Richard Merelman, The Imaginary Baritone, Reviewed by Christopher T. George

Richard Merelman, The Imaginary Baritone, Fireweed Press, 2012, ISBN 978-1-878660-27-5, paperback, 48 pages, $10.00.

Richard Merelman’s The Imaginary Baritone comprises a collection of nuanced and often witty poems that explore topics that range from aging, family, and guilt to such matters as American and world history, wartime atrocities, and the Jewish-American experience. The poet, a long-time political science professor, brings a lifetime of experience to these poems, and it shows.  In such poems as “A Letter to Myself” and the following work, the poet explores his Jewish heritage, although in the following instance in an interesting round about way:

A Kind of America*

I am Kaminski from Elyria, Ohio,
the Kaminski who repaired furnaces for years
before The Kaminski Brothers
folded. I favor my grandpa Kaminski
who taught my father how to swim,
and I live with my wife
down the street from the church
where I teach a catechism class for teens.
After the army, which lost me a toe,
we paid off the grey frame two-story
that we got on the cheap.
“Kaminski Acres” we used to call it.
The wife and I would buy
a round of Stroh’s on Friday nights
for the guys from US Steel.
We made do. Pretty soon
Kaminski Paving came along
thanks to Michael, our eldest.
He loves to kid me at Christmas dinner

and says Dad, with you
it’s always Kaminski this and
Kaminski that. Which reminds me
of the time I saw the Jewish comic,
Danny Kaye, on tour in Cleveland.
He was a guy like me
who did his best for kids,
UNICEF if I remember right,
and though he was old by then
he still cracked me up with that song
about the names of Russian composers.
So I waited by the stage door
at Severance Hall
and grabbed his hand. He actually smiled
a wide smile and I found myself
saying I’m John Kaminski; you were great.
He measured me through those pure
blue eyes of his. Then he said
Glad you liked it. I’m Kaminsky, too.

* Polish Christians often used ski as a suffix to surnames.  Polish Jews used sky.

This is plain and straightforward poetry, full of irony.  Merelman’s poems typically adopt a conversational tone, easily carrying the reader along with the poet’s thoughts.  Some of the pieces in the collection have an overtly dark side, such as “The Hostage to His Beheader” and “Poem Drawn from the Diary of Corporal Michael Shea” — about a U.S. soldier in Iraq accused of a war crime. Shea suffers the horror of seeing a fellow soldier die in a roadside IED blast, then goes on to take part in an atrocity. The piece is both shocking and revelatory, exploring the human and religious implications of the situation. “Poem Drawn from the Diary of Corporal Michael Shea” stands as a fine war poem, ranking with the best of the poems written by the poets who wrote about World War I and II and who also delved into the experiences and traumas of battle and their effects on those who served.

In the following poem, originally published here in Loch Raven Review, the poet again explores his Jewish roots in a self-effacing and engaging manner:

I Visit My Out-Of-Town Burial Site

Pop, I’m stuck in a Marx Brothers comedy;
I chase a deed, nested coffins for custody
Of my body on ice,
A notarized copy of Mother’s will (tossed
In Philly), yellowed affidavits I lost.
Oh, and a plane would be nice.

I measure centimeters, walk my plot.
Feel me? Maybe you’re thinking “Hot shot,
Why’d you put me on hold?”
No, that’s more the way I talk. You labored
Like a work horse, welcomed every neighbor.
I fled west in search of gold.

Confession: your prodigal son jettisoned Kaddish.
Shouldn’t fate have granted you a goddess,
Not a whore for a wife?
Plus a course in formal logic shattered
The Jewish magic. Still, let others be scattered
As ashes, burned out of life.

Pop, I’m seventy-one, no clueless youth.
I’ve foundered, like a grifter’s brand of truth
Or a fake physician.
You persisted. How? You must have managed
Hope, like Moses. I recall your adage:
“To die? An intermission.”

A number of the poems published in the book are written in set forms, and Mr. Merelman proves himself a capable master, for example, of the sonnet form, employing oblique and near rhyme so that the rhyme never seems labored or artificial.  Indeed, you hardly notice that the sonnet rhymes, the sign of a well crafted work. A worthwhile and engaging collection.  Recommended.

© Christopher T. George and Richard Merelman

Christopher T. George is Co-Editor of Loch Raven Review.  As well as being a poet, fiction writer, and freelance writer, Chris is a published historian who specializes in the War of 1812 and Jack the Ripper.  Originally from Liverpool, England, he is a long-time resident of Baltimore, Maryland and is now a U.S. citizen.  He lives near the Johns Hopkins University Homewood campus, Baltimore, with his wife Donna and two older rescue cats.  We works full time as a medical editor in Washington, D.C.

Richard Merelman was born and raised in Washington, D.C.  He lives in Madison, Wisconsin, where he taught political science at the University of Wisconsin for thirty years.  He has published poems in Verse Wisconsin, Bumble Jacket Miscellany, Main Street Rag, Loch Raven Review, and Common Ground Review. His sonnet, “Me At 93 In Assisted Living,” was given “Special Recognition” in the 2011 Helen Schaible International Shakespearean/Petrarchan Sonnet Contest.  The Imaginary Baritone is his first published volume of poetry.

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