A review of Tricks of Light by Thaddeus Rutkowski

Reviewed by Charles Rammelkamp

Tricks of Light
Great Weather for Media
April 2020, $18, 100 pgs, Paperback, ISBN: 978-0-9981440-7-8

The poem, “God Will See,” which comes toward the end of Thaddeus Rutkowski’s new collection of meditative poems, begins:

“Are you in a hurry?” a young Hassidic man asks
as I wait on my bicycle at an intersection
in South Williamsburg.

He goes on to tell the story of being asked to close a freezer door for the man who, because it is Shabbat, strictly follows the halachic prohibition against work. Though willing to help the man, Rutkowski suggests that if he just closes it himself nobody will know the difference, which is when the man replies that “God will see.”

So much of Tricks of Light is about seeing, and Rutkowski is the consummate flâneur. So often, as in this poem, found noticing things on his bicycle rides. “View from a Bridge,” which of course contains the act of seeing in its very title, is about looking at a couple of boats in the river beneath as he pedals by on his bike. “Steamrolled” is about riding his bike over new pavement, his casual observations. In “Close Call” he is sworn at by an older woman as he bikes through traffic (“‘We’ve got the light, asshole,’ she calls.”) “Shadow Bicycle” and “Hit Again” also consider the traffic hazards of bicycle-riding in a city. “Boy Peeing” is about coming upon a little boy and his mother as the child pees by a tree, having to walk his bike around them. In all of these and others we are privy to Rutkowski’s inner musings, his idle thoughts provoked by what he encounters. “Mystery Bird,” another bike poem, begins:

As I roll along a side street on my bike,
I see what looks like a large bird,
standing on the pavement with its wings spread
at a span of five or six feet.
This bird could be a raptor ready for takeoff.

Turns out it’s one of those traffic warning signs (“WORK AREA”) collapsed on the pavement. In so many of these poems, the narrator “sees” something that isn’t actually there. In “Mimicry” it’s a snail that turns out to be a wad of gum. In “The Speck” he sees a black dot out on the ocean and never does find out exactly what it is. The back of a seal? A dolphin? It’s “so far away it might be a trick of light.” Hence, the title of the book.

Rutkowski ruminates on so many of the little things that usually escape notice. Three poems are devoted to a pet turtle. Imagine that, a turtle, the very definition of a slow-moving, boring thing. Yet in poems like “Turtle’s Cold Day,” we see Rutkowski actually worrying about the animal because of subtle anomalies in her behavior. In “Head Scratching” he observes that he knows why she stretches her legs – “to cool off.” But he’s puzzled by the reason behind her scratching her head. Could it be a mosquito?

Or is she trying to figure out
the answers to difficult questions,
such as where she came from,
why she is here, and where she is going?

This rather amusing and endearing observation brings to mind the old Taoist allegory of spiritual transformation. Chuang-Tzu dreams he is a butterfly, but when he awakes, he wonders if he isn’t really a butterfly dreaming he is Chuang-Tzu. This droll sort of “maybe this/maybe that” idle speculation crops up again and again in these poems. In “No Friends” he writes:

I don’t know if I have close friends,
the kind of people I’d call on the phone
when I have a big issue to discuss.
Maybe I don’t have issues I’d consider big,
and that’s why I don’t want to speak to anyone.

It happens a lot when he considers his family, particularly his daughter. In poem after poem about her – “”Personal Space,” “Empty Nest,” “Color Coordination,” “In the Valley,” “She Has a Map of the City” among them – we see Rutkowski speculating on the things that interest his kid, the things that make her tick.

Some of his more amusing poems about family involve his mother. In “Beef Brisket” it is her failing sense of hearing and her chirping hearing aids that make us smile. He tells her over the phone that his wife is making beef brisket for Passover. “‘East birthday?’ she asks. / ‘No,’ I say. ‘Beef brisket.’” It goes on like this, almost like the famous “Who’s on first?” Abbott and Costello comedy routine. “Doctor Copper” is another. It begins:

I know my mother is feeling better
when she calls her physician Dr. Copper
while his real name is Dr. Coppes.
Maybe she thinks he is more of a law officer
than a doctor….

The poem ends with Rutkowski ruminating on this nickname and wanting to talk to the doctor about his mother’s health, “because he, if anyone, would have the evidence.” You just have to chuckle reading that. How is a doctor like a cop, right? Rutkowski’s poems are a delight to read, for their wry humor, the odd things on which they ponder, and the rich humanity that underlies them all.

About the reviewer: Charles Rammelkamp is Prose Editor for BrickHouse Books in Baltimore and Reviews Editor for The Adirondack Review. A chapbook of poems, Jack Tar’s Lady Parts, is available from Main Street Rag Publishing. Another poetry chapbook, Me and Sal Paradise, was recently published by FutureCycle Press. An e-chapbook has also recently been published online Time Is on My Side (yes it is).  Another chapbook, Mortal Coil, is forthcoming from Clare Songbirds Publishing.