American Rhapsody by Carole Stone is a boozy, jazz-age collection of elegies for the poet’s deceased parents, as well as for America in the days of yore. Told in rhythmic, sometimes drunken party language, and woven around the physical place of New Jersey, the poems catch the reader in a whirlwind of sound, beauty, grief and nostalgia. Despite the ache of longing fundamentally present, American Rhapsody is a fun collection, one that transports the reader back to a time in this country that sounds as foreign to us as it does familiar.
Oak barrels, hops and yeasty brew.
Answer the door for merrymakers
rushing to get sozzled,
flowing from kegs, basement jugs.
These lines are the opening lines in the collection, and they tutor the reader about how to read what follows. We have Prohibition Era booze, kegs and jugs, and the music of “sozzled” and “booze” and “yeasty brew.” It is as though we are the merrymakers at the door and Stone has opened the door to us, the reader, inviting us inside her world of bygone days. Later in this poem her place gets particular: “on our side of the Hudson // . . . beneath the Pulaski Skyway,” “to just beyond / the twelve-mile limit off Sandy Hook” (“Invocation/Intoxication”). There is no mistaking the historical moment and physical place in which these poems are taking place, and in her opening poem, Stone graciously guides us in and through the rest of her world.
Interestingly, Stone uses this fleshy, boozy language in juxtaposition with a coming to terms with loss through death and the passing of time. Such juxtaposition might be jarring in some lesser poet’s hands, but Stone is a craftsman of words. She, seemingly effortlessly, evokes the music of the 1920s as a type of grammar for the elegy; another layer in the wake of loss. In “Father’s Voice,” for example, Stone speculates about the man she hardly knew in her signature rhythmic language, wondering if his voice was “rough as scrap metal” or if he trained to sound “like the crème de la crème” (“Father’s Voice”). And later, in “A Daughter Returns to Her Habana Fantasy, ” the poet directly addresses the dead father:
Again I wonder,
as you leaned against the bar,
beer bottle half full, one foot on a bar-
stool rung, did you miss me?
(From “A Daughter Returns to Her Habana Fantasy”)
The dead mother, too, is a symbol of loss in the collection that the speaker—or poet—is still trying to decipher years after her death:
And sometimes syllables bubble
&from my weeping mouth like water,
making first helpless utterances
that call forth a mother’s love.
Such musically sound lines evoke beauty as a form of nostalgia. One can almost hear the child weeping in the intonation of these lines as the poet considers the parents she lost as a child, the ones who “drifted off to a party” (“Periwinkles”) and were never seen again. Images of parents, repeated throughout the collection, are beautiful and lost, mourned by the poet because they can never return:
My lips form their names.
I say them as an invocation—
they who live
in my inky heart.
(From “Inky Heart”)
Just as lost parents are mourned for throughout American Rhapsody, so too is a version of America, that “American story / we love to believe in” (“Great Riches Shall Be Yours”). In the collection there is an understood nostalgia for the America of the poet’s childhood, the one in which “‘Roosevelt’ / meant ‘President’” (“FDR”). As with the images of the deceased parents, Stone uses music in these poems to evoke nostalgia and days gone by, and her jazz-age language perfectly captures the innocence, the zeitgeist, of her bygone era:
Who has figured out why Joe Penner,
radio star no one knows now,
made us laugh, asking a million times,
Wanna’ buy a duck?
(From “Don’t Touch That Dial!”)
Hurrah for America’s heroines!
For Sue Barton, for Nancy Drew!
Hurrah for me!
Our whole bright lives ahead.
(From “Mystery Heroines”)
But time works on erasing those we love and their way of life along with them. Toward the end of the collection, the speaker of the poem has come down from her drunken high and has soberly realized that “the past wears away / gradually // until nothing is left / but yourself” (“The Past”). Not only have the party-loving, free-spirited parents left, so too has the America that the poet relied on: “My dream of America, / where no one would be poor,/slipping away into history” (“History”).
This collection hinges on nostalgia; nostalgia of what can never be again, what is lost forever to the pages of history. Told in jazzy, fleshly language, the poems in this collection beg the question: Is Stone’s America lost and gone forever—or did it never exist?