A Read of Yamrus’ Alchemy


John Yamrus

188 pages

Epic Rites Press


If Epic Rites Press didn’t exist, a consortium of rabid printlovers would have to spill some blood, guts, ink, sweat and tears to invent it.

In this era of electronic media, Epic Rites firmly pledges itself to the visceral, publishing (i.e. printing) works that are vibrant and striking, from content to colour to layout. Through its Tree Killer Ink series to collections by dark, edgy writers like Rob Plath and Jack Henry, Epic Rites grounds itself in the scripture of book as literary artifact. Much thought goes into design to enhance and complement text with the kind of sharp, black humour that spills out with the words of the authors themselves.

Alchemy, the latest by the venerable American poet John Yamrus, illustrates this strategy and delivery quite clearly, not to mention literally. Yamrus himself isn’t necessarily shaded with the darkest hues of Epic Rites’ pallete, but he is certainly enough of an iconoclast to fit in. While he can be tagged, variously, as an Outlaw laureate, Bukowski acolyte, people’s poet, Zen sage or neo-imagist, the label that might fit best, at least for this book (and if we need one at all to appreciate the Yamrus simplicity as a valid literary mode) might be satirist. Sometimes the satire is a gentle rebuke (as proposed in “he said to me”); sometimes a sharp cut (slashed in “one day”); sometimes self-barbed (pointed inwards by “i” (3)); and sometimes with a little existential absurdity (“today”). There are a number of poems in Alchemy that play games with the nature of art and writing, such as “There’s a poem” that simply notes, “There’s a poem/in/here,/somewhere”, teasing the reader to unlock the riddle.

Alchemy adheres to the Yamrus tradition of clipped two or three feet lines built with minimal tools but fueled with substantial wit and energy. Adding another layer here, and complementing the poems, are illustrations by Swedish graphic artist Janne Karlsson, whose sparse, haunting caricatures shade a darker commentary on the words they accompany (see the cartoonishly gruesome sketch that accompanies the vivid “in 1919” for a bold example). Epic Rites is integrating Karlsson’s work into a number of its releases, a strategy that further underlines its commitment to leveraging the book-as-multimedia-artifact.

Of course, it’s still the poems themselves that matter most and Yamrus’ pared down style, as usual,  offers readers an easy way into his content. (It’s a style that can also be a gift to critics, with all that literal and figurative white space offering them room to plug their own deep, interpretive musings.) But these poems, even the briefest, also feel loaded with extra meaning, even without Karlsson’s annotative contributions. Here, Yamrus’ shots across the bow of listless existence seem to carry further, echo longer than in past collections. In “memories”, a simple poem about the value of living on over giving in, the words don’t just crack like a punchline but resound like a bell, despite there only being about a dozen of them.

Alchemy demonstrates how transforming pieces of the everyday into a little literary gold is all in the words and knowing how to mix them. And that having a publisher with the right philosophy can lend a little extra weight.

Indulge at: Epic Rites Press


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