Review of Greenhouse: The First Five Years of the Rustbelt Roethke Writers' Workshop
Edited by Judith Kerman and Amee Schmidt
Mayapple Press, 2008
Review by Todd Mercer

The Tri-Cities' most celebrated poet Theodore Roethke spent much of his childhood in greenhouses, as his father and uncle ran a floral nursery in Saginaw. The family operation was the largest in Michigan by the time it was sold in 1922. Roethke (1908-1963) thought of the greenhouse as refuge, a gestational Eden. The particulars of plants and insects that were part of his earliest education recurred through his career.

The Rustbelt Roethke Writers Workshop was founded in 2003 by Mayapple Press publisher and Saginaw Valley State University English professor Judith Kerman. It is an intimate peer-to-peer gathering aimed at mid-career poets, fiction and creative nonfiction writers. A gathering of equals creates a different variety of energy than the usual vassal-based format does, in which the writing royalty directs grateful serfs. Intellectual questions explored may be more diffuse in a peer exchange, yet the results are notable for their organic authenticity, for a commendable lack of emotional remove. A goodly amount of the material in Greenhouse clusters around two strands of a separation theme: roadblocks to listening, and varieties of loss.

Listening and Not Listening

We live in an era that offers more opportunities than ever to speak our minds in public spaces, but listeners are becoming an increasingly scarce commodity. Robert E. McDonough shows how far the imbalance has swung in "Louis Reads to Oliver," this Louis being a poet relieved to have even a (admittedly reluctant) one-person audience taking in a poem he spent three years writing.

Selective hearing was probably invented by sons instinctively reserving space for their own identities to grow. Katherine Fishburn looks at that process from the inside perspective in "Achieving Salvation":

I learned the secret / of the machine / inside my head / and although the words / flew out of her mouth / like bats from a cave / at sunset / they passed by me / in complete silence

Sometimes one can listen and still walk away with the wrong impression, because of the speaker’s tactics. Intentional miscommunication is a skill common to successful bartenders, co-editor Amee Schmidt explains in her prose piece "Nature versus Nurture." Bartending really calls for playacting, and the straightforwardly nice don’t last in this occupation. The veteran knows when to imitate the bouncy student, the scolding mother, the indiscriminate slut, and of course, the semi-pro psychiatrist:

… I will listen and have sympathy and will eventually help you realize the epiphany that your life  is really not worth shit, and that your wife didn't mean to sleep with the local chiropractor.

Poetry best succeeds when it employs particulars to elucidate an aspect of universal experience. One of the predictable down-sides of workshops is the near certainty that some of resulting material will include navel-gazing poems about poetry, or about workshops. That is the case here. Unfortunately the segment of the population unconcerned with such poems includes everyone who wasn't in attendance.

Aging, Death and Loss

So we acknowledge that modern society is marked by a dearth of listening. Perhaps news overload is one cause of our unwillingness to lend an ear. Maybe it is a passive-aggressive reflex that comes naturally to those who have fallen from their personal peaks and can't abide the success of others. We may become angry when the familiar turns unknowable.

"Skylab Falling" is a whimsical handling of technological obsolescence. C. Vincent Samarco's characters hear that the eponymous space station will soon plummet to earth in pieces. They position themselves on rooftops in locations that may allow them to be grazed but not killed, triggering lucrative lawsuits. They are prepared to sacrifice wholeness for the promise of reliable comfort.

Wendy Taylor Carlisle's declaratory "My South" notes that region's ever-present sense of fatalism:

Down here, we carry our graves folded / in our pockets, a cardboard hunger, a box and shards.

That foreshortened distance between daily life and death that is so central to the culture of the Deep South twists the social codes into shapes more amenable to individualists:

Down south, / we observe bendable rules that stand in for bone.

The rift between individuals can come from a failure to fight against gradually compounding cynicism. Gene Doty's "The Fraternity of Old Men" features winners who've held on to rich and healthy women, and losers who pack around colostomy bags with sly bitterness.

their biggest worry is dribbling piss / inside their pants and not knowing.

As their bodies begin to fail, members of this loose association find glee where they can. The fraternity

never gives a straight answer / to a straight question, or to a crooked question / for that matter. Hell, they don't usually answer.

The most arresting piece in the anthology, Melissa Seitz’s "Evidence" is a stylized prose revelation about covering for a loved one who became methamphetamine manufacturer, (even while furious with him) by disposing of his mixing lab's toxic substances.

… he's not really dead—just dead to us—where's the data—where's your evidence—yes I'm a deep sea diver going down—trying to find that one thing that will show me why he did what he did. His teeth have become bones.

A word on forms: Greenhouse contains flash fiction, prose poems, couplets, tercets and freeform. The experimental form on display is poems written in Fibonacci sequence, wherein each line's syllable count is the sum of the two preceding lines.

This collection prints work from each participant in Rustbelt Roethke, a daringly inclusive move, but there are no beginning writers here. Some of the workshop/retreat events are held at the namesake's home (located at 1805 Gratiot), which is maintained by the Friends of Theodore Roethke Foundation. The greenhouses themselves are long gone, but the protective hothouse atmosphere continues to provide a safe haven for original thinkers in Saginaw.

© Todd Mercer, 2009