A review of The Homesick Mortician by Peter Mladinic

Reviewed by Matt Usher

The Homesick Mortician
by Peter Mladinic
February 2024, Paperback, 96 pages, ISBN-13: 978-1609644710

Death is more engaging than life. Life, so to speak, passively happens to us. You might try to live mas, as the trite ad-speak goes. Maybe you’ll finally get around to that diet and exercise routine that’s been haunting the back of your mind. Will you look to preserve your physical form through surgeries, ointments, or creepy blood transfusions from the youth? Life is an oleaginous cadger; just one more moment. A few more notes before the coda.

Death though, death has so very much more depth. There’s the automatic consideration of course: what happens when we die? A good argument could be made that a fair third or so of human effort has been spent trying to answer just that question, between the efforts of religion, philosophy, and anxiety. Then there’s the further question of how not to die; this is the eventual aim of scraping for more life. A chase exists with respect to the pursuer after all. Ours is a presence whose mask and domino conceal the skullish face of the one who ushers us to, as Anthony Powell wrote, our “Last conclusions, please”. Not being killed is well enough a struggle of its own, not to mention the struggle of staving off natural deaths. For that is what the above is; these actions are not the doings of life, they are the fearful palisades put between the living and the reaper coming to harvest wheat that started to rot quite some time ago.

A man’s life is not complete if he has not experienced love, poverty, and war. So an old saying goes, at least. As one notices, it is a man in particular. The expectations and assumptions about the value of these experiences are all very masculine. Regardless, we are culturally pinioned to this notion and no one in America, at least, is free from it. Love dominates our entertainment, our apps, and, for many, a good portion of our headspace. Poverty is the lash that keeps the laborer in place; very often it is also their companion. Then there are, as there must be, the forgotten: the chronically poor. The quote assumes a tourist’s visit in poverty, just enough to give a bracing sense of having overcome it. And there is war. The gloomy recruiting center with its less than honorable tactics, be all that you can be, semper fi, free school, free car, free ticket to foreign lands to…

Peter Mladninic takes a fair shot at covering all three of the above in The Homesick Mortician, though here we should replace war with death. Death is the main actor and takes the stage right off with the eponymous poem, with a cameo by love: “She buried the man who took her/to the senior prom”. At this first blush we become acquainted with many of the patterns and themes that will follow. Bereavement, memories painted with Americana, blunt descriptions of demises, and then the poetic touches. The foremost pattern that is kept up is stanza shape and length. Largely one finds even stanzas with mostly even lines that tend to start with a firm idea and dissolve into stream of consciousness enjambment as the poem continues. There is an urgency to this breaking down of line structure, often bridged by run-on thoughts strung together by comma fasteners. It is a compelling style, one that makes the collection very readable at a quick clip. In some cases, as with the first poem, structure reasserts itself at the end with a strong strike upon the bell of reality: “They brought him home.”

There’s a sort of synecdoche to a subset of these poems:

We are far from an ocean
far from a river, a sizeable lake,
yet underground water sustains us.


Shaking the cottonwood
I’m the northwind,
the o in work
in the Will Work for Food sign
at Turner and Sanger.

The poet’s voice here stands in for quite a lot, though often quite vaguely. We are left with a sense that we have a pinprick through the sheet of life: we have an, often short, poem to help us assimilate a complex set of sensations. The attentive reader has of course noticed that we touch upon poverty here with the invocation of the desperate with little recourse but to paint that sign. Here, as with the rest of the collection, we stay firmly in the perspective of one who watches poverty, but is not a participant in serious depth.

As we proceed through the first handful of poems, we reach White House/Death House, a view of politics through the sanguinary lens of perpetrators of mass catastrophe. More than anything, what it recalled to me was Ballard’s The death of John Fitzgerald Kennedy considered as a downhill motor race. The same sublimation of death into politics and the reverse, a certain irreverence for both subjects, and an intensity of perspective. It is thought-provoking, reflecting upon the often considered connection between politics and death. How many death warrants have been signed in a placid, stultified session of lawmakers? Are they not themselves manifestos that are followed, at a convenient distance, by drone strikes? As it was with McVeigh: bombs do not discriminate. Politics will come to be more strongly present later in the collection.

