In Nick Ripatrazone’s This is Not About Birds, “NRA stickers,” Nixon, and Theodore Roethke appear alongside the remnants of childhood, the end result being a thought- provoking revision of traditional coming-of-age stories. Presented as a series of thematically linked persona poems, the collection depicts personal identity as being circumscribed by culture, its conventions, and the various objects that accumulate because of them. As Ripatrazone interrogates the boundaries between individual and collective, his collection proves to be as finely crafted as it is philosophical.
Ripatrazone’s presentation of a few carefully chosen imagistic motifs proves to be impressive as the collection unfolds. Frequently invoking the ephemera associated with popular culture—including bumper stickers, Westerns, and the occasional V.H.S. tape—Ripatrazone’s poems use these objects to mirror, and often complicate, the narratives he constructs for characters within the book. He does not attempt to draw clear boundaries between the inner lives of these characters and the cultural artifacts that surround them, but rather, he embraces the permeable boundaries of the self. He writes in “Good Morning,”
The Westclox AM/FM digital radio
had a cassette recorder: my father
taped the bass line of “Good Times”
and then scratchy Robert Plant,
but one weekend he had us,
my brother and I captured his
Here Ripatrazone suggests the myriad ways in which the individual’s experience is mediated by shared culture, its rituals, and its various artifacts. “Good Morning” subtly suggests the ways that one may subvert these received ideas about the world, thus claiming agency over culture. Yet Ripatrazone adeptly problematizes such an interpretation by interspersing this personal narrative with brand-names, implying that even acts of subversion are mediated by the society one inhabits. This is Not About Birds is filled with finely crafted poems like this one, which lend themselves to multiple careful readings.
Ripatrazone’s use of the persona poem to explore these recurring themes proves equally impressive. He frequently underscores the commonalities between different individuals’ experiences, suggesting that popular culture wields a somewhat homogenizing influence. Yet the book also suggests the myriad ways that individuality manifests itself within this sea of “V.H.S. tapes,” “strip joints,” and “Pilates.” Ripatrazone’s best work explores this intersection of individual and collective consciousness. He explains in a piece entitled “Crossing,” written in the voice of a high school swim team member,
We idled in the Oldsmobile while the cargo
train slowed forward. I paged through
his Frye catalog and recognized his pair among
Earthen Clay, Burnt Chestnut, Hand Stained
Brown. Each stood against backgrounds
of mountains and rivers. He asked
if I liked boots but my answer
was lost under the shuddering rails. (22)
Ripatrazone presents us the detritus of a consumer economy—a landscape littered with Oldsmobiles and shoe catalogues—yet also suggests that this glittering ephemera retains a dark side. Just as the character in the poem fails to fit within this paradigm because of his sexual orientation, the poem suggests that alienation proves inevitable for those who are part of collective. This theme surfaces throughout the poems, as hunters, daredevils, and swimmers find themselves at turns accepted by and estranged from the people who surround them. In many ways, Ripatrazone’s use of the persona poem illustrates for the reader the many forms that alienation can take. His presentation of a single theme becomes increasingly complex and multifaceted as the book unfolds. As a result, the myriad voices within the manuscript retain a wonderful sense of unity when considered as a whole. Nick Ripatrazone’s This is Not About Birds is a spectacular new addition to this writer’s body of work, as finely crafted as it is insightful—a truly remarkable book.