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The Pumpkined Heart - Poems of Pennsylvania

Brett Rutherford published The Pumpkined Heart in 1973 as a 48-page illustrated chapbook. Now, almost a half-century later, he has assembled all of his poems that have Pennsylvania as their locale, into one huge book, a personal memoir in poems.

Three towns figure in this saga that spans early childhood to college years: Scottdale, in the coal and coke district when the skies were black with smoke and fumes from the coke-ovens; West Newton, a grim steelworkers’ town hugging the steep banks of the Youghiogheny River; and Edinboro, a college town in the northwest corner of the state, its placid lake setting contrasting with the tumult of Vietnam-era protest.

From early childhood in Scottdale, the poet casts himself as an outsider, breaking rules, recruiting neighbor children to act in “monster shows,” absorbing Native American lore from a story-telling grandmother, and learning about the Golem legend from Jewish neighbors. The other side of his family life is “out home,” where his maternal grandparents live in squalor in a tar-paper-covered shack. These country people, their pride and their secrets, left an indelible impression that emerges in “memory poems,” written many decades later. In “Peeling the Onion,” a grandmother relates to him the dark side of living alone in the mountains, and “the kinds of things that happen to women.”

Four high-school years in West Newton with a degenerating family and an evil stepfather are lightened by self-discovery: “I was a poet. A cape would trail behind me always.” Here he studies Latin, writes his first poems, and deepens his abiding love of the Gothic in literature and film. The fantasy poem “Son of Dracula” celebrates artistic birth, and “Mr. Penney’s Books” gratefully recalls the town’s one mentor for the unruly young, a bibliophile with 10,000 books.

Readers turning to the Edinboro section of this book will be startled by the transformation of theme and mood. Rutherford attaches himself to the town’s glacial lake, its flora and fauna, its sharp seasonal divides, and weaves them into a Whitmanesque vision. These poems, while modern in style, are in the spirit of Shelley, Whitman, Rilke, and Jeffers. Returning to the locale again and again over many decades for renewal and recollection, the poems celebrate what the poet calls, “my first-found home.” Other poems lift the veil on the student life of the time, and the choices one had to make about war or resistance.

The last section of the book, “Looking Backward,” includes retrospective poems, written from far away, that look back on the childhood places and events, rather than the straight-forward story-poems earlier in the book.

The longer poems here are stories in verse, several of them with multiple voices, most notably the four-voice tale, “The Doll Without A Face.” But all the poems are clear, easily read aloud, and aimed at the reader who may be wary of poetry.

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