MACHINATIONS OF A BLACK SABBATICAL: Mark Danowsky on Brett Eugene Ralph’s Black Sabbatical

Black Sabbatical, Brett Eugene Ralph, Sarabande Books

“He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man”.
-Dr. Johnson

“When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.”
-Dr. Hunter S. Thompson

Brett Eugene Ralph’s poetry collection “Black Sabbatical”, addresses a cross-section of subcultures in American’s Derby Country, and is as readable for the doomed as it is for the intellectual aristocracy. In these works, Ralph juxtaposes the flowery language typical of canonical works with the crassness of the everyday. In so doing the author expands his readership to a wider audience.

This back and forth between the borderline highfalutin and the commonplace is exemplified in works like “Real Numbers” where Ralph seems to poke fun at the poet’s tendency toward Romantic tones as he writes: “I squatted, a hunter wondering / just what my buddy’d bagged / in that Bardo of deep freeze / and cinder block, of pipes / resurrected by duct tape, an ancient / latticework of webs … In order words, / we snorted crystal meth / right off the concrete steps. / God knows the slivers, / how much grit, / which inscrutable organism / I invited in” and so forth. In his “Acknowledgements”, Ralph notes that the passage introducing “Real Numbers” is from a book of sayings about the Buddha adding yet another point of contrast, in this case, the religious angle.

Keeping in mind the beastliness of humanity I wonder what Ralph is getting at when in “Great Horned Visitation” he writes, “But what are we / that such magnificent creatures have to die / before they’ll let us touch them.” Sounds to me like a poignant truth, but not at all surprising when one takes under considerations some of the actions by humans in Ralph’s other poems within the collection. Take for instance the beginning of the very next poem, chronologically, in the collection, “Tell City”, which begins: “Somebody stripped / the bark from the trees. It’s worse / than being burned. For reasons / we needn’t go into / I’m assuming it was a man.” Another example comes from “Mudra”, in which Ralph writes, “I saw myself speckled with blood and Pepsi, saw the gashes this machine would make as I dismantled it with my hands.” Sometimes the beastliness is fully realized as when a boy named Junior is said to be “obliterating mailboxes with a bat” in another piece titled “Reindeer Games”

Some of the lines in these poems are almost casual, off-hand comments. At times they are explanatory, but almost as if the author is pleading with the reader to understand his position. Other comments give the impression that he may be muttering or trailing off—a sort of afterthought that he could not bear to part with. There are obvious similarities between Ralph’s poetic voice appear in the lyrical style of his country rock ensemble “Brett Eugene Ralph’s Kentucky Chrome Revue” (BERKCR), which likewise allows Ralph to regale us with stories. Whether on paper or voiced, Ralph appears just as comfortable tossing about off-hand comments—but somehow these asides seem much more natural in latter format. Another reader noted the way these comments often begin as clichés and then catch you off guard. This twist comes in the form of reality to ground the false certitude that lies in the cliché.

In Black Sabbatical, the reader follows the poet thru a maze of imagery as he pieces together recollected memories, mulls his life choices, his struggles, and begins to reconcile past experiences with his ideal self. Although plainly he’s found himself in precarious scenarios, he is also a teacher, a musician, and a poet—a balance not many of us are fortunate enough to maintain.


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