“American Mastodon” by Brad Ricca

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Few poets choose to share poignant emotions with a cheeky smile and a sly wink. It is rare indeed when a poet manages to successfully blend comedy with genuine emotional insight, but that is exactly what Brad Ricca has accomplished with his first collection, American Mastodon.

Discussing Ricca’s poems without mentioning his eclectic array of narrators would be impossible. From a fearful Sasquatch seeking refuge in a department store during the madness of the holiday shopping season to a frantic dog launched into space by the Soviets, the characters who populate American Mastodon are as varied as the subjects of Ricca’s poems. However, rather than use such voices for the sake of mere experimentation, Ricca captures moments that are universal to us all, skillfully combining unrequited love, loss, and vulnerability with moments of comic relief to great effect.

While most of the poems in American Mastodon are told from the perspective of humans, there are many works in the collection that offer the reader a different viewpoint. Household pets, supernatural, and cryptozoological narrators have their own stories to tell, often revealing uniquely human characteristics that make make Ricca’s voice so unique and his work so compelling. In “The World Minus Five Feet Four,” Ricca uses the perspective of dogs to create an eerily ominous story in which mysterious men dispose of a body, the animals’ keen senses revealing small yet sinister details that hint at the dark events unfolding:

When it is done,
there is the communal wagging of tails
(always this)
before the tall men in the dark windbreakers.
Why? Because the rolled carpet
at their feet
is heavier than it should be.
Those who know why
will haunt their houses forever,
till the mail drifts like snow
and the milk has gone sour.

Ricca frequently uses small details to reveal larger truths throughout American Mastodon. In poems such as “Bartleby and Emily Dickinson’s First Date,” he provides the reader with subtle clues that serve to develop his characters in an economical way while examining the underlying emotional subtext.

Ricca’s talent for characterization is evident in many of the poems in the collection, and several of the narrators reveal their shortcomings while retaining a voice that is entirely their own. In works such as “It Is Not Fake; Therefore It Is Real” and “Super-Villain Team-Up,” we see hints of vulnerability in a confident yet contemplative Mexican wrestler, and the arrogance and weariness of an embattled evil genius. While Ricca clearly relishes the opportunity to tell stories from the perspectives of well-known pop culture archetypes, the events that transpire in his poems carry a weight and an emotional resonance rarely seen in such an imaginative context.

Appealing to the Jungian notion that our most personal experiences are also the most universal, Ricca bravely mines his own past— or creatively embellishes upon it for the sake of the work—in several of the poems in American Mastodon. The self-congratulatory elitism that can be observed in college campuses across the country is witheringly exploited to great comic effect in “Liberal Arts,” Ricca’s wry, sardonic wit evident throughout:

No it is always junior faculty in catalog clothing
on the edge of their delivered couches,
staring into the Discovery Channel
as if it had beautiful eyes
(as in: brown or blue or some partnered You).
The channel’s broad, tenored voice now:
“Most penguins spend up to 75% of their life in water.”
and that’s good! that’s so perfect! they say to the walls,
to their khakis,
writing it down like directions to a party
to which they bring wine.

Similarly, “The Horrible Confession” and “Workshop” provide the reader with glimpses of situations that may be familiarly uncomfortable. The anxiety and guilt a child feels after committing an act of plagiarism, and the schoolteacher’s failure to uncover his secret, is contrasted by a warmth and fondness that many people will recognize. “Workshop” hilariously recounts experiences common to more than a few writer’s groups, and Ricca cleverly reveals the indifference and assumed superiority of the instructor:

The teacher of poetry,
from Washington Heights, NY
displaced into red
Oxford, Ohio
is enormously tall
and told us on the first day
that if there was a Woody Allen movie at The Princess,
he did not want to see us there.

However, as skilfully as Ricca uses comic relief throughout American Mastodon, the collection includes several moving poems of strong emotional substance. Works such as “The Poorest” demonstrate excellent use of pacing and foreshadowing to reveal the furtive racism and ignorance sadly evident in much of suburban America, while the metaphor of foreign policy is used to relay the anger and bitterness of a failed relationship in “Non-Diplomatic Solution.” Ricca offers us fleeting glimpses of the invisible lives we pass every day in poems such as “Still Life with Supermarket,” capturing the melancholy of the mundane through careful observations and subtle physical details. Ricca presents his characters and their stories through the lens of popular culture in a way that is both remarkably creative and uniquely insightful.

Ricca departs from playful humor in some of the later poems in the collection, turning his attention to darker subjects in works like “This Ends Now (R),” the barely-restrained rage of which contrasts well with lighter poems. Despondent memories and the tenderness of quiet resolve define poems such as “Inevitable,” and “Open-Ended MRI,” two of the most moving works in American Mastodon. Ricca tells these stories with a weary resignation that reveals the vulnerability and faltering hope of his narrators, once again demonstrating a diverse and confident voice rarely seen in debut collections.

At first glance, American Mastodon is an entertaining, bold, and wholly original collection of poems. However, upon closer inspection, there is a depth and resonance evident in Ricca’s work that deserves to be recognized. The vitality and humanity of his narrators deftly serve to illustrate the fact that, whether told from the perspective of an undead Irish poet or Godzilla, emotionally compelling poetry is universal.

Dan Shewan is a nonfiction writer and essayist based in New England. His work has appeared in a wide range of publications in print and online, from national newspapers to small literary journals. He is currently working on his first book. Follow Dan on Twitter @danshewan, or read more of his work at danshewan.co. More from this author →