless Constellations

by Grant Clauser

Cider Press Review, 104 pages, January 1, 2018

 

reviewed by brian fanelli

The poems in Grant Clauser’s Reckless Constellations are rooted in memory and feature a cast of adolescent friends who fight and chug bottles of wine but are not without sympathetic traits. The book later shifts to adulthood and an exploration of the relationship the speaker has with his grandparents and with his daughter. Through these recollections, Clauser meditates on how the past influences the present, more specifically how wild and frayed friendships of youth can shape us into our adult selves, even forging us into parents whose children sometimes remind us of our younger selves.

Reckless Constellations is split into three sections, and the first primarily deals with the speaker’s childhood and teenage years. The coming-of-age poems address everything from awakened sexual feelings, to fishing, to friends loved and lost. In “Stealing Clay from the Crayola Factory,” the speaker and his friend Kenny steal clay from a crayon factory in Central Pennsylvania after the “second shift workers / poured their thermoses / out on the lot and drove home.” After successfully thieving the clay, the friends squeeze back under the fence, “some blood on the wire / or a sneaker stuck / back in the clay bin/like a tar-pit tiger.” As innocent as the poem may seem, it concludes with a danger that illustrates the risk of their actions and foretells of the fights and fractured relationships that come later in life. Once the clay thieves show their findings to friends, they build volcanoes together, filled with baking soda and vinegar, which erupted until the entire town is swallowed “in their ash.”

In “Trigger Warning,” the reader is introduced to Dod and Shelly, two recurring characters in the first section that are always on the verge of exploding, much like the volcanoes in “Stealing Clay from the Crayola Factory.” The poem begins, “Dod had his father’s pistol / again. Shelly was drunk not too much / for a school night. / Her face the soft flush / of poison ivy.” This one-page narrative shifts to a reflection in the last few lines, and while the poem doesn’t make explicit  what happens between Dod and Shelley, it doesn’t need to. It simply ends with the memory of Shelly exiting the car. Clauser writes,

 

I think back now

about how Shelly

slammed the car door,

and everyone watched her walk

the way eyes follow a train

running off its track.

Her hair wet on her face

as she entered the building.

Dod telling me to drive

anywhere the hell out of here.

 

Shelly, while reckless, is an interesting and sympathetic character, and even her self-destructive traits are attention-grabbing. In “The Breakfast Club,” she throws bottles back at the face of another character, Judd Nelson, for no apparent reason, before the poem concludes with the lines, “A month later she came back / from the clinic, eyes slack like curtains / drawn over the front window so no one knows who’s home.” By the end of the first section, characters like Dod and Shelly become ghosts, but their memory is enough to haunt the speaker, who, in the prose poem “Reunion,” muses, “What we miss most is not the days or nights,/but how we felt about them, how you could stand on the slope / where the cemetery met the creek and hear every shifting murmur/in the water’s way.”

The other two sections of the collection are far-ranging in subject matter, addressing fishing, nature, fatherhood, and old cars, but the idea of memory is again the main thread. At the core of the book, the speaker is haunted by fragments of the past, not only characters like Dod and Shelly, but also his grandparents. Technically, these friends and grandparents are no longer part of the speaker’s day to day life, but by recounting them as often as he does, he is able to keep them alive. Even his daughter's childhood and teenage years, which slip by as quickly as the speaker’s youth in the first section, is a source of focus in the later two sections.

In “Slant Six,” Clauser uses the image of a car to revisit his grandfather’s final years. Here, as in much of the collection, the narrative shifts in time and place, opening with the quatrain, “It was a last ditch effort, and I don’t know why / they call it that, but at 92 cutting his chest open / to reach the center muscle couldn’t have been / that hard, no pick-ax ditch digger’s struggle.” The second stanza transitions to a memory of the speaker as a child, rocking with his grandfather on the porch, while Nana picked tomatoes in the yard. The remaining stanzas primarily center around the grandfather’s car, a Dodge Dart, which collected tree pollen from a neighbor’s mulberry, before the grandfather eventually had to turn the keys over and the speaker drove it to Ohio and back, when it was held together “by chicken wire and Bondo.” Even when the speaker eventually sold it for $30, the smell of mulberry lingered, just as traces of the past loom over the poems. The speaker can sell off something physical that belonged to his grandfather, like the car, but that doesn’t exorcise the spirit and memory of his grandfather, just like the friends of his childhood are not easily forgotten, despite their separate paths come adulthood.

In “Ignition,” the speaker, now older, wiser, and a father, recounts car shopping with his daughter, who is eager for adventure and a set of wheels to call her own. Though the speaker’s youthful idealism may have waned, he doesn’t want to dash his daughter’s sense of wonder. Clauser writes,

 

When she shifts into drive

the engine answers: where?

I try but can’t tell her

there’s nothing new here,

just new to her.

No matter how old

the keys to the car

are always shiny.

 

By this point in his life, the speaker has had his fill of adventures and remembers friends who drank, fought, and ended up in mental institutions, and at the same time, he is willing to let his daughter live her life and navigate her own road. It is, perhaps, his connection and love towards her that makes the speaker confident she won’t end up like Dod or Shelly. His daughter has a stability and home life that those characters never had.

The book’s concluding poem, “Final Poem (Trail Head),” is a good summation of the collection, in that it offers one final meditation on memory and uses nature, specifically a hike, as a vehicle to do so. The poem reads,

 

It took all day to climb

but when we reached the overlook

at the end of the trail

both of us, without speaking,

turned around to see how far

we’d come, how steep the path

and filled with rocks, then

our eyes moved to the mountains

at the wind gap in the distance,

the river below carrying

the world’s sediments out to the sea,

and the tree leaves

starting to turn over our heads.

 

It is unclear who the we in the poem is. It could be a wife, the speaker’s daughter, or even a friend. Regardless, the short poem serves as a nice metaphor for the speaker’s life, all he experienced, overcame, and reflected upon, like a hiker who reaches a certain point and is able to look back on the miles and trails covered. The changing of seasons to autumn is an indication, too, that the speaker is a more mature version of his younger self, one with a daughter, one who no longer empties bottles of wine around a bonfire while friends fight.

Reckless Constellations is rich in character, including troubled adolescents like Dod and Shelly, the speaker’s daughter, and grandparents that have come and gone. Though some of these characters may no longer be in the speaker’s life, they still exist through the book’s vivid detail, in places like Devil’s Half Acre from the title poem, where Dod “spills his whiskey lies” and the girls “waited with a bonfire / casting a honey glow into trees,” reminding us how powerful a force memory can be.

 

Brian Fanelli’s most recent book is Waiting for the Dead to Speak (NYQ Books), winner of the Devil’s Kitchen Poetry Prize. His writing has appeared in The Los Angeles TimesWorld Literature TodayThe Paterson Literary Review, and elsewhere. Currently, he teaches at Lackawanna College and blogs at www.brianfanelli.com.