In John Reibetanz’s tightly crafted new collection of poems, poetry and narrative are united with astonishing power and beauty. The collection first probes pivotal moments in the lives of his family, leading to a haunting prose memoir of the journey to his dying mother that recalls a “nomadic childhood” in flight from his mother’s withdrawal into illness, his adult secession from an America bent on war, then emigration to a more accommodating country. Following the same creative urge celebrated in his father-in-law’s cooking and the blues of Louis Armstrong, the poems then move into a world of intersecting fictional relations, unfolding an extraordinary range of characters. Their dilemmas are not solved but contained in luminous poems, at once spare and ample, whose clarity is born of precision. In these poem-stories of love, loss, and recovery, darkness often serves to intensify the light. Near Relations is the work of a poet compassionately engaged with the world, and one of our most accomplished lyric voices.
About the author
John Reibetanz was born in New York City, and grew up in the eastern United States and Canada. He put himself through university by working at numerous non-poetic jobs, and is probably the only member of the League of Canadian Poets to have belonged to the Amalgamated Meatcutters Union. A finalist for both the National Magazine Awards (Canada) and the National Poetry Competition (United States), he has given readings of his poetry in most major cities in North America. His poems have appeared in such magazines as Poetry (Chicago), The Paris Review, Canadian Literature, The Malahat Review, The Fiddlehead, The Southern Review, and Quarry. His fifth collection, Mining For Sun (Brick Books, 2000), was shortlisted for the ReLit Poetry Award; his sixth, Near Relations, was published by McClelland and Stewart in 2005. In 2003 he was awarded First Prize in the international Petra Kenney Poetry Competition. John Reibetanz lives in Toronto with his wife and three children, and he teaches at Victoria College, University of Toronto, where he received the first Victoria University Teaching Award. In addition to poetry, he has written essays on Elizabethan drama and on modern and contemporary poetry, as well as a book on King Lear and a book of translations of modern German poetry. When he is not writing or teaching, he bicycles, kayaks, reads local history, and listens passionately to 1930s jazz.
Excerpt: Near Relations: Poems (by (author) John Reibetanz)
SHE GOES LIKE
It’s character assassination time
next to Captain Video, at Mr. Game’s
arcade. Cool neon surf breaks over them,
green and purple rippling the metal O’s
on lip or lobe. They breathe out a clear gas
of words to warm themselves. Ashley’s exposed
navel shivers when they start in on Mr.
Spinelli’s homeroom and his history classes.
Her mind fast-forwards You should’ve seen the bastard
this morning, stops, rewinds her eyes catching
his in World Civ sliding down her cleavage.
No, too gross: eject. Instead: “His clothes,
they’re like so Yesterday.” Safe choice, that place
half underground, walls papered with dead names,
the living room of all the guys’ parents.
There, Ashley wears the name Anton and Eva
fit her into when she was only a dream
in the Budapest whose air their dreams still breathe.
“Elektra.” Imagine. Years of getting called
“Lightbulb” or “Hydro” in elementary school
sent her off to Central Tech as Ashley.
She broke it to them slowly. They have a thing
about new things – whatever some Hungarian
fossil didn’t invent or eat. Anton’s
instrument hatelist targets electric shavers,
digital watches, Japanese violins.
“And Eva goes like Peanuts butter isn’t
a launch. Cheese isn’t cheese unless it reeks.
Forget about sushi.” She cringes when they talk,
their tongues caught up on consonants sticky
with foreign memories. Yet tonight, past one,
Ashley won’t fall asleep till they come home
(the tables stacked, the door sign switched to closed)
and whisper the old world into her ear,
their breath threading with hers in endearments
like nothing spoken by her yesterday.
A Word about “She Goes Like” by John Reibetanz
Most teenagers think their parents are dinosaurs. It’s a healthy attitude that contributes to the teenagers’ ability to live independently and in turn become dinosaurs to their own children. This generational division is especially acute in immigrant families, where the children pick up habits and values that are a foreign language to their parents. “She Goes Like” focuses on one such teenager, whose parents also turn up in several of the other poem-stories of Near Relations. The book traces the efforts of parents and children, wives and husbands, to find a common language in, and for, their love. In this case, the moves on both sides are painful, funny, and successful.
How the Poem Works by Stan Dragland
“She Goes Like” is about the difficulty of parent-child communication, yes, but there is also the minefield of high school, with a goatish teacher and peers exacting conformity in speech and dress. Ashley’s world has its emotional hazards and the new name she adopts is the most obvious sign of how she copes with all that, creating a more conventional identity that allows her to fit in. The poet understands the pressures she faces. In fact, the speaker of his poem knows the complexity of her situation better than she does. In the third person, at a certain distance from her, he layers the conflicting New- and Old-World aspects of her life her slang, for instance, and her parents’ European speech with the tension between what she can safely say (and to whom) and her private thoughts. It’s remarkable how much of Ashley and her milieu is packed into twelve three-line stanzas. The poem moves along quietly and deliberately in these stately tercets. Their (Old-World?) formality, like John Reibetanz’s sophisticated use of metaphor, contrasts with Ashley’s deliberate air-head colloquialisms. Until the word “yet,” in the second-last stanza, the poem seems to judge Ashley in the same way she judges her parents.
Now Ashley’s fully reciprocated love for her parents, despite their old world ways, snaps into focus. Now the poem comes home to the heart, home to the haven that Ashley’s parents have made for her. Surely a girl so loved, in an atmosphere of such bedrock security surely she will eventually come to be an unconflicted woman, both at home and away.
Reading the poem again, it’s easy to see that “Ashley” is camouflage. Unlike “Elektra,” it won’t inspire those alienating jokes, but it does reflect an independent spirit, one who is no mere slave to conformity. The original Elektra is a strong and loyal woman in an old-world play by Sophocles. In the moment caught by the poem, it’s probably not the right name for a beleaguered girl. Ah, but she’s canny too, and she may well grow into her baptismal name. Should she re-adopt Elektra, the hopes her parents invested in the name will have been realized.
Stan Dragland’s latest book is Stormy Weather: Foursomes, poetry, from Pedlar Press.
“Reibetanz’s imagination has raided his abilities (an ear for music, a sure command of description) to produce poems that are uncanny in their ability to ‘read’ the world.…He is a poet capable of enormous poignancy.”
“Exceptional.… Whatever the theme taken on, the author’s poetic craft operates in full discovery mode, ever vital and fresh.”