Even though Old News, Ryan Eckes’ first book of poems, is very much a Philadelphia book, the poems can easily register with anyone who has lived in a close-knit neighborhood or who has tried to be a part of a community and knows the feeling of wanting to be accepted but not quite fitting in, stuck with the label of “newcomer,” or “outsider,” or simply “not-one-of-us.” Despite being a native of Philadelphia, Eckes finds himself in new territory when he moves to an Italian neighborhood in South Philly. According to the author’s bio note, these poems were written over the course of one year, from Spring 2008 to Spring 2009, and chart Eckes moving into a new home and seeing his marriage end. The poems also offer a glimpse into Philadelphia’s strange past, based on old news articles from 1923 which were found covering the floor when Eckes tore out the old carpets in his house.
The poems run between lyric and narrative with many of them having a steam-of-conscious-like feel as the speaker makes leaps in ideas and imagery from line-to-line. The second poem in the book, “odd years,” raises the question, sans question mark, “where are we going,” a question that hints at an underlying restlessness and/or lack of direction, a question that shows up again later in the collection. The poems spring from the purchase of a house and deal in part with what goes into making it a home–roofers, neighbors, and lawn care. But a sense of discomfort underlies this attempt to settle in. In “jogging the O,” a title which recalls a mouse running in a wheel getting nowhere, Eckes writes, “people say but you own it / but i know it owns me.”
One of the sources of the speaker’s discomfort is his neighbor Frankie, who is first described in “how to get around”:
he still works for the union, listens to rush limbaugh, and complains about the traffic in this town. you think it’s pushing you, he says, but you’re really dragging it. so why don’t you just take the subway, i say. ah, the subway, he says, well the subway’s a little too dark for me if you know what i mean.
Despite Frankie’s racism, he is someone the speaker has to deal with in his neighborhood. At times the speaker even wonders what he has done to upset Frankie: “why won’t Frankie talk to me? / when i say hello i get barely / a nod back” (from “cake”). However, the speaker allows his anger to boil over in “inside the scowl,” a poem that looks at separate instances of racism in the neighborhood, from the Italian men on the corner scowling as the speaker walks by with his wife, who is South American, to letters trashing Barack Obama in the South Philly Review, to his own participation in segregation:
…and i thought of my daily
rituals–joining the herd of other white people
after work as they spill out the east exit
of tasker-morris station while the blacks
herd themselves out the west exit and then
walking home along that border–how
ridiculous, i thought, this frustration we call
For the speaker, Frankie becomes the embodiment of all of this. However, he remains to be a source of confusion for the speaker. In a later poem, “every 20 minutes,” Frankie tells someone that at one time you would find another dialect just by walking twenty minutes in any direction. The speaker says, “i can’t tell if he laments a more integrated / homogenized present / or if he prefers it.”
The speaker’s relationship is another source of conflict in the collection. Early in the book, “in love,” begins with a scene of happiness:
we biked down broad as fast we could
caught dust in our eyes and laughed
knowing the storm would beat us home
having said fuck it all lightning wind
the whole bit and we rode into total
But as the speaker races into the house, his wife remains behind, crying and holding up a recently planted sapling in their yard. She calls on him to grab string from the house, but he is too slow, so she races past him and saves the tree herself. There’s an ambiguity at the end of the poem where the speaker stands there watching on “soaked in dumbness dumbstruck.” Does the speechlessness arise from respect and awe at his wife for taking charge and saving this tree? Or is there something else there–why was this tree, described as “little charlie brown xmas tree,” so significant? The tree becomes a symbol for their relationship–young and struggling:
we dumped how much water into that thing its leaves burned up anyway and gone by the start of fall: bare, crude fork stuck in the sidewalk like a spade, still there, stupid. metaphor for my marriage, em’s marriage. (from “little charlie brown xmas tree”)
Despite the book encompassing the gloom of a failed marriage and addressing twenty-first century racism, there are a number of beautiful moments throughout and some humor too, like in “a conversation,” that shows conflict between the speaker and his wife, but also acknowledges absurdity on the speaker’s part who ironically tells his wife, “your country’s pretty racist and classist,” and later claims, “the whole way i live my life is a protest.” The news article poems that are interspersed throughout the collection focus on odd bits of local news: “Forgets Child On Train,” “Horse Runs Wildly,” “Bridge Hermit Strangely Killed,” and “Parrot Laughs at Firemen: Four Fall into Pit While Fighting Blaze; Chickens Rescued” are just some of the headlines pulled from the collection of 1923 The Evening Bulletins and Philadelphia Enquirers.
Old News successfully immerses the reader into a specific moment in time, in a single neighborhood, complete with all its quirkiness, tensions, and strange history. And while Eckes concludes one poem, “we’ve heard this story before / like 600 billion times already,” there’s nothing tired or played out in this collection.