Someone You Love Is Still Alive
by Ephraim Scott Sommers
62 poems, 82 pages
Publisher: Jacar Press
To order: www.jacarpress.com
Reviewed by Neil Leadbeater
Singer-songwriter Ephraim Scott Sommers is from Atascadero, California. He is the author of The Night We Set the Dead Kid on Fire (Tebot Bach 2017) which won him the 2016 Patricia Bibby First Book Award. Having received his PhD from Western Michigan University, he is currently Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, South Carolina. Someone You Love is Still Alive is his second book and it won the 2019 Jacar Press Prize.
The book opens with two quotations, one from a favourite author, Italo Calvino, and the other from W. H. Auden. The Auden quote, “We must love one another or die” is particularly apt given that Sommers, in his acknowledgments at the close and apropos his marriage in 2018, writes that “love is the greatest form of rebellion we have.” This book, dedicated to his wife, is a testament to the power of love to hold all things together. The title of the book is taken from the last half of the last line of his poem My Sister Sings Reba at Forty-Three: “someone you love is dead, someone you love is still alive.”
The first thing I noticed about this collection was the fact that Sommers has an eye to a catchy title that draws the reader in. Titles like Love Sonnet (Broken Into by America) in the First Year of Our Marriage; My Wife’s Feet Getting Ready for Work; A Local “Alcoholic” Breaks Out an Acoustic at His Last AA Meeting: The Final B(ad)-Side and A New Orleans Dancer Wrecks the Border Between Florida and Louisiana are full of promise and intrigue.
That said, readers should be warned that the subjects Sommers chooses to focus on are not easily digestible. He writes about drug and alcohol addiction, people in prison, his wife getting groped at a South Carolina Dive Bar, being strip-searched at the San Diego International Airport, a mass shooting in Kalamazoo. His texts are littered with Coke cans, boxes of Lost Coast bottles, kegs of Keystone Light, slugs of Wild Turkey, mango martinis and pills, pills, pills. Violent episodes give way to quieter moments which bring out a more lyrical side to his writing. In this respect, his descriptions of clothing (“zebra sleeves,” “blueberry sunshades,” “peacock bracelets,” heels that are “Jupiter high” and “a tie-dyed Josey Wales t-shirt”) add some colour and a softer shade to the harsher black and white detail.
In a conversation with Alicia Cole (Black Fox Literary Magazine, November 28th, 2017) Sommers considers poems to be places where he can begin a conversation with himself “about a particularly difficult set of feelings” that he might not yet have found a voice for. He writes of his thoughts about specific experiences, how he thinks he should feel about them, how others might feel about them and, using his imagination, applies sensory images of these experiences in order to listen, feel and find his way through them.
There is a sense in which these poems hover between doubt and belief. Some poems take the form of narratives while others make use of a stream of consciousness approach which leaves room for Sommers to populate his poems with many different topics, images and emotions. The following excerpt is an example of the latter. See how much he packs into the first twelve lines of this light-hearted “list” poem:
My Wife’s Feet Getting Ready For Work
are giraffes on ecstasy
are Golden Gates
are spiral staircases to a paradise of manicures and massages
are a Minnesota arena over which purple fireworks
like lit pom-poms ignite the sky
because Prince is high-heeling back out for one more encore
are the air beneath ballerinas
are Manny Pacquiaos
are glass propellers on glass airplanes
are trapeze swings
are dragon wings
are Wal-Marts full of Basho poems…
In My Father Sings a Gun Song in 1994 Sommers tells us that his father taught him “to pull open a song by its threads and stitches” and there is a sense in which he uses his musicianship to improvise on each theme, to engage with it in detail as a dog would worry a bone. Several musicians (Bob Dylan, Etta James, Roger Waters, Pink Floyd) and the titles of popular songs are referenced throughout the text.
Guns are also mentioned. This is especially apparent in some of the titles but also within the narratives themselves. In the opening lines of In California, Everybody Looks for a Blemish on the Bride, Sommers reminds us, using the image of the gun, of the pain that can be caused by our choice of words: “we are just mouths full of bullets / firing pistols at other people’s happiness.”
Despite the violence of the subject matter, the shocking statistics, angry words and strong language, I would like to think that love is the anchor. When he sees the world through his wife’s lenses, “the Earth grows green and white” two colours associated with innocence and purity.
Learning how to be at peace with unanswered questions is something that can take lifetime. Sommers writes it all down for us, no holds barred, and it sits there like a conversation, up for discussion.