Celebrating National Poetry Month with U.P. poets

by Tyler Tichelaar

graybeard memories:

morning espresso musings

By t. kilgore splake

Several of t. kilgore splake’s volumes of poetry have been reviewed in this column, but this one is different. While it has the typical splake lack of capitalization, it is also written in paragraph form. At first, I thought it was a long prose poem, and it certainly has some poetic moments, but it’s more prose than poem, which is understandable since it is splake’s autobiography.

I found graybeard memories interesting since it gave me insight into the personal life of this poet and made me better understand his poetry. It begins with splake sitting in the Rosetta Café in Calumet drinking coffee and feeling attracted to the young female barista, but he realizes she would never be interested in him. He goes on to describe himself: octogenarian, teeth falling out, no longer fertile.

Then he takes the reader back to his early years growing up in Kalamazoo, Michigan and how he eventually decided to pursue “the bitch-goddess of academic success” by attending Western Michigan University and then getting a teaching job in Battle Creek at Kellogg Community College. At times, teaching was not that enjoyable for him, but he did seem to care about his students and subject matter.

splake also walks us through his numerous relationships with the opposite sex. He got his college girlfriend pregnant and married her. They tried to be a couple, but eventually they divorced, which he describes as the “final chapter in a sad situation of two spoiled children who had made a mistake.”

splake would have two more failed marriages and more children. He seemed to have a knack for attracting women with psychological issues—the third wife threatened to kill herself and make it look like he had murdered her. splake admits his free spirit and penchant for alcohol didn’t help his marriages.

During all these years of teaching and marriage, splake began to make trips to the Upper Peninsula, which seemed to be a saving grace for him. During one trip, he came to terms with his drinking. On another, he began writing poetry. To this day, he isn’t sure what caused him to write poetry one morning, but he did and he showed his work to an English professor colleague who thought it was good. Still doubtful about the quality of his poems, splake created a pseudonym to protect him from embarrassment—he combined the names of a fish he had caught, his first name’s initial and a name in Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Breakfast of Champions to become t. kilgore splake.

Eventually, splake retired and moved to the U.P., first living in Munising and later in Calumet, where he currently lives. The last chapters of the book describe the years he spent studying poetry until he finally bought a French beret to wear as a sign that he was ready to announce himself as a poet. He describes his involvement with the local arts community, including the Vertin Gallery, editing the journal cliffs soundings and being given a Lifetime Achievement award by the U.P. Writers Association. The book includes several of splake’s photos of places mentioned in the book, especially around Calumet.

splake is in some ways your typical rough-living Hemingway type writer, but in other ways, he has a distinct voice. This book will be welcomed by his fans because it gives his full story, only pieces of which could previously be gleaned from his poetry.

For more information, visit splake’s blog at https://tksplake.wordpress.com/.

Everything Smells Like Breast Milk: Poems on Love, Baseball and Being a Dad

By Lee Kitzis

I was pleasantly surprised by this poetry collection. I didn’t really know what to expect and the title made me think the poems would mostly be about fatherhood. While there are poems about being a dad, some love poems, and a mention of baseball, many centered on the working life. In one of the poems, “Valentine’s Day Message to My Newborn Daughter on the Way,” the poet warns his daughter not to talk to strangers “and don’t date line cooks.”

Numerous of the poems are about line cooks, prep cooks and other jobs including working at a museum that also shows movies. These poems describe the difficulties of working in food service and customer service jobs, and they were my favorites in the collection. Many of them are like an anthem for the proletariat, making the reader see what life is like for those who work at low wage jobs. In one poem, “Customers,” the owner comes into the restaurant kitchen, sees an octopus on the counter and says it reminds him of his time in the Mediterranean. In response, one of the workers leans over and says to the poet, “I hate rich people.” Another poem, “The Line” describes “a million sous chefs/screaming a million nothings/at a million Ecuadorian lifers/stuck in brunch service.”

Other poems speak about the workers’ private lives and dreams. In “The Prep Cook’s Lament,” we are told, “We would rather/make love/than make 50lbs of spiced nuts/or 25lbs of guacamole,” and when they are able to make love, “the world can feed itself for a change.” In “The Day an Oven Exploded in My Face,” the poet experiences what the title says and then smells himself burning and thinks “don’t let this be my obit/barely published poet dies/after oven explodes in his face.” Fortunately, he lives to know that he loves his wife and kid and “those potatoes needed 3 more minutes.”

Other poems show the poet observing life around him and how different people view different experiences. The final poem of the volume describes rescuing a bird who is lying outside the library and bringing it home to care for, only to have it die, and the poet concludes, “Many people don’t let go/They mean nothing to me/but you/you meant it all.”

The poems about fatherhood are far from sentimental, but rather realistic. In “Cecilia,” the poet describes his daughter’s birth, saying she “came into this world/screaming/with the back hair/of a 50-year-old Greek man.” Once he holds her, he says, “you ate some of my chest hair/and that was it/I was hooked.” He becomes a doting dad after that, buying her things without Mommy knowing. The title poem has even the mailman smelling of breast milk because the poet is so anxious to be reunited with his wife who is busy pumping while she waits for him.

Overall, this collection will be one anyone can relate to who knows what it is not to have a lot of money, to yearn for something more in life, and to find joy in simple things, including the love of family.

Editor’s note: Tichelaar is the author of My Marquette and Willpower. All books reviewed in this column are available in local and online bookstores. For book review submission guidelines, visit www.marquettemonthly.org.

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