The Youngest Butcher in Illinois
by Robert Ostrom
YesYes Books 2012
Reviewed by Chris Emslie
“All these / joys have alabis”
Robert Ostrom’s The Youngest Butcher in Illinois is sharp and beguiling. The poet’s language is musical and decorative, providing a fitting score for the cinematic ambition of his images. He opens at his most demonstrative; the first poem reads like a tour of a new home—or perhaps a survey of the book’s first section, “Bone Map”—with the speaker helpfully telling us, “Here is the sweetgum in dirt. Here are the bones / rearticulated.” This is a confident welcome, slightly derailed by the throwaway closer, “And you can’t breathe.” From here on out, the ‘showing’ that characterizes the first poem gives way to a persistent questioning: this book is cognitively hungry, and looks always to the reader for its next meal.
Right from the outset we can see a penchant for both linguistic and metaphysical adornment in poems like “From Time to Time by the Skin of Your Face”:
Idle hands, young shoulder, sweat lines,
from a neck to a back, a father stitching
the wound in his arm before it can finish
what it was saying about the godseat. Or was it
the goblet? Numinous iota, I dare you.
There is a tangible playfulness to the way Ostrom puts together a line. His riffing on the similarities between godseat and goblet is emblematic of the way each of his phrases whispers into the ear of the next. Occasionally, this tendency to ornament can veer into the high rhetorical, almost to the point of verbiage—“numinous iota” being a good example. However, these upward leaps are tempered by moments of lucid observation and a bathetic sense of humor: “Like ants bearing mint / across a white counter, it is too much / of a good thing.”
Ostrom uses these snapshots of concrete scrutiny as a springboard into abstraction, and for the most part maintains a good balance between the two. There’s a visual richness that comes into his poems when he takes an observation and runs with it: “I thought of those nuns // who, with their absurd / hands, float / strategically to hymn // machines.” The unexpected appearance of “machines” at the beginning of a stanza keeps the image’s momentum going until the point at which Ostrom can—wisely—let it drop. Now and again, however, he lets the aforementioned high register carry him off, and can stray into archaic phrasing (“who unto me do I deem my boss?”) that sounds a little too fusty for poems that excel in examination and nuance. Indeed, Ostrom is at his best when he lets himself be minimal. “Three Act Structure” is a wonderful little poem—pithy, self-effacing, and charmingly farcical—that deserves to be reproduced in its five-line entirety:
A Calvanist is
hiding in my
attic. I wouldn’t
to come back.
Delivered with the rhythm of a good one-liner, this gem shows Ostrom at his most restrained. That’s not to say his longer poems aren’t accomplished, only that his strength lies in his moments of focus—in short, when he says what he sees.
As the book progresses, Ostrom’s project becomes steadily more specific. “Bone Map” creates a familial mythology in which “impermanence pedals / around a child” still grappling with his most immediate relationships. “In My Father’s Kingdom” tackles God, confession, and several books’ worth of birds in its attempts to bridge the gap between speakers and their surroundings. “To Show the Living”—that is, the two sections with that title—read like a metaphysics exam, in which each poem’s title is a question or exercise: “Provide a picture of your habitat,” “What is done after a person dies?”, “Tell what cannot be told.” These gradually distil into terse exchanges between examiner and examinee which might read as conversational if they weren’t wholly one-sided.
This final section serves to offset the rest of the book, in which Ostrom is continually the one asking, and almost never the one answering. In “I Hereby Declare You Island of Dogs” the speaker addresses this, saying “I have / called on you today because there are questions that be answering.” Instead of fielding his own questions (“But / what chews at my stomach?”, “Am I a horse or a cow?”), Ostrom replies with authoritative non-sequiturs (“You have given birth to so many ghosts”) and vague warnings (“We are not safe here”). It’s this push towards elusive answers that compels the reader forward and makes The Youngest Butcher so readable. While it can be frustrating to have poems demanding so many solutions and offering none, the draw of the unknowable keeps us chasing Ostrom in the hope of a big reveal at the end.