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On Peter Ramos's "Please Do Not Feed the Ghost"

"Blacking out in some basement cafe', crowded/ And alone in the sad mid century, I come back & go on," writes Peter Ramos in "John Berryman in my Dreams," the opening poem in his aptly named debut collection Please Do Not Feed the Ghost, published this past February by BlazeVox Books.  Ramos, an assistant professor of English at Buffalo State College, read from his work this past Saturday as part of the Burchfield-Penney Art Center's grand opening celebration.

From the first lines of this collection to its next-to-last poem "Waiting for the Firstborn," in which Ramos constructs an elaborate analogy between the sonogram image of his first child in utero and shadowy black and white TV images of NASA astronauts walking on the moon in 1969, Please Do Not Feed the Ghost reconstructs scenes and images from his late 20th century American childhood and youth in suburban Baltimore set against the backdrop of narratives drawn from the collective memory of that era shaped by television and the popular media.

Although Ramos is a child of the late 60's, his frame of cultural reference extends back at least two decades earlier to the post-World War II world of his parents.  In "Watching Late Night Hitchcock," the long poem that serves as the backbone of this collection, family history and the voice of his New England bred maternal grandmother are juxtaposed with classic suspense film tropes and his Venezuelan born father's salsa inflected assimilation of 1950's era Rat Pack lounge lizard cool.   Even the poem's references to the high modernist masters Pound and Rilke have a distinct "period" feel.

The strongest poems in this collection are those that deal obliquely or directly with the poet's father's alcoholism and its influence on the family, including those in which the poet's alter ego reenacts his own lurid fantasies of urban night life.  Reading through the book is like leafing through a stranger's family photo album--the secrets and intimate clues are betrayed by nuances of  language and gesture--but the overriding narrative speaks to absence, loss, and what is irretrievable, obscured by memory. 

In the collection's title poem, Ramos writes:

October, color gone from the wheat
and you straggle back, howling
in your pulled wool, your work boots,
come to yuck it up with me, your mouth
full of loam, jacket lined with rot, crazy
as the leaves.
Each time I try to sleep you off, hoping winter
will stamp its feet, sober you up.
But the hallways soften. You
stuff me full of mothballs.

Unlike the sepia-toned romanticization of ethnic identity in mid 20th century Baltimore we see in Barry Levinson's film "Avalon," Ramos's internalization of the latency in his father's voice drives his conflicted sense of his own Latino heritage.  In "Immigrant," the last poem in the collection, he describes a late night phone call:

Pick up, you say to yourself.  It's your father
who provoked on account of his broken dialect
so much reserve and suspicion

the old voice across the long distance
gentle, no less compelling
the accent lingering.  Even this late

he calls--and likes to--the same way
he still kisses you, still offers the finest cuts
of meat in the dream.

--R.D. Pohl



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