Thaddeus Rutkowski delivers wonder in the mundane, in finding a penny on the street and contemplating its meaning, in noticing the textures of fresh asphalt and almost being run over by a steamroller, in discovering steamrollers can honk a horn because its intent is not always to flatten. That moment of small discovery fills this book; almost every poem contains a turn near the end in which we understand something small is actually something dense.
“For those of us who knows what’s missing,
the sounds of the bird remind us of what’s lost.”
– Farmers and Dove, page 16
Rutkowski does not rely on grand, sweeping imagery, instead letting the point be the point. There is something polite about his sense of observation. Most poems from other poets I encounter read like monologue, or even like interruption, but Rutkowski has this way of making you feel heard even when he is the one talking. There is a practicality to his poems. You could tighten wingnuts with them or steady a loose wheel on your bicycle. He knows our daily lives are full with poems, if you notice them. And there are many poems to notice. He rides bike seemingly everywhere, living in Manhattan. New York fills the geography of this book, although the city is mentioned just once by name.
“Where are you from?” I ask
“From here,” she says, “New York,
I don’t remember where in the city.
“I can’t eat chocolate,” she adds,
“but it’s the only kind of muffin worth eating.”
– Coffee Shop Encounter, page 57
But Rutkowski is not only interested in the day-to-day minutia; he also discusses voice, inflection, ownership, and race. He approaches this with the same sense as he approaches anything else, not quite an ambivalence but something reminiscent of when a friend takes a meaningful pause to let you speak; he invites you to quiet down the way some teachers can incite meaningful silence in a classroom just by entering the room or standing up at the chalkboard. Although he lives and teaches in New York City, he grew up in a small town, a “one-street town that lies downstream / from another one-street town.”
I was raised as white, but I’m not white.
My father saw no differences between races,
while my mother never forgot hers.
My goal was to learn to drive,
then climb into a car with a tank full of gas,
floor the accelerator, and blow out of there.
– Where I’m From, page 15
At the center of Rutkowski’s poems is a direct access to the ethics of care. He seems to consider care to be of utmost concern, not just for family, but also for strangers. There is a strong sense of communal duty in these poems, whether it is a neighbor warning him of an oncoming steamroller or the Speaker himself helping a man who cannot close his freezer door, close his freezer door.
”Why can’t you shut it off?”
“It’s the Sabbath.”
I follow him around the corner
to his apartment building.
– God Will See, page 87
The poems in the book are connected to each other, one after the other, a daisy chain, in these two ways: by that core ethic of care and by related imagery. A poem contains a bike. The next poem contains a fall from a bike. The next poem contains a bleeding knee. The next poem contains salve and healing. We go from daily observations, to family, to race, to teaching, to New York, and back again, through this connected string of images. This book is not, as some full-lengths are, divided up into three or four distinct sections or Parts. Tricks of Light does not require that structure because the poems fall into the next, like city blocks sharing borders as a bicyclist rides to their destination.
The poets he reminds me most of are Robert Bly and Billy Collins. My favorite poems in the book are Foreign Fillings, Class Coup, Worth Nothing, Boy Peeing, My Brother’s Passing, God Will See, Beef Brisket, and Fruit of Steel. Rutkowski teaches at Medger Evers College and the Writer’s Voice of the West Side YMCA. He and his wife, Randi Hoffman, live in Manhattan.
You can find more about them, including their other books, here: http://www.thaddeusrutkowski.com