While reading Tom Rechtin’s Traces, I was reminded of Edward B. Germain’s stirring description of surrealist poetry:
among the worlds we know, the surrealist poet is drawn to three: the world of objects (rats and brooms and garbage), the world of abstract ideas (insurance policies and laws), and the world of desire, unconscious desire that recognizes events in the other two. What we desire surfaces through the unknowable maze of the subconscious to reappear with hallucinatory fascination as money or lovers, forgetting or remembering, fears, objects and ideas that seem to present a complete reality, but which are merely shadows cast far. (Surrealist Poetry in English 48)
By experiencing this unconscious desire as poetry, the fresh or new is rendered immanently possible, and this is Rechtin’s primary objective in Traces: to cast ordinary objects, ideas, and desires into the maze of the imagination in order to see what “surfaces” out of that interaction.
The trope of tracing in Rechtin’s chapbook echoes surrealism’s shadow-casting rather well in that objects from everyday life (a moth, crane, painting, or dream) become preludes to a wild collision of disparate elements, which is always rewarding for the reader. In fact, many will surely be astonished by Rechtin’s chapbook’s great diversity of poetic styles, which range from outright surrealistic flights of revelry (“Dali Meets Rodin: Off-Broadway” and “After Buñuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie”) to confessional (“now that the fleas are gone” and “300,000 Kilometers per Second”) to imagistic (“The Crane” and “The Painter”) to the discursive and meditative (“Bigfoot” and “Two New Tires”). Regardless of their particular mode, his poems always embody the three worlds of meaning that surrealism animates with untamable desire: “We should / open our eyes and stare / at the sun till its spots float free” (23). In this way, his poems aim to keep our experience of life itself at a fever pitch—to “frequent the flower” as William Carlos Williams phrases it.
One of the chapbook’s standout poems is the title one, and it’s a representative example of Rechtin’s talents. The poem’s speaker meditates on the metaphor of tracing as a way of dealing with everyday stress:
When I was a child I couldn’t draw,
but that didn’t stop me from finding
the thinnest paper, and placing it over
the pictures in books I loved. (15)
This metaphor becomes even more profound later on when he must navigate the tricky family dynamics between his nuclear family and the new one he’s beginning as he leaves his parents’ home. In the poem, the speaker scrutinizes the way that many of us praise children’s desire to create art (like his own tracings of eagles, fish, and spaceships) all the while not understanding keenly enough that creativity is, at its root, a real-life power. A surrealist would say that this is one of the greatest travesties that our hyper-rational, over-socialized culture inflicts upon artists daily.
The speaker’s mother perceived his tracings in a similarly dismissive manner—i.e., as a means of covering up the “holes” in his closet door for his grandparents’ visit. At the end of the poem, the speaker utilizes his adeptness at tracing as a way out of many problematic social cycles, which are typically passed down unchecked from generation to generation:
Every time someone looks in the mirror
they are wide open, like gars to feed.
Don’t you see, Maria? The holes were covered
by a paper-thin mirror, so I could trace. (16)
A mirror is perhaps the most dangerous terrain in all of existence for human identities—i.e., it’s the domain of Narcissus, self-flattering illusion, judgment, and potentially fatal self-deceptions. Hence, the ability to trace out new powers of perception is paramount in a world where uncreative resemblances dominate. The speaker’s desire to trace common objects and ideas anew transcends even his own need to avoid the black hole of outworn habits because he hopes that an unspecified feminine companion in the poem, Maria, will also be capable of such redemptive insights. The poem’s speaker is creating a new pattern that is free of past pitfalls and, in this way, he invites the reader to desire more singular approaches to the world that can affirm our true talents and abilities. Whenever he traced an image as a child, that “product of the author’s / imagination [seemed to him] more than really real” (15). A surrealist would definitely agree with this sentiment because reality is never reducible to our more conscious habits. For this reason, a simple artistic event like tracing an object can be imbued with a “hallucinatory fascination” that transcends the very simplicity of the act itself. We readers should heed the call of Rechtin’s poetry and keep exploring our everyday reality’s possibilities until, as the speaker of “The Roses Themselves” explains, we too can discover that “opening / In sight” (10).
About the reviewer:
Tom O’Connor’s poems have been published in magazines like MARGIE, Poetry Southeast, South Carolina Review, Pebble Lake Review, Columbia Poetry Review, Notre Dame Review, and Soundings East, among others. His scholarly articles have appeared in The Journal of Film & Video, Pedagogy, The Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts, Disability Studies Quarterly, Horror Studies, and Social Semiotics, among others His first scholarly book, Poetic Acts & New Media, was just released from The University Press of America.