Review: Talking to Squirrels and Postmarked Home: New and Selected Poems 1979- 2019 by Michael Hathaway (reviewed by Charles Rammelkamp)

Talking to Squirrels
98 Pages
Spartan Press, 2019
$15.00
ISBN: 978-1946642981

Postmarked Home: New and Selected Poems 1979–2019
182 Pages
Spartan Press, 2019
$22.00
ISBN: 978-1950380084
Michael Hathaway could very well be the 21st century Walt Whitman. “I loaf and invite my soul,” Whitman writes in Leaves of Grass, and this seems to encapsulate Hathaway’s outlook. He writes in “Rush Hour Traffic Jam”:

Just past Spare’s Farm
a dozen wild turkeys
loiter & meander
across Old Highway 50
as if they own it.

As far as I’m concerned,
they do.

Relaxed, contemplative. Laid back. The poem appears in Talking to Squirrels, but both of these new volumes share about two dozen of the same poems. Postmarked Home samples 40 years of Hathaway’s work and contains more than twice as many poems, but both are wonderful introductions to his writing.

Like Whitman, Hathaway addresses the sensual and the transcendent in equal measure. God is a frequent character in his poems, the afterlife an occasional subject of speculation. The first poem in Talking to Squirrels, indeed,  is “About Heaven,” in which he imagines an ideal, simple life, eternity spent in a small house without telephones, TV or computers, a couple of rabbits, his mom for company (for “every soul who suffers / this clumsy, tragic, material mess / deserves a heaven.”).

In the poem, “Epitaph,” he writes:

For God’s sake
don’t inscribe this on my tombstone,
Rest in Peace or Be with Jesus.

Inscribe this: He learned to love
in spite of Christians, Republicans
and rednecks.

Inscribe: He knew how it felt
to trip over his stupid heart,
to fall flat on his face,
to lie in quiet contentment all night
beside the man he loved.
 
Inscribe: He learned to feel joy without shame.

Hathaway’s sense of humor is refreshing. “Epitaph” is one of those poems that appears in both books. A similar sentiment is expressed in Postmarked Home‘s “Revelations and Anticipation”:

oh sweet Jesus,
hurry!

I eagerly await
Your Second Coming

when You will swoop down
like a giant Hoover

sweeping these godawful
hysterical squawking Christians
out of our hair.

Firmly rooted in the smalltown Midwest, Hathaway’s poems and prose shine a light on rural bigotry, especially as it affects LGBTQ people. Prose pieces like “Basher” and “Road Trip: Topeka, November 29, 1997” highlight the horrific violence that motivates and justifies redneck America. But at the same time, his portraits of friends and family, no less rooted to the landlocked middle of the country, are loving and heartfelt. “Letter to Dad” in Postmarked Home praises and thanks his father for his uncategorical love and support, especially as “what father expects his son to be a gay, vegetarian, soft-hearted, strong-willed, radically liberal, loud-mouthed poet?!?”

There are loving portraits of deceased friends and family (“Ode to Grandpa Hathaway,” ”Tracy Pops Into a Dream Two Years Later Just to Let Me Know”), portraits of “characters.” There’s the unforgettable Connie Star who “took a swan dive into that Great Chocolate Fountain in the Sky” in the summer of 2017 in “The Ballad of Gypsy Rose” (in both collections), a 250-pound woman full of piss and vinegar, the first person to whom Hathaway came out. “She declared a few years ago that we were the hillbilly version of Will & Grace. I liked that.” Connie shows up throughout the poems – “A Hug on Williams Street” and “Kerouac’s Gotta be Hiding Around Here Somewhere!” among them.    In “The Non-Smoker’s Right,” Connie appears along with Rusty, another recurring character.

And then there’s Ratboy, “a long-haired, hyperactive, mouthy teen-ager” who shows up in at least half a dozen poems (“the club,” “me & ratboy run the gamut of literary lovers,” “The Pure Poetry That is Ratboy,” “what would Grandma think?” among them). Notably, Ratboy shows up in “Midwesterner’s Prune Face (MPF) (aka Bible-Belter’s Prune Face (BBPF)” “wearing a Marilyn Manson t-shirt proclaiming I AM THE GOD OF FUCK in large slut-red letters.”

Hathaway also paints sympathetic portraits of abused people. “Monster” is about the serial killer Aileen Wuornos, “One of Cassandra’s, er, I Mean Mother’s Dire Prophecies Actually Comes True” is another, and “Wanda” and “What She Never Told Anyone” are sad poems about victims of incest rape.

There are also the cats! Hathaway’s 2001 volume, Cosmic Children, among others, has earned him the sobriquet, “the Cat Poet.” He lives with a dozen cats – like Hemingway! Like Freddie Mercury! – in his St. John, Kansas, home. The title poem, “Talking to Squirrels” (which appears in both books) is about the predatory nature of cats. “To John – Just a Cat” is a tearjerker about a cat that goes missing. Among many poems, cats appear in “Questions for the Federal Communications Commission,” “beast,” “Gross,” and “Fore!” as well as implicitly in “Fleas.” Both collections end on the poem, “Winter Snapshot 2011”:

In my tiny cozy living room,
I’m surrounded by cats of many colors,
shapes and sizes —
they #OccupyTheLivingRoom in protest
of snow and winter chill.
They wash up and settle in for the night.

Roxanne, multi-colored Maine Coon,
decrees Herself infinitely more important
than any MacBook,
sprawls the Entire Regal Self
across my forearms as I type.

Responsibility for all typos
may be laid at the Royal Feet.

Michael Hathaway may be best known and loved in the small press community as the editor and publisher of Chiron Review, the literary journal that has been published on and off – mostly on – for over three decades. Originally published in tabloid form, the journal now appears as a perfect-bound paperback. Naturally, Chiron Review appears throughout these poems as well.

Hathaway’s humor, political engagement and Walt Whitmanesque celebration of the sensuous, physicality of life may be best on display in the poem, “About Equality,” which appears in both of these collections.

Since mystery creates fear,
fear creates hatred,
and hatred creates violence,
let’s take the mystery out of it.

Gay sex is
no more or less disgusting
no more or less shocking,
no more or less offensive,
no more or less messy,
no more or less interesting
than what Mike Pence
or Ted Cruz
do to their wives
in the missionary position.

OK, it may be a bit more interesting.—Charles Rammelkamp

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