Mladinic is strongest when he is at his rawest: unfiltered expression without ideology. The eponymous poem is compelling because it takes a bleak, yet affecting, moment of grief over an ironic expiry. Dotted throughout are poems of this type, of fleeting love, poverty that yields no lessons but suffering, and death that gives us no answers. Here the diction flows easily in a natural voice that meets Orwell’s standard: like a pane of glass. It shows us the brute realities without allowing us to blink. We stare clearly through the poesy to the quickly compartmentalized truths and thoughts of reality. In these cases, Mladinic allows us no somas.

What we might glibly term race relations enters with Heebie-jeebies Love, a herald of a sparing subtheme. Mladinic is somewhat out of his depth here: the contrasts are too simple, mentions to white privilege are awkward, and Subway Vigilante approaches the tone-deaf with mentions of ‘Gangstas’. There are only a few mentions of explicit race, with one or two attempts at serious contemplation. One worries that criminal violence and cops are the only frame within which black people exist in The Homesick Mortician. Death indeed, but in unfavorable waters. They leave a lingering taste upon the tongue that will recur with later poems.

A very present theme is scraps of Americana that serve as Mladinic’s version of Proust’s madeleines. “Two dimes and a nickel could buy you a pack of Lucky Strike.” starts a poem which goes on to evoke dogs, muscular athletes, and World War II. War here, but also quotidian life. Do we count as moribund thoughts of a pack of unfiltered cigarettes? Here Mladinic has an easy, casual tone with touches of nostalgia. These are places where the poems flow smoothly. Strewn through other poems are mentions of classic products, popular songs, figures of the time, and so forth. The other touchstone is the American midwest and far south: mesas and canyons, badlands and tumbleweeds. Much like Cormac McCarthy you can feel the years the author spent in those locales and how much of it is in his bones. Mladinic writes well when he writes from his bones.

We near the end of the first third of the book and come upon one of the author’s very clear passions expressed in an example of a favored mode of voicing. How Amazing brings us to the final chamber that many a stray will see and keeps us close while the last rites are administered. The voice is a bitterly ironic portrait of the in favor motion: a list of why it’s the right thing to do highlights the poet’s vehement distaste for the proceedings, complete with the hand wringing of the pet-lover who is yet in favor of these ‘population management’ measures. This is Mladinic at his best: he wields a stinging lash of harsh ironies, allowing no easy respite before a very real consequence of our society. Read it and see; if you believe in pet control, how well do your rationalizations hold up?

This is not the only time that Mladinic will ventriloquize another side of a painted circumstance, and largely to great effect. He does not so much get deeply into the psychology of his puppet as he draws out the inconsistencies and flaws of their ontological makeup and presents us with the voice, not of the subject, but of the idea. It is to his credit that he makes this transition so naturally by immersing us in the sardonic casting of words that gives a voice to their superego; the bitterly cutting through affect to the unvarnished consequences of belief.

Notably here, though, is that the imaginative transference is circumscribed, perhaps out of modesty. We, almost entirely, occupy the ersatz brain of that creature of creatures: the straight, white, cis man. Very rarely does the poet’s quill stray far from this mode. That may be for the best.

