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"Review of J. Archer Avary’s 'Total Rhubarb' " by Kellie Scott-Reed (available 1/9/2023)

There are certain writers, who you feel ‘get you’. Almost like they took something on the tip of your tongue and finished your thought for you. “Total Rhubarb”, the latest chapbook by J. Archer Avary, is a case in point. In this collection, there is a conversation with the reader. He is showing you his exploration in words that resonate on a very human level, making you feel that it’s your story too. He navigates the disappointment, disengagement, and trauma we all go through with clarity and wit.

“First Day of What Passes for Spring”; a move away, second-guessing, this poem reminds me of those moments in life when we sit alongside our decisions wondering who was inhabiting our bodies when we made them. There is a willfulness in this piece and a true understanding of the flaws and fallibility in our desire to make a change. How vehemently we resist what is best for us! I love the last two lines of this poem. I won’t state them here because you must read them in context. I promise you, you won’t see them coming.

There is something accidental about ‘progress’. In “Prime Seats at the Beer Garden” Archer Avary sits us in the middle of one of those new-fangled microbrews made from an old cannery or some other industry and shows us around the facade. As someone who lives in a city that is repurposing old industrial buildings into condos and microbreweries popping up on every street corner, this piece felt very relevant. The dying of an old industry, the popping up of another in its place, and the randomness of what is deemed successful skirts the edges of this piece. It’s simple and descriptive and I can’t tell if he’s pulling my leg. But that’s the beauty of this collection. It’s always a possibility.

If you’ve never seen Steve Martin’s SNL skit “Holiday Wish” I suggest you find it on YouTube before reading “High in Lemony Pines”. This reveals a gift of Archer Avary’s; to put a very earnest sentiment in a form and flow, that reveals so much about the ‘narrator’ in very few words.

“Give me a cabin

High in the lemony pines

Where i can eat steak all day

Learn the banjo,”

It goes on to say the sentiment similarly throughout but in unique ways that peel back the onion on a character not revealed. I thought this poem felt a bit like a folk song. By the end, I couldn’t tell if he meant high altitude or high, high in Lemony pines.

“Boris and Betty” is a poem where I felt that Archer Avary was using sleight of hand to reveal a love fading by diverting our attention to the grim reality of a baby hamster’s birth. He seems to be weaving this narrative of the cogent story in front of you, as a totem for the loss of a relationship. He slips the ‘real tale ’so off handily into the margins, you could swear the ball was under the first cup. But it had disappeared altogether. The juxtaposition of modern middle-class life and war in “This Hot Tub is a Bomb Shelter” is one of those poems that reveals for us that one step removed from guilt and that two worlds exist simultaneously, yet it doesn’t try to rectify this conundrum. Voila! The guilt’s there, and then it’s gone in a puff of smoke or hot tub steam.

The incredibly creative and again, humorous “Items Lost in Transit” is a particular favorite of mine. The structure made it feel like I was looking at a diorama not reading a poem. A museum to what we lose both, tangible and intangible. Each section of the poem, titled by the item, what was happening at the time, and where it was found gives you a little insight into something innately human and the talismans we inadvertently leave behind for others to find. I love this poem. It’s a full experience and a bit of an adventure.

“Tales of Near-Death” felt like a Gen-X anthem of disengagement, scabby knees, and deep scars.

“I will bore this

And future generations

With telling & boisterous retellings

I will shout it from the water tower

Atop the beach nut building

Tales of near-death”

I wonder if this is what happens to us aging Gen Xers? Looking around at the bubble-wrapped generations after us, wondering where the passion has gone. Do we bury the trauma of our lonely, dangerous youth in these stories? Who are we to judge with our back alley tales of mundane self-violence, the gentleness, and compassion of those that come after? After all, aren’t we the ones who taught them this gentleness? This piece brought up so many questions for me and how I approach the retelling of my story. For example, I recently spent an evening with a group of friends who’d been so since 7th grade. They talked about how they used to whip each other with rubber fish until they left scars. With pride. This poem reminds me of that reckless experimentation, the lost hours of nothingness that we filled with painful initiations, and the dreams that never came true.

The poems all have a deliciously dark humor that I find almost irresistible.

J. Archer Avary’s collection embraces life in a way that feels today like a distant ache in my heart or the fish-tailed scar on the wrist. Life hurts, but the joy is in surviving, with a good laugh at it all.

"Total Rhubarb" will be out 9 Jan via the fine folks at Back Room Poetry.

J. Archer Avary (he/him) was born in the USA and now lives in Northeast England.

Kellie Scott-Reed -AEIC of Roi Faineant Press and host of “A Word?” With Kellie Scott-Reed.

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