Review of Oblations by Nick Ripatrazone

Nick Ripatrazone. Oblations. Boston: Gold Wake Press, 2011. Paper, 92 pp., $14.00.

Oblations is Nick Ripatrazone’s first book, a collection of sixty-one prose poems. The choice of form is a mild surprise. Ripatrazone enjoyed some early success writing short fiction, placing stark, tightly-written stories in a number of magazines, most notably Esquire and Kenyon Review. This year, though, he earned a Pushcart Prize nomination as a poet, for “Expo ’70: Ice Bag,” which appeared in Apple Valley Review. Oblations, then, is a marriage of these two talents, the gift of narrative control and the urge to render it in precise, striking language.

The title poem serves as a prelude. From there, the book has a five-part structure, with a dozen poems each devoted to Barns, Baseball, Miscellanea, Work, and Parishes. Each of the Barn poems begins in the same manner, with a description of the structure and the people who own it. Take, for instance, “Barn: Howell”: “Autumn clapboard. Rafters paled from swallows. New roof, 1978./Susan and Helen Howell, sisters.” He then sketches in a curio-sized narrative of each, spiced with physical details like the foods a wife in one poem craved while pregnant, but ultimately unfolding into some small drama. The adopted child in “Barn: McDonoghue” loves onion and potato pirogues, covered with pepper and imagines meeting her birth mother, who lives in Mexico. She wonders if they speak English in Mexico and, “Are words really necessary?” The selections here draw on brief, often discreet glimpses. In “Barn: Pierce,” a girl watches her father with her lips pressed close to the curtain, repeating advice he’s given her; a daughter in “Barn: Davidson” remembers seeing her parents kissing behind the barn like teenagers. The details here are particular and memorable, and the section ends just before the conceit grows too familiar.

The baseball poems are a riskier venture, a dozen portraits of players from the dead-ball era (roughly 1900-1919). We are given a series of seemingly random traits to open, sometimes about the player in question – Box Joseph’s physical stature; Gray Whitney’s hair – and others about those near and dear to the player. King Dolan’s “father was the Sheriff of Essex County, New York.” Lehn Wallace had a tall wife, who grew strawberries. Whatever the opening note, a flood of detail follows, some related to the game, though the finest work is dedicated to the players’ personal lives. “Box Joseph,” we learn, “had a son. Said it was with one woman, then with another. His mother sat him down with the pastor and they made a list.” William Williams “spoke to the crowd during games. Never discussed baseball. Kept a letter in his back pocket. Fumbled a catch each Wednesday in March during 1911.” The era Ripatrazone evokes is often viewed as a more deliberate, strategic period in baseball history. Some might call it dull, with its reliance on place hitting and base running, rather than the spectacle of the home run, but Ripatrazone’s sketches here of players from the era are rich and varied, like latter-day nods to Spoon River.

Miscellanea is the least cohesive section of the book, though the work there is no less finely wrought. The speaker in “The Toboggan Party” observes a friend’s boots from the ground, while doing push ups, and notes that they are, “brown leather bleached beige from salting.” The husband in “Montoya” remarks that “a lack of photographs is a lack of love.” And a man who was fished from a river by three boys occasions the remark that the “initial identity of a catch is usually unclear.” The section’s diffuse feel, though, makes it seem more of an interlude than anything else.

Oblations closes with sections entitled Work and Parishes, respectively. The pieces in Work are brief and exact. They cover tasks are varied as teaching, herding, landscaping, milling and sugaring (the last two are Ripatrazone’s own formulations). But the parish selections are standouts, and rightly so: an oblation is essentially a humble offering to God. “St. Jude” targets the parish thrift shop and gives us a clerk named Shelly Yates who “claimed she could thumb a sheen of sweat off Graham Greene’s face on the back row of book covers.” In “St. Ladislaus,” we learn of Father North, who started out as a Lutheran minister before converting to Catholicism, and who brought his family – wife and children – with him. His parishioners, it turns out, care less about the strength of his faith than the chance to see “a muted argument with his wife in the parking lot,” or the chance to see the priest hold his wife’s hand.

There are some missteps to account for in Oblations; many poems begin in a similar, fragmentary manner, enough to occasionally create a sense of sameness. The staccato cadence Ripatrazone favors can be distracting at times, as in the case of these lines from “Infected”: “That was 1987, in Laredo. In front of the mechanic’s shop. One of the mechanics cut hair in the back. In a room behind the cars. Away from the oil but you could still smell it.” Understand, though, that these are minor quarrels, and that, on balance, Oblations is a strong and assured debut. “I always thought that language was the test of residency,” Ripatrazone writes in “Séance,” “say a word and speak a world.” Nick Ripatrazone’s cragged, angular language marks him out as a resident of the same world inhabited by writers like Edgar Lee Masters, Sam Shepard and Jim Harrison, a world we as readers don’t get to visit quite often enough.

John McIntyre is the author of Memorable Days: The Selected Letters of James Salter and Robert Phelps.