(Edmonds, WA: Ravenna Press, 2021)
In Lord Baltimore, poet Peter Ramos offers a dark vision of mid-to-late twentieth-century America as a lonely urban and sub-urban, post-industrial wasteland. The poems, named for Cecil Calvert, the 18th-century patron saint of Baltimore, teem with images of a hard-working, hard-knock America, where depression, job loss, alcoholism, drug abuse, racism, alienation, loneliness, and violence all grind and spew out disappointment and decay.
In these seemingly autobiographical poems, Ramos—a first-generation US citizen born in the late 1960s to a bi-lingual family of Venezuelan descent—charts the course of a young man trying to establish himself as a poet in Baltimore. The journey is marked by the bleak vistas of divorce, violence, and poverty, all suffered in a country more interested in fencing out than inviting in a gifted LatinX writer aspiring not to a life of physical, but of intellectual labor.
Chekhov writes that talent lies in the artists’ ability to select the right, most telling details from a multitude of possibilities. By this light, Ramos is extremely talented, for his poems are populated with exquisite details that quickly tell a story of chaos and misery, hopelessness and despair. Per Ramos himself, his poems are rooted in William Carlos Williams’s credo: “no ideas but in things.” The poems in Lord Baltimore do not live in lush things, but rather beneath precisely drawn brown-encrusted cityscapes, and the reader is placed smack in the middle of a life burdened with rage and pain. Concrete and rooted, these poems are superb little miniatures, urban-suburban wails of blunted passion and blocked opportunities.
The poems are presided over by images torn from violence: a fist-wielding father, an abandoning mother, hard relationships with women. There are also burnt-out malls and lonely motels littering American highways, and descriptions of untouchable blonde women floating in pools, wearing little more than ankle bracelets, beckoning with red fingernails and lips. These are poems of an outsider looking in on an America he wants to be welcomed into, but before which he stands confused and, at times, self-defeating. There is little redemption in these bleak landscapes, and more truth than beauty in the raw events detailed. But, oh, what details!
In addition to being a poet, Peter Ramos is a drummer, scholar, as well as a Professor of English at SUNY Buffalo. Two years ago, Ramos published his first scholarly tome: Poetic Encounters in the Americas, an abstruse study of the inter-filiations between poets of South, Central, and North America. If Ramos’s scholarship can be erudite, his poetry is anything but—it is instead raw and exciting. Also, the raw quality of the jacket design (by Peter Tully Owen) shows a Baltimore factory, a fitting place from which Ramos’s poems, including the 15-page epic “Lord Baltimore,” can be sung.
The book’s most constant and underlying theme is of being a member of the outsider class, as the poet evinces a stinging bitterness at the exclusions of race and class. In “Notes on the State of Virginia,” the protagonist walks behind a pal all day “holding on to my grudges, child-like / and secondary: Ole Jim to your Huck.” In “Can’t Get There from Here,” the protagonist and his teenage brother, set to play in a band that night, are routed to the back door at a county fair because they aren’t allowed in through the front. Black humor reigns in “Immigrant Song,” where Ramos pictures himself as a rebellious, father-hating teen playing Led Zeppelin behind a slammed bedroom door, then pictures his father as a teen in Venezuela soothed by the Four Tops on an old radio, followed by imaginings of his grandfather rapping a tango on the wall of his coffin because “music guides” the “frustrated coups” of his paternal line. “What else can we do?” he asks, summarizing the rage of generations of immigrant men born more for hard labor than kingship. In the brief poem “The Stain” he depicts his troubled relationship with his father, remembering being punched by him: “the metallic taste / in my mouth for years——father-blood / of the cup, the cross, the busted lip / of all my raw-knuckled progenitors.”
But Ramos’s wounded sense of disenfranchisement is most compellingly expressed in the ironically titled, bitterly sarcastic prose poem “Charming Poet Who Loves Good Company and Drink.” The speaker depicts himself as a laborer entering a gated community pulling behind him a three-hundred-pound gorilla in a cage. As careful as he tries to be, the “slightest unavoidable dip” in the road jolts the gorilla awake. Once awakened, the gorilla butts his skull against the bamboo bars and looks for a gumdrop given by “one of your pale and flat-chested Debbies” and, to the horror of the onlookers, expels “amplified flatulence” while he juggles his genitals. This grotesque self-portrait contradicts the poet’s conception of himself as “a charming poet who loves good company and drink.” The poet tries to hold his “head high” before the shocked onlookers, but in a just few quick strokes, Ramos has conveyed the humiliation of being a brown man, an outsider in America.
