Jam Session in Poems

Cross Country, by Jeff Newberry and Justin Evans

WordTech Editions, 2019

Paperback, 110  pages, $19


Cover of Jeff Newberry and Justin Evans' Cross Country.


In Cross Country, a collaborative book of epistolary poems published by WordTech Editions (2019), Jeff Newberry and Justin Evans pay homage to poet Richard Hugo. Hugo’s 31 Letters and 13 Dreams (1977) popularizes an epistolary tradition that originates in Ancient Rome and finds acclaim with Horace and Ovid. Hugo’s poems often address other poets such as Charles Simic, William Matthews, Denise Levertov, and William Stafford. Readers become voyeurs, dropped into intimate conversations between some of the most prominent poets of the twentieth century.


Hugo’s poems are often imagistic reports of a place, as he writes in “Letter to Wagoner from Port Townsend”: “Dear Dave: Rain five days and I love it.” These epistles transcend the reportage of place idiosyncrasies to reveal Hugo’s vulnerabilities and anxieties—both about himself as well as the world around him. In “Letter to Bell from Missoula,” Hugo writes: “Months since I left broke down and sobbing / in the parking lot, grateful for the depth / of your understanding […].”  It is this balance of the specific details of a place with the personal thoughts of a brilliant writer and flawed human that has been so appealing to Hugo’s readers over many years.


In Hugo’s letter poems, we are only privy to one side of the conversation, however. We do not know how the addressees respond to Hugo—or if they respond at all. Hugo’s epistolary poems are decidedly one-sided; Newberry’s and Evans’ Cross Country, however, is a mutual conversation where both poets relay their deepest fears, desires, and hopes—to each other and to their lucky readers.


Evans sets the stage for Cross Country in one of the earliest poems in the book, “Letter to Newberry about Past Memories of Colorado”: “Dear Jeff: I think we’re all looking / for something, looking to run / to or from something.” Indeed, Cross Country feels like a search for a meaningful spiritual faith, for familial acceptance, and for a way to exist in a contemporary world that often seems mired in violence, sadness, and a persistent irrationality. This is a book that emerges from a contemporary scene that includes the mass shootings in Sandy Hook and Orlando and the 2016 presidential election, but it is also a book that asks looming personal and philosophical questions about love and loss, a book where we “want to see the mystery unfold, / complex as it might be” (Evans).


Evans and Newberry allow readers to see them at their most vulnerable—particularly when they broach the topics of their children, as well as of their own fathers. In a particularly tender sequence entitled “Letter to Evans: Like Waves Breaking,” Newberry describes his fears about his young daughter’s spina bifida, and ends the poem by writing: “I take each breath with her, willing my lungs / do the work for her. She sleeps and I sleep.” Newberry’s helplessness is profound, but it is in moments such as this one where a subsequent poem from Evans acknowledges Newberry’s anxiety and empathizes with him: “As a father myself, I / understand what you are saying, though / I cannot know the specifics of your fears” (Evans). The dialogue that Evans and Newberry create in Cross Country is deeply moving precisely because in it they engage fully in the difficulties of each other’s lives and offer each other comfort and solace.


If literature’s job is to teach us what it means to be human and how to empathize with one another, then Cross Country delivers those lessons in honest and accessible poems. Evans’ and Newberry’s narratives weave in and out of each other organically. It seems as though we are present at a blues jam session where the musicians have known each other for so long that they finish each other’s riffs. In fact, in the penultimate poem of the book, Newberry writes, “Justin, when you unseal this poem, remember / that it is made of voice the way that music is made / from the guitar player’s deft fingers.” The music in Cross Country will break your heart. Just like the greatest songs, though, these poems also sound the bells of hope and grit because, as Evans reminds us, “We must each / set the bar each morning as we greet the new day, / as each new day is certain to find us, willing or not.”


