November 30, 2008

Review by Robert Cooperman

BLUE RIBBONS AT THE COUNTY FAIR
by Ellaraine Lockie

PWJ Publishing
P.O. Box 238
Tehama, CA 96090
ISBN 0-939221-45-4
2008, 64 pp., $12.00
www.creekwalker.com

For a chapbook consisting of poems that all won first-place prizes in various contests, Blue Ribbons at the County Fair hangs together remarkably well. There’s a logical progression to the collection, beginning with personal poems about Ms. Lockie’s native Montana and the hardscrabble life of her farmer father, and progressing more and more outward into the world, with poems about her own marriage, her children, sexual infidelity, and into world events and situations, sometimes recent horrific ones.

“Godot Goes to Montana” opens the collection, and about the only objection I have to this marvelous poem is that I really hate the title, which seems a tad too literary and precious for its subject matter. Other than that, this is a powerful piece of work, opening with detailing what can go wrong in the precarious life of a farmer: “My farmer father waited to see/if crops would hail out or dry up.” The poem, further, is not without a sense of humor and even more important, a sense of hope, since it’s been noted on more than one occasion that farmers have to be the most optimistic people in the world. So despite all the back-breaking manual labor, the hideous accidents that men who work around dangerous equipment fall victim to, and a grandfather who hanged himself out of despair , there’s a sense of earned camaraderie and good cheer by the end of the poem: “To eat fresh sourdough doughnuts/To chew the fat of their existence.”

The dusty, often forbidding high plains is the somber spirit presiding over these poems, especially in the grim depiction of “The Whipping Woman,” whose dual subject is the woman the narrator (or Ms. Lockie) hires “to daughter my mother,” who resides in “the dementia ward.” The poignancy of this poem comes through in both the mother’s mental deterioration from Alzheimer’s and the daughter’s inability to deal with that cruel condition, and thus having to farm out the necessary, and unpleasant, care-giving tasks. Also, the reference to the 23rd Psalm (“Lies down beside the near-still waters”) adds a layer of dignity and pathos to this situation. The title itself also plays with the biblical theme of the scapegoat, the narrator putting all her guilt on the woman who does for her mother. My one complaint about this poem is the loss of immediacy in the penultimate line with the word “contraposition,” which seems to me at least to break the concrete mood of the rest of the poem. Still, it’s a fine piece of writing.

The collection moves out of and opens up from the Great Plains, especially in the final poem, “The Best Revenge,” which takes its subject from both the catastrophe of Hurricane Katrina and the London Underground and bus bombings. True to her prairie roots of stubborn persistence in the face of dire adversity, Lockie has to drag her luggage “from Euston Station to St. Margaret’s Hotel” because she’s too frightened, at first, to take a train or bus after the attack. But taking her cues from “Brits . . . Who wear IRA history as casually as the scarves/relaxing around their necks,” she ultimately does purchase a tube ticket and descends to the Metro station, noting “…retaliation can be as peaceful/as purchasing a public transit ticket.”

This is an admirable collection, one dedicated to acknowledging the abyss under our feet and all around us, but also to soldiering on and finding the good in life, the small joys that make our lives worth living, but without an ounce of sentimentality.

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Robert Cooperman, “a Brooklyn boy, right down to a B.A. at Brooklyn College,” moved to Denver in 1974, to study in the joint Literature-Creative Writing Program, and received a Ph.D. in Creative Writing and a field of specialization in 19th Century British Literature. He has taught English at the University of Georgia and Bowling Green State University, in Ohio. He lives in Denver with his wife Beth. His volume In the Colorado Gold Fever Mountains won the Colorado Book Award in 2000.

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