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A Review of R. Aivars Ukstins’
The Hoosier Zebra and Other “Poims”
The Drunken Poet Press 1977
by Margaret Crawford
No one said: YOU BE POET.
Ronald Aivars Ukstins has led an unusual life. He is an American of Latvian heritage, with an MA from Taylor University, Indiana and an MA in Journalism from Ball State University, Indiana. His resume shows an unparalleled mix of skills and occupations: revealing a creative side during his time as Glass Worker, showing managerial ability in his role as Assistant Manager of Milk Barn, and the capacity to take on the weighty responsibility of teacher as Instructor in the Department of Journalism at Ball State University. With this impressive background, he surely does not do himself justice with the remark that the upcoming e-version of The Hoosier Zebra and Other “Poims” is “A 66 yr old Geezer’s Last Shot at Poetry Glory.” There has to be more to such a multi-faceted individual than this modest claim to fame.
While The Hoosier Zebra and Other “Poims” does not show Ukstins to be as versatile a writer as he is a worker, it does, however, show a capacity for depth. He is at his best in gems like “Double Rule of Three,” “Avalon Mary,” and “The Interview”; and at his least in the unremarkable “Prosed 'Poim' Thoughts On Ageing Poets Pass These Ways,” “Philadelphia Window View,” and “Only Sweeney Would Understand Bloodshot Eyes Peering Through Lime Gel.”
Overall, Ukstins restricts his poetry to a narrow list of themes dealing with drinking, writing, and women, with writing about writing being the most common. However, his attempts at writing about writing poetry fail to reveal any in-depth thoughts on either the process or the poet, with the exception of “Double Rule of Three.” This is a strong opening poem, heralding the poet as an important literary figure, imbued with the task of giving voice to muted truths: “This is the poet dressing / needing no atonement / except his priestly garb / to be admitted insane / with truth.” Writing poetry is a weighty task; driven by the need to create, the poet must fulfill his calling. Coming at the beginning of the book, the poem anticipates a similar strength on the following pages—unfortunately, that anticipation is not always fulfilled.
“Prosed 'Poim' Thoughts On Ageing Poets Pass These Ways” continues the theme of a poet writing about writing poetry. Ukstins has nothing new to add to a dialogue that should be left to more skilled poets, if at all. What does stand out though is his one-dimensional treatment of women. The woman in “Prosed” appears only in relation to the poet: “My wife notes a glint from my eyes” and “My wife wonders how long.” This woman is under male ownership: “My wife,” and his command: “Wife, another beer, please.” The nameless woman is on the peripheral of the “Poetry madness” that Ukstins undergoes, as he exposes, not a profound poetical philosophy, but a patriarchal view of women.
Ukstins carries this view of women into other poems as well, envisioning female figures as available sexual objects in “Philadelphia Window View”: “I close the window / full thud / and flip the whore twenty bucks”; and in “Only Sweeney Would Understand Bloodshot Eyes Peering Through Lime Gel”: “dew-gel vision of last night / of wanton women / moonlight lust ... .” Ukstins’ imaginings of women as flesh for men’s pleasure draws attention away from the potential of “Window View” as social commentary, but thankfully covers up the puzzling and uninventive internal musings in “Lime Gel” for surely he is right in asserting that “Only Sweeney Would Understand.” He falls short of his poetic potential in these selections, and since much of his poetry includes women, he has missed a rich opportunity to develop this aspect of his writing.
Ukstins’ skill comes through when he makes the effort to think beyond the surface, showing his potential as a serious poet. “Avalon Mary” is a timeless piece of writing that is as current in 2016 as it was when the collection was first published in 1977. Mary’s “pied-a-terre” emerges as a sanctuary for the motley cast of characters living there, with Mary appearing as a saviour figure. Ukstins refuses to cast her as a benevolent, Christ-like image, however, and writes her into the role of Moses by paralleling the Avalon with the Ark as a temporary sanctuary for all creatures—regardless of status. He shows an astute understanding of human need as a complex element of life in his depiction of the reciprocal nature of survival, writing Mary’s survival as dependent on the residents who live at her establishment: “You knew in your bones / that all would be well / as it was in the beginning / as you collected the flood of beings.” Mary collects both the needy and the rent money at Avalon.
That spark of human insight that was so poignantly exposed in “Avalon Mary” resurfaces in “The Interview,” but with an even sharper edge. “The Interview” shows Ukstins on top of his game as he captures all the nuances of the journalist’s interview. “I come to ask you questions,” he begins, and while there are no direct answers, it is through the questions and comments of the journalist that the truth, or some version of the truth, is revealed. The clash between sensationalism: “What is this supple heartbeat / that your lips open to conceal?” and attention to detail, “is that one “l” or two? And your title there is that correct?” skillfully plays out the journalistic battle between fact and fiction. Readers influence both questions and answers, for what interests them is what will sell a story: “Just a simple truthful fear / will do the after dinner readers well.” News becomes entertainment “for the photogenic public delight” in “The Interview.”
Although Ronald Aivars Ukstins’ The Hoosier Zebra and Other “Poims” is not a temperate book of poetry, it is worth picking up if the reader understands that there is no middle ground: his poems either excel or fail as he responds to the unasked call: “YOU BE POET.”