Michael Rumaker is best known for his prose, beginning in the 1960s with the fictions The Butterfly and Gringos and other stories and continuing most recently with the 2003 memoir Black Mountain Days. In addition, though, he's been publishing poems all along: the earliest collected here is dated 1967; the most recent 2004. In the late 1960s, there was talk of the publication of a collection of Rumaker poems to be titled Pizza. Now that the volume has finally arrived, it's comprised almost wholly of poems written since then.
It's a slim volume, containing just fourteen poems, but it doesn't seem slim. For one thing, it's an unusual shape. It's a square book, measuring eight by eight inches. For another, the covers are pitch black, the front cover actually a photograph of a red and green neon PIZZA sign, glowing in the night, a solitary light bulb in the upper right burning within the store.
The poems are substantial too. There's an initial group of four, all in free verse, two acknowledging deceased forebears (Carson McCullers and Charles Olson, Rumaker's teacher at Black Mountain College), the other two more gloomy subjects. The first, "To a Motorcyclist Killed on Route 9W," apprehends the finality of death ("It's ourselves we see / sprawled on the road"). The second, "Camden, N.J." ("mean, nigger, spic, poor-white town – "), describes the decaying urban environment, evoking in contrast the life of long-time resident Walt Whitman. The narrator senses the liveliness in even this blasted environment, as the poem ends with this picture:
a sassy-assed black girl
sashaying up Broadway
getting a load of herself as if for the first time
in the dirty windows she steps by.
This immediacy and particularity enlivens these and all of Rumaker's poems. In its movement from desolation to liveliness, "Camden, N.J." anticipates the somber last poem in the book, "To Come," in which a post-human race is imagined.
Beginning with the next poem, "Pizza," there is a second group of four poems, in some ways very different from the first. Those poems – "Pizza," "In Van Houten Fields," "Yet Another Poem Addressed to Walt Whitman," and "The Fairies Are Dancing All Over the World" – all appeared in periodicals by 1975. Formally, they abandon the left-hand margin and begin to dance all over the page. The model here is likely W. C. Williams's use of triads. The poems' mood is celebratory, their substance Whitmanesque. "The Fairies Are Dancing All Over the World," Rumaker's best known poem, celebrated the life force that goes beyond all humanity (not to mention, though the poem does, the 20th century American culture in which it is written) and is most manifest in gay culture. The poem concludes
The fairies bide their time and wait
They dance in invisible circlets of joy
around and around and over the planet
they are the green rings unseen by spaceships
their breath is the earth of the first spring evening
They explode in the black buds of deadwood winter
Welcome them with open arms
They are allies courting in the bloodstream
welcome them and dance with them
Rutherford Witthus has made an edition of this poem in a presentation that can only be described as extraordinary. The poem itself is printed on a single approximately seven by sixteen inch sheet, so that the act of reading it will not be interrupted. The book itself is sewn bound, and its cover features "an astrophoto of the Rho Ophiuchus Nebula." The book is enclosed in a gray archival cardboard book container, clearly intended for serious book collectors. Those interested can get an idea of what it looks like at the website Rutherfordwitthus.com .
The other six poems were all composed or published since 1991. One, "Boston Tea Party," an account of a meeting with John Wieners that becomes an early morning encounter with aging and death, is singled out by Robert Creeley in his back-cover blurb as "as good as any poem will ever be." As a group, these poems return to a more meditative mood, the lines retiring to the left-hand margin. With the exception of "Boston Tea Party," they are brief. Rumaker, though, does not intend that we stop dancing. His poem "What Does It Mean To Be Human?" concludes
To be human is to keep in this charged dance
of balanced tension
the instinctual and cerebral selves,
to have the capacity to imagine lives,
visions beyond ourselves
Creeley calls Rumaker's poems "old time evocations and reflections on a real life in hard real times." Taken all together, they make a substantial book, one quite worthy to stand among Rumaker's prose writings as well as with the projective verse traditions in the poetry of the last sixty years.