Moving Beyond the Boundaries

The Impossible Fortress, by Jason Rekulak

Simon and Schuster, 2017

285 pages, hardback $24.00, paper $18.00



Writing a computer program and writing a novel share certain characteristics. Both involve using an established alphabet, syntax, and set of concepts. What separates truly great computer programs from serviceable ones might be the same thing that separates the great novels from the rest of the pack: a creativity that moves beyond the boundaries of what a reader or user expects. Jason Rekulak’s The Impossible Fortress does just that, taking the familiar elements of coming-of-age novels and injecting wit, pathos, and a helping of nostalgia. A tribute to outcasts and geeks and an unabashed love letter to the 1980s, The Impossible Fortress is a compelling and humorous first novel.


Set in Wetbridge, New Jersey, in 1987, the story is narrated by Billy Marvin, a computer nerd and pop-culture connoisseur. The child of divorce with a mother who works night shifts at Food World, Billy spends his days debating best friends Alf and Clark about the hot issues of the day. Who would win in a fight? T. J. Hooker or MacGyver? Springsteen or Billy Joel? Children of the 1980s, obsessed with Pop-Tarts and Atari, they take these conversations seriously, a fact which explains their fascination with Wheel of Fortune letter-flipper and 1980s it-girl Vanna White.


This schoolboy crush becomes a real-world obsession when White appears in Playboy. Billy, Ash, and Clark turn their world upside down in an ill-fated quest to secure a copy of the illicit magazine. Were this set in contemporary America, the boys would simply Google search the images or check Reddit. In 1987, they must result to more nefarious scheming. Their plan involves shoplifting a copy of the magazine from Zelinksy’s, a local newsstand and office supply store run by Mr. Zelinsky, who seems to be channeling Kurtwood Smith from That ’70s Show. A curt and dour manager/owner, Mr. Zelinsky sees through the boys’ attempt to shoplift, but when Billy meets Mr. Zelinksy’s daughter, Mary, the plot takes off. Initially, the boys plan to use Billy to seduce Mary and get the store’s alarm code so they can break in to steal the magazine after hours. Plump, chubby Mary is an object of scorn for our resident would-be porno bandits. However, when Billy gets to know Mary as a person, he learns that, like him, she is an expert computer programmer. The two collaborate on The Impossible Fortress, a game they design for a national competition. As Mary and Billy’s relationship grows, the boys make promises they can’t keep and wind up enlisting the help of high school bad boy Tyler Bell, whose role in the story is much larger than the novel first suggests.


As the affable and well-written prose moves forward, we learn that the real impossible fortress is adolescence itself, a hormone-fueled time that finds young people paradoxically living in the moment while planning for their future. Rekulak handles teen emotions well. We believe not only in Billy’s emotions, but we also believe that he believes them. Billy is an authentic character, one drawn with emotional weight and depth. His growing concern for Mary is undercut by his own ambition, and, as the plot moves towards its inexorable ending, readers witness his transformation from a boy whose world ends at the tip of his nose into a young man who understands the weight of his choices.


Each chapter begins with a snippet of BASIC computer programming, the rudimentary pieces of Mary and Billy’s game. A fully-playable version is available on Rekulak’s website (http://jasonrekulak.com/), rendered in cheesy, faux-8-bit graphics. This touch rounds out the book’s absolute love for all things 1980s, from Rubik’s Cubes to video rental stores, from cheesy TV to school bullies drawn from CBS after-school specials. Nostalgia can be dangerous for a writer. With too much of it, a story becomes mushy and syrupy, wallowing in details rather than advancing the plot. However, in Rekulak’s capable hands, the world becomes an extension of the characters. Indeed, it would be hard to imagine Billy existing elsewhere, with his un-ironic earnestness and honesty.


Writers and critics sometimes fetishize “newness,” quoting Ezra Pound’s closing-on-century-old advice, “Make it new.” That drive to make all things new denies the fact that writers have been telling different versions of the same stories for years. Have we seen coming-of-age stories before? Of course. Have we seen paeans to the 1980s before? Yes. However, we’ve never heard this story before told by this character at this moment. Like a computer programmer, first-time novelist Jason Rekulak takes the elements and assembles them. In his creative hands, the parts transcend into a beautiful whole.