The American mastodon became extinct sometime around 10000 BC, having first emerged from the primordial goo around about 3.7 million years ago. They were impressive beasts, with a thick coat similar to that of a woolly mammoth, and tusks that could grow to more than five metres in length. Fearsome animals indeed. Quite what they have to do with American Mastodon, Brad Ricca’s collection of poetry (published by Black Lawrence Press) is at first hard to see.
The poem from which the collection gets its title takes a close look at one particular American Mastodon. It’s a slow, considered poem, that gives a sense of weight and ponderousness. The eye of the creature is described as “floating twelve feet high, / single and blue”. A few stanzas later we go behind that eye and see as the mammoth does, taking in the giant sloth, the short-faced bear and the “man, up on the hill, with / his dumb dog / and ridiculous knife.”
As it happens the titular poem is not particularly indicative of the collection. Although the tone varies from poem to poem, there is generally a playful, brightly-coloured atmosphere. It’s there from the very beginning: just scan through the contents page and you’ll find a proliferation of titles like “The Beautiful Sandwich”, “Super-Villain Team-Up” and “Behold The Horror Of The Zombie Yeats”. Wild ideas and strange concepts abound.
I was worried, initially, that this might be an attempt at wackiness, but fortunately it’s not. Even the wildest and most bizarre-sounding pieces from American Mastodon are layered with a kind of heartfelt sadness that’s all the more powerful for the fact that it emerges from such comedic subject matter. In the previously mentioned “Behold The Horror Of The Zombie Yeats” for example, the famed poet emerges from his grave initially with the intention of rampaging around the countryside in typical zombie fashion. It’s not long however before he visits the grave of his beloved, before shuffling off to the Five Cross and Eagles to drown his sorrows, as human deep down as the people whose brains he eats.
The written style is simple but conjures some powerful images. There’s little in the way of a cohesive theme, and if there is anything to tie the poems together it is their own anarchic eclecticism. American Mastodon is a museum of everything. For me at least it didn’t make for a sustained read, but rather was something to be dipped in and out of whenever I was in the mood to be amused and entertained.
Christopher Frost is a writer from the North of England.