December 12th, 2011
Reviewed by David Cremean
Black Hills State University, Spearfish, South Dakota
Western American Literature Fall 2011, Volume 46, Number 3 pgs. 336-337.
The title and cover art of Jim Reese’s fine volume of poetry, ghost on 3rd, evokes thoughts of the film Field of Dreams. Unlike the film, Reese’s life spans two states not of being but of geography (and more than two of being), neither of them the film’s alleged “heaven” of Iowa. Rather, Reese lives in northern Nebraska and works mainly in southern South Dakota. Both of his primary locales sit near Powell’s one hundredth meridian, better than most determinants for where the American West begins. Nonetheless, if anything, Reese’s world is at once more haunted and more full of life than the classic baseball film.
Still young enough to be blessed and cursed with the label “emerging poet,” Reese has previously published two chapbooks and another complete volume of poetry, These Trespasses (Backwaters Press, 2005). The 50 poems in this current volume are accessible without lacking depth and colloquially literary–and thus in the American grain. They also spread sufficient humor to prove truly serious, moored to rather than mired in their senses of place. Reese touches life throughout: at times caressingly in family poems about his grandfather, parents, two daughters; at times nostalgically (though never maudlinly) in poems about his past; at times probingly, as in three poems about serving as a guest-teacher in San Quentin. The poems are full of grit and goodness, guns and grace, gin–and tonic.
Their author certainly possesses both a poet’s eye and sense of the order in disorder, the disorder in order. The volume’s opening poem, “This Havelock,” about the Nebraska town fused with Lincoln, is a paragraph/prose poem consisting of a leavetaking. It riffs on James Welch’s “Harlem, Montana” throughout, but especially near its end: “I have to leave you, Havelock. . . .” Though Reese includes two other poems in the same basic style—both reaching into a past more distant and spaced to set off new sections of the book—“Havelock” in particular works as transition from the world of deceptively poetic prose (or prosaic poetry) into the more conventionally structured 49 following poems.
The most impressive poems within the collection are “Ghost on 3rd” (the “G” capitalized unlike in the book title) and three San Quentin poems, “Waking to San Quentin,” “Jesus Christ Pose,” and “I was at San Quentin and All I Got was This Lousy T-shirt.” Heart-wrenchingly about loss through a disease of deterioration, the title poem proves, to resort to necessary cliché, sublime–especially the following lines: “The last time we fished / I had to ask for help / to lift you from the boat onto the dock. . . . / Sleep, Grandpa, sleep. / You are the ghost on third / and I’m sending you / home.” The trio of San Quentin poems, grouped together to great effect immediately after several family and domestic poems, strike true mystic chords of that dissonant Other-underworld known to those who have taught in prisons. Neither sentimental nor judgmental, these poems provide well-selected, all-too-real prison imagery, along with human connection and humor courtesy of those inhabiting America’s single largest industrial complex as two million-plus guests of the world-wide leader in incarceration.
Reese appears worthy inheritor of the mantle primarily worn for many years by the recently deceased William Kloefkorn, among those whom Reese dedicated the book to, and Ted Kooser: best in Nebraska, among the best in the West, among the best in the nation—his poetry is that good, that promising. Jim Reese has heeded mysterious whispers from Nebraska’s cornfields and built this book. We should come.