February Poetry Pick: Mud Cakes

MudCakesWeb“On the playground it always came down/to the same thing: Doug had the toy lightsabor/and I didn’t,” so says the narrator in “Being Luke” a poem that highlights the major themes in Jason Schossler’s Mud Cakes.  Schossler’s first collection of poetry is a coming-of-age story in America, complete with explorations of religion, family dynamics and pop culture.  Acting as an umbrella over the collection, however, is Schossler’s depiction of place, and how this place influences our personal identities in today’s world.

Ashtabula, Ohio, located on the rural shores of Lake Erie, is the location for the poems in this collection.  From the first poem, “Steinbeck’s Route,” Schossler sets the stage for this landscape: “Think of him in hunting cap and naval cap/as he bucketed into Ashtabula County//lightly crusted with the dirt of travel/the overloaded springs of his camper sighing//under the weight of double bed and four-burner stove/in front of Dunk’s Home Diner. ” The narrator’s take on Steinbeck’s journey is fictional, as he later explains, “He wrote nothing of our town//neither of the lake-polished driftwood/along the beach nor the oily waves that sloshed//against the piers.”  Thus, when the narrator ends the poem with Steinbeck leaving, “it wasn’t for lack of friendly face” but because “the road away from here/seemed broad and straight and sweet”  — we see reflections that certainly mirror the mixed emotions of home shown throughout most of this collection.

Other poems further explore the landscape of the narrator’s world.  In “Amelia Avenue” we find children at play on “asphalt softening” in a world full of “helicopter seeds and soda-pop caps.”  In “Garage” we find a narrator missing his father among a landscape of “hubcaps, a railroad lantern, bucks of nails/a Sanka can of spark plugs.”  And in one of my favorite poems, “Potholes” the poet describes the landscape in terms of the road conditions.  “The gravel mouth by Dairy Queen,” for instance, “drank in rainwater/and oak sprigs.” Indeed, the damaged road affects vehicles, “blown tires, cracked axles, bent rims” but leaves a bigger fear with the narrator, who says, upon approaching “asphalt that will only break again like poorly/mended bone” that if he hesitates and idles too long “the road might disappear beneath me.”

Lyrical explorations of landscape are important in this collection. Yet, readers will immediately see that narratives are the predominant form of poetry in this book. Schossler, himself, talks a little about influences in story telling here on his website, and in his work, we see memories told through images of pop culture and childhood play.  In “Mud Cakes” we see a mother eat her children’s earthy creations full of “thistle seed/red mushroom, dried beetle shells” and in “New Toy” we see a narrator contemplating all the reasons there wouldn’t be something new to play with:  “An empty gas tank/was a constant nemesis/as were cracked engine blocks/and broken water pipes.”  Many other poems display a later period in time, as shown in “September” where a narrator teetering on the edge of those precarious adolescent years notices two girls “in swimsuits and sandals/towels hugging hips/like some shy part of themselves/carrying the smell of that dark place/that circles dock and harbor.”

Schossler’s work was brand new to me.  I purchased the book because I couldn’t resist the cover, and when I flipped through the pages, I was drawn in by the poet’s stories. It wasn’t until I got the book home, that I realized that the collection takes place in a community located less than two hours from where I currently live.  As someone who is drawn to place, especially those places that are often pushed aside in the literary world, I love that Mud Cakes narrates a world where children learn how to be resilient and hopeful even though they are immersed in the struggles going on around them.

More information can be found on Schossler’s website and at Bona Fide Books.


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