There are, though, poems that have tenderness in them. In “Father’s Day at the Artist’s Colony” Ramos offers a delightful image of a beloved “apple-cheeked” daughter who toddles “arms akimbo,” “unsteady” as a “little hobo.” But Ramos ends even this charming little poem quickly, projecting onto that doddering daughter’s body his grown-up knowledge of poverties and humiliations to come, as the poem ends with a powerful stanza of direct address that calls Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach” to mind: “dearest / be aware”; this evening’s “full moon” which seems a “throbbing dream / Bauble” and “pretty ball” to be thrown up and admired “has a stinger hidden in its head.”
In another poem showing a rare tenderness toward himself, Ramos bewails a soured middle age, describing himself as a “listless cuerpo”; a “worn out / Corazon” and “dried-up garbanzo bean / or deepest self” where “no one is home.” But again, the poem turns quickly dark when he states that he would rather kill himself than suffer this listless malaise, even if he has to grab the “crackling / powerline / instead of all this / nervous pitter-patter / jazz this cloying be-bop distractedness.”
In “Notes on the State of Virginia” Ramos provides the reader with a gorgeous description of “musical gnat-clouds” that ride “over the brook” in a “light-dazzle / on water’s skin / and wet pebbles.” But nature is not this poet’s natural setting. If much of the history of poetry dwells on what is beautiful, lyrical, and lovely—blue skies, big white puffy clouds, birds singing in the trees—there is almost nothing of that here: here the settings are urban and decayed suburban; the interiors squalid; the speaker’s mind is on a seemingly deliberate path of hard drink in a dark and uninviting world. Each poem depicts a knock-down, drag-out life in an unforgiving setting, and Ramos does a stand-up job of enumerating the sufferings.
Another example of Ramos’s ability to articulate that which is not typically deemed poetic is the ironically titled “Landscape Painting,” in which Ramos describes a raunchy roadside American motel that is as parsimoniously bleak and commercially utilitarian as a Constable painting is lush. Ramos’s motel portrays a lonely one-story “rancher” with tacky “pink” and “aqua-blue” colors, a “roadside pool,” and “eleven white doors and windows / and air-conditioning units in a row.” Inside, in the Manager’s Office, there’s “an ice-maker, exhausted, in back.” Beyond that, there are “bare trees, another wheat field, nothing”; the “nothing” signifying the nothing offered this poet midway on his life’s bleak journey from nowhere into nowhere across America. The next stanza takes you inside the motel where the grey carpeting that warms your bare feet is stained and where not flowers but mildew “blooms” in the bathroom—there’s a Zenith TV on the wall, and an orange bedspread with a “worn out rib cord” on the bed. If at night “dusk smears the broken windows with gold,” this would-be pleasure is lost on a miserable man who has already left “three empties gleaming on the nightstand by noon.”
In nearly all, but most clearly in the title poem “Lord Baltimore,” Ramos’s poems presume the wire fencing of a violent life: not only his father’s violence toward him but the violence of hard physical labor, as the protagonist goes from a young man to a poet, a poet that descends into a new hell with different kinds of labor. Instead of pursuing poetry along heavenly avenues of thought, he finds himself drinking by night in an apartment where the “bathtub [is] clogged, the taps / run rusty, [and] the kitchen cabinets pulse / all night with bugs.” By day, he works, climbing up “a ladder with brush and pail / and wooden stir-stick and strok[ing] / two coats of Rust-Oleum on a broiling industrial / rooftop.” If what Ramos wants and dreams of in moving to Baltimore as a young man is to “indulge in high talk, inspired / whole lives of art / and poetry stretched ahead,” then the lines of “brush and pail” show that what Ramos finds instead is the bitter truth of a life of poverty in a baking industrial wasteland, a life that everyday mocks the beauty he seeks. In Lord Baltimore, the young poet Peter Ramos descends into a hard life of poverty and alcoholism smeared with “old walls / slough[ing] a colorless powder, plaster / plus accumulations of dandruff, the dead / skin of decades, generations / of idealism” lying in a dust that “covers everything.”
The dust that “covers everything” wins over in these poems. What is left is a faint gleam of life beating under the sinister glow of a leaded corporate lamp.
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Lisa Low’s poetry has appeared in Valparaiso Poetry Review, Green Hills Literary Lantern, American Journal of Poetry, Evening Street Review, Free State Review, Good Works Review, Phoebe, The Potomac Review, Delmarva Review, Broken Plate, and Tusculum among other literary journals. She is co-editor with Anthony Harding of Milton, the Metaphysicals, and Romanticism. She received her doctorate in English from the University of Massachusetts and spent twenty years as an English professor, teaching at Cornell College; Colby College; and Pace University. Visit her at lisalowwrites.com.