Review by Carolynn Kingyens: Catastroika Author: Charles Rammelkamp
Apprentice House Press ISBN 978-1-62720-298-5
As I read Charles Rammelkamp’s glorious new book of poetry – Catastroika, I was, at times, reminded of the powerful ending of Schindler’s List, when we see the Jews, particularly “Schindler’s Jews,” finally free, sitting together on train tracks. But even after they were free, a new dilemma quickly arose, where could they go that was safe?
“Where should we go?” asked one of the Schindler’s survivors to a military man on horseback.
“Don’t go East, that’s for sure, they hate you there,” said the military man.
“I wouldn’t go West either, if I were you.”
“Isn’t that a town over there?”
In one of the last poems entitled “Catastroika,” we learn where Rammelkamp’s unique book title derives:
“The wordplay in the press on Perestroika, Gorbachev’s program of economic reforms – Catastrophe.”
Catastroika is part catastrophe, part narrative poetry, part history, part human condition, and whole lot of resiliency, especially on the part of its two main characters – Maria, daughter of the infamous Grigory Efimovich Rasputin, and the fictional, Russian Jewish refugee, Sasha, who newly arrives in Baltimore, where he quickly finds a job, learns English, meets his wife, Riva, and starts a family.
Our first introduction to Sasha comes in the first poem, “Call Me Sasha” –
“But still, I knew better
“than to pursue a friendship
“with his daughter Maria,
“a lovely fifteen-year-old when I first met her,
“a lovely fifteen-year-old when I first met her,fresh to the big city from “The Sleeping Land” –
what “Siberia” means in Tatar, after all;
“The Edge” or “The End” in Ostyak.
“Alexander Federmesser,” I introduced myself,
noting my parents had named me for the tsar,
“but you can call me Sasha.”
Maria Rasputin, like a lot of daughters, loves her father, despite his pariah-like reputation in Russia, and later the world. She was industrious enough to capitalize on her last name to become a dancer in Paris, and later, a lion tamer with Ringling Brothers, touring America until she was mauled by a bear.
In “Maria Rasputin, Lion Tamer” –
“I still remember that reporter
for the Associated Press asking me why
I learned to tame wild animals.
“Why not?” my arch reply.
“I have been in a cage with Bolsheviks.”
In “Big Top” we learn how popular Maria Rasputin had become by Maria herself:
“More popular by far
than the midway freaks –
Miss Alainna Bennett, “Half Girl,”
whose body ended at her hips;
or Miss Dorothy Herbert,
“World’s Most Daring Horsewoman,”
Freddy the armless wonder,
Fat Lady Doris Bleu,
Midget Lady, the snake charmer,
the strongman and the trapeze artist
the aerialists with their Hammock Act!
Forget about Chang and Eng,
the original Siamese Twins!”
Rammelkamp covers a lot of years and ground over the span of the book’s 123 pages – from Siberia to Kiev to St. Petersburg to Petrograd to Berlin to Paris to Crimea to Baltimore to New York to Miami to Los Angeles. There are main characters such as Maria, Sasha, and even Rasputin himself, but also a cast of minor ones as well – mothers, wives, husbands, sisters, daughters, sons, the princesses from Montenegro, an antagonistic priest with a grudge, a tamed tiger, an unpredictable bear, and even a brief cameo from the Royal Tsars, themselves.
In “Operation Former People” Sasha says:
“And oh, how relieved I felt,
slipping into bed with Riva,
our American children nearby,
safe to the extent
Jews are ever safe in this world.”
I read Catastroika in one sitting, and simply could not put this book down. Each poem, a new puzzle piece. But with any riveting story, there are lots of plot twists and turns, and of course, some serendipity along the way.
The characters in Catastroika will come alive for the readers, each with their own hard-earned autonomies and distinct dialects. You will hear them. I promise.
Charles Rammelkamp is a master poet and storyteller. He not only has a deep understanding of Russian and Jewish history, but also human catastrophe.