Around the halfway point we enter into what was only hinted at in the first of the selection. Mladinic has a militarist bent (from the pro soldier standpoint), rather favors the police, and is even willing to give a very generous ode to Rudy Giuliani’s early terms. This, though, comes with a bitter cascade into calumny against what we might politely call Rudy’s deliquescence. Sorry Frank, I don’t think there’s any coming back from that melting head incident. It is delivered, again, in a stand-in voice: the immortal “I” reciting the stages of Giuliani’s terms in his own voice.To proceed in reverse, it is hard to be more plainly contra Black Lives Matter or ACAB than penning a poem titled Blue Lives Save Lives. Gone here is the ironic voice, complete with a very picturesque thought of a black cop and white cop in relative harmony talking down a larger veteran beset with PTSD.. Very plainly writ is the poet’s time in the Navy, as described in the back pages bio. Vietnam is the war du jour, complete with somewhat blasé mention of comfort women. What one lacks, however, is the vital force that drives the earlier poems. It is hard to outface

This is just one instance
of cops meeting danger head on,
of cops doing only what cops
can do. They do it night and day.
What should we do? Thank them,
support them against the insults,
criticism, assaults of the haters.

in point of leaden poesy; we have strayed from poetry into propaganda. Not to be missed is that this is Mladinic at his most tame poetic structure; something is lost here. We might add a caveat to Orwell’s axiom: All art is, but should not solely be, propaganda. Along with a favorable mention of a Guardian Angel and strewn, positive mentions of gay people, what we are reading is inked by the broad pen of the American centrist. It is passionate, but at the same time it is lumpen and content. The fury is circumscribed by a certain comfort in things as they are. Mladinic’s passions are strong, yes, but they are not transgressive or dangerous ideas: animal rights, support of police, anti-January 6th, take care of our veterans.The truth, one is told, is in the middle.

Now that we’ve addressed the thematic journey of The Homesick Mortician, we can closely listen to the poetic form in which it is sung. As mentioned before, the most formal element is the adherence to a generally standard stanza structure – many lines of four, generally even numbers of lines, consistent lengths through the poems. Elsewhere, we have little attachment to poetic form. In truth, there is a dearth of concepts to analyze when it comes strictly to poetic structure. Free verse is what it is, and you’ve likely already decided how you feel about it.  There are not, to my eye, any specific poem styles; not a sonnet to be seen. Rhymes are incidental if they occur at all. Meter strictly stands aside in preference to meaning; put aside your scansion glasses. Avert your gaze if you cherish a love for iambs. Enjambment reigns most freely here, lending itself to an urgent stream of consciousness voicing for most of the poems. The voice is stark, ironical, and unashamedly American in its bones, both in culture and value. Diction is largely simple and accessible, which does well to make the mark of stark truths in Mladinic’s poetic voice upon the reader. Assonance is not so much strived for as it is emergent; Mladinic typically allows words to flow naturally, not so much akin to spoken words, but as intrusive thoughts, bleak and grim. 

Most of the poems are easily digestible at a rate of one per page, with the longest being but two to three. The poet grazes briefly from subject to subject; the organization is not lent toward discrete thematic strains. It, much like the poems themselves, blows in whichever direction Mladinic’s wind is blowing at the time. That said, it is well compiled – we do not hit false harmonies – the work is absent of any unpleasant friction in its flow from poem to poem. We are immersed in Mladinic’s vision of love, poverty, war, and death, and it’s worth a nice, long soak.

By this point you’ve likely an idea of how you’ll feel about the poetic voice and the authorial tendencies alike. If you like free form poetry, wistful Americana undercut with sardonic wit, or meditations on four of the most compelling of human subjects, give The Homesick Mortician a try. It’s a brisk walk at a neat ninety pages and neither drags nor overstays its welcome. And after all, each moment we read is a step closer to that home for which our mortician was sick.

About the reviewer: Matt Usher is an agender, highly neurodivergent writer and musician who likes poetry, tabletop roleplaying, trading card games (mtg and ygo), and professional wrestling. They are based out of Brooklyn with their two partners in a happy polecule.  Most of their works are short stories but it happened that their first credit was in literary criticism. If you want to reach out and/or contact them regarding their reviews or stories (please do), you can find them at https://bsky.app/profile/mattusher.bsky.social