Rattle Foundation, 36 pages, paperback, $6.00
In his follow-up to his Vietnam War-themed poetry collection, Scream Wounds: How to Kill Your First Man in War, Jimmy Pappas has produced another excellent collection of themed poetry. This time, however, the theme here is death — or more specifically, how we, the survivors, deal with the dying and death of loved ones.
Falling Off the Empire State Building is a short collection, but it makes a strong emotional impact. Pappas has a knack for recognizing the things we zero in on when we lose someone we love, be it the act of discarding the shoes of the deceased (in “My Mother’s Shoes”), or reflecting on the sacrifices he or she made while alive — this is in reference to the titular poem, “Falling Off the Empire State Building,” wherein Jimmy confesses to sharing as fact with his students the story of how workers would fall to their death during construction of the Empire State Building, only to be replaced by desperate workers waiting in line for an opening. Though he later learns that this was an urban legend, the poem relates how his father
…would have been one of those workers
who stood in line waiting for a job
just to feed his family; then balancing
on a metal beam above the earth
while trying desperately not to fall.
There is obvious truth in the fiction of the tale (and besides, I’m fairly certain you could replace “Empire State Building” with “Hoover Dam” and be historically accurate). Desperate people will go to huge lengths to care for their families, and at their deaths, we have to reckon with this. Did we do enough to reciprocate that love? Is there enough we can do in the end to ever repay them?
If you live long enough, you will inevitably experience the deaths of many people you love. It is the price you pay for being fortunate enough to live a long life. Pappas seems to realize this — his latest collection of poetry is not maudlin or grief-stricken, but is rather a wistful, gentle take on the end that awaits us all, and what meaning a life takes on after it has concluded.