Under the Kaufmann’s Clock by Angele Ellis & Rebecca Clever
Publisher: Six Gallery Press
Release Date: December 2016
Trim: 8″ x 10″ in.
review by Eileen Murphy
Although an elegant color photo of a gilded clock that’s a Pittsburgh landmark graces the cover of Under the Kaufmann’s Clock, the book isn’t literally “about” Pittsburgh. In this hybrid poetry/flash fiction/photo collection, Rebecca Clever’s black-and-white photos of Pittsburgh provide a unifying back story to Angele Ellis’s poems and flash fiction. Ellis, activist and well-published author of Arab on Radar, Spared, and other poetry, fiction, and nonfiction, is obsessed with time, at looking backwards at key moments and events.
Angele Ellis has the knack of capturing important moments from the past. Her tour de force poem about a special moment, both public and intimate, “Rocking the Apollo at the Stanley Theater, 1979,” is a narrative-lyric blur poem starring Pittsburgh’s own singer Phyllis Hyman (“a red iris in a slit gown”) opening for singer Peabo Bryson (“a groom in his cream tuxedo, the ladies’ man, the crooner”) at a local concert. As one of the few white-skinned people at the event, the speaker says, “[O] god, if you want to know the beauty of black, sink like two lumps of dough / into a concert hall where the only other white face is the Elton John-ish dude // tickling the ivories for Phyllis Hyman.” The night’s events impress the speaker, and: “[S]omething was liberated in me that night,…//”—a powerful moment—“and yes, it was enough to make me into a poet…”
Another standout piece that captures an intimate moment in time is the flash fiction “A Man in a Truck by a River,” in which the narrator hooks up with a man who accompanies her regular plumber to fix her bathtub, agreeing to rendezvous with him on a riverbank where he makes her wait until “mud crept over the tops of [her] shoes.” Inside his Bronco, his wallet falls to the floor, opening to a photo of a woman: “She pouted in bloody lipstick, with purple-shadowed eyes. Her Pirates jersey was meant for a kid…Stretch jeans, and wide hips you hung on to for balance.” The description of the woman in the wallet photo, who turns out to be the man’s regular girlfriend and mother of his child, implies that she, like the man, is more “Yinzer” (slang for native Pittsburgher) than the narrator. No wonder the narrator dreams of “helpless faces” of cauliflower “planted in the ground, choking on mud.”
Ellis also has a gift for satire and surrealism that’s showcased in the flash fiction “Room 101,” a spoof of a Catholic school childhood that many can relate to. What if there were a special room in the school basement for extra-bad students? In Ellis’s fiction, this special room is presided over by “Sister Winston,” whose role resembles Lloyd’s in The Shining: to speak in inanities, lurk menacingly, and symbolize the place. The student-speaker, disciplined for speaking rudely to her nun-teacher, is forced to lie in an empty coffin in Room 101 while Sister Winston piles copies of the catechism book on top of her. The results are hilarious, yet touching.
How tender and kind Ellis is when remembering the dead. In the prose poem “Bust of a Child,” a youth dies, “doomed by a cracked chromosome to stop at ten, a small watch wearing down tick by tick.” But the child’s body becomes a thing of strange beauty. “Your skin has turned verdigris. Pennies of algae weight your closed eyes. A mossy birthmark spreads across your soft cheek.” In a poem modeled after Marie Howe’s “What the Living Do,” a poem simply addressed to “John [Howe],” Ellis says, “My hot-coffee tears run and run. . .//… and I’m speechless / you are dead. But your breath fills the air” (“What the Dead Do”). And it is with the utmost respect that the speaker releases a friend’s ashes into local Carnegie Lake in the flash fiction “Ashes,” musing, “Not dead, just falling, like freakish snow in the dark.”
Angele Ellis’s obsession with remembering the past in Under the Kaufmann’s Clock results in a tremendous variety of poems—narrative, lyric, narrative-lyric blur, prose poems—and flash fiction pieces—which differ widely in style, tone, and length, but all of which are intelligent and relatable. We are privileged to enjoy the writings of such a talented, caring, versatile author.
Readers will also want to linger over Under the Kaufmann’s Clock in order to savor the photos by Rebecca Clever. The gorgeous color cover photo of a baroque Kaufmann’s clock makes this oversized book suitable for coffee tables, although its innards have more substance than most such books. Clever’s black-and-white photos of Pittsburgh are interspersed with Ellis’s text every few pages, helping make this book an easy read. The photographs by Clever lend atmosphere and unity to the book’s hybrid mix. In one inspired photo of Pittsburgh’s marketplace, the Strip District (Penn Avenue—Strip District), we see amusing business signs, including one with a rooster. Another beauty is Clever’s photo of the Rachel Carson Bridge reflected in water—the photo is haunting and sublime (Smoke, Steel, Stillness—Downtown). Clever is also a great street photographer, as witnessed by her shot of two participants in a gay pride parade, a woman with bouffant hair and man in a skinny white tee-shirt (Pride Parade—Fifth Avenue).
Under the Kaufmann’s Clock by Angele Ellis and Rebecca Clever is about time, memory, and moments. Readers from all cities and countries will find this mix of poetry, flash fiction, and photography relatable as well as affordable. As Ellis writes, “Every minute we have is like amber” (“Amber”). So spend some time “in amber” with this gem of a book.
Under the Kaufmann’s Clock by Angele Ellis and Rebecca Clever may be purchased here.
Eileen Murphy lives near Tampa, Florida, with her husband and three dogs. She received her Masters degree from Columbia College, Chicago. She teaches literature/English at Polk State College in Lakeland. Her recent book reviews are published in Cultural Weekly, Tinderbox Journal, Glass, Arsenic Lobster, and Rain Taxi.