Book Review: American Mastodon—Brad Ricca

Poems by Brad Ricca

Reviewed by Paul Christiansen

When the date is over,

Bartleby mutters something about doing her taxes

and she laughs

a high harmonious sound

like the movement of gulls in winter.

Thus ends the evening shared by Melville’s notorious scrivener and his date, Emily Dickinson. Appearing early in American Mastodon, this encounter is indicative of what readers can expect from Brad Ricca’s first book of poetry. The Cleveland-based poet and filmmaker writes absurd narratives filled with pop-culture allusions, bizarre descriptions of domestic tranquility and strange asides. The often-whimsical poems delight in their imaginative leaps, fresh subject matter and unique language.

Many of the poems in American Mastodon focus on topics rarely, if ever, seen in poetry. Ricca gives us Sasquatch hiding in a mall department store, Yeats returning to the world as a zombie, extraterrestrials watching I Love Lucy reruns, and a game of baseball played in post-revolution Cuba (“Che Guevera on second / spitting into the dust / and Castro, lanky on the mound / with his boxed hat”). These strange narratives offer much appreciated moments of unencumbered imagination. With simple, playful writing, Ricca guides us through a fanciful world where the absurd becomes the inevitable. It’s a world where being snubbed by a girl with the middle name Edmund logically leads to the construction of a laser-beam-eyed Statue of Liberty to guard against immigrants that “flounder in the near-Atlantic / like children with flash cards.”

Ricca’s wild narratives are juxtaposed by descriptions of banal American life. He writes about the woman in front of him at the DMV, a man buying bread and hot dogs and the path of a recently swallowed pill. Ricca transforms these mundane events into unusual scenes with inventive metaphors. Simple potato chips, for example, are spilled “like the strange coins of tall awkward islanders,” in a poem that ends when “[t]he thin dill pickle … their boat slides into the green-sour sea.” These brief poems, rarely more than a page of short lines, snap into focus and quickly leave the reader with a fresh perspective on a routine experience.

To categorize the poetry in American Mastodon as light or unconcerned with emotion would be a mistake. On several occasions Ricca turns his attention to more conventional discussions of love, death and memory. He is able to accurately convey the weight of these subjects without abandoning his humor. This ability to take a jocular tone to heavy matters is seen when he describes being filled with “confusing questions / like squat, religious frogs / at the center of the universe” after experiencing heartbreak. Ricca sees the world as a complicated, contradictory experience, and the existence of quirks and half-laughs in even serious situations strengthens his portrayal.

American Mastodon stands as a successful vehicle for Brad Ricca’s unique wit. His absurd stories, scenes that expose the bizarre hidden within the blasé and the depictions of  human emotions, invite the reader to see the world from his fresh perspective. It’s an invigorating vantage point to share.

American Mastodon: (Black Lawrence Press, 62 pp., paperback, $14)

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