Reviewed by Elvis Alves
by Julie Babcock
Paperback: 82 pages, October 7, 2014, ISBN-13: 978-0988201347
It is tempting to say that Autoplay by Julie Babcock is a collection of poems about Ohio. It is and more. One way to put order to this book, a task that is almost if not totally impossible to do, is to separate the poems into categories. The Ohio poems would be one category. Another category would be poems dealing with childhood and adulthood. This category interests me the most, even though one can argue that the poems in it are intertwined with those about Ohio.
There is a real sense of distance in Babcock’s poetry. She seems to want the reader to experience this phenomenon or at least bring him in for a close-up view. In “Fun Slide”, Babcock writes, “There are bells and I teach college on the lawn/My students form a circle and ask where I’ve been/themselves full of meaning/football games and balcony parties/their bags full of laptops/and monster drinks” (3). The vagaries of student life is absent in that of the teacher. This was not always the case. The teacher once lived a carefree life when she was a child (or at least when she was younger). “When I was thirteen/I stole the Billy Idol cassette Rebel Yell/and did not get caught” (“First Sex”, 14) and “After school/children walk through the cemetery /to the dairy for Sherbet and Heavenly Hash/They recall a little of what teachers say/that the dead are famous/They pass tombs liking this idea/this famous world underfoot” (The Ice Cream Cemetery,” 11). The last piece offers an onlooker’s gaze at innocence. It is unclear whether the author was one of the children or that she observed the children, causing them to serve as inspiration for the poem.
“Pregnant Chad’s “It is a boy’s name/but of course/she is a girl,” draws attention to a pregnant teenager put on display during a school assembly, “They dim the lights/She Steps back/and the red/velvet curtains close…” (43). One gets the sense that this scenario played out in Babcock teenage years, similar to that which involved the Billy Idol cassette. This looking back to the past for inspiration is employed throughout the text. It is a technique that most poets use. However, Babcock is able to utilize it in an additional sense—a sense that relates to the void or unknown of the present and future. She writes in “Driving at Midnight”, “Whatever passes and doesn’t pass/flashes into mirror and eyes/then shrouds itself/and whispers exits in the dark” (9). Babcock toys with the notion of the past catching up with you or exiting beforehand.
But the past is always with us. History attests to this. In “Tecumseh!”, Babcock writes, “Ohio loves to be sorry/She sits in the beautiful spectacle/with galloping horses/and American cannons/The shame of gunfire/against arrow/Tecumseh/she whispers/keep trying” (10). Ohio here is a little girl at a theatrical performance about the Native American hero, Tecumseh. It is important that the tragedy of the plight wrought against the native tribes by Europeans not get lost in the folds of history. This reminder interweaves itself in poems like “When Ohio Was the West” (1) and “Johnny Appleseed Dies” (60). Babcock covers much personal and social, historical contextual ground. At times, to be honest, one can lose one’s footing in her work. However, as she reminds us in the title poem,“The man is both inside and outside” (“Autoplay” 26).
About the reviewer: Elvis Alves is the author of the poetry collection Bitter Melon (Mahaicony Books, 2013). Find out more at www.poemsbyelvis.blogspot.com