With Extreme Prejudice, Lest We Forget by Emmett Wheatfall
Fernwood Press, 2022, 105 pages, $17.00
Available at Fernwood Press
As a poet astutely aware of the challenges facing 21st century America, Emmett Wheatfall has never shied away from the in-your-face-truths all of us need to hear. With Extreme Prejudice, Lest We Forget is his latest foray into truth-telling. This collection bears witness to the history of the COVID-19 pandemic which Wheatfall elegantly describes as The greatest hitchhiker on earth…/making its rounds (“Every Nation Under The Sun”).
In poem after poem, he explores both the ongoing fear of a disease that has taken so many lives as well as the hope for the brighter future we all yearn for. The opening poem, “For All We Lose,” sets up this interplay:
For all we lose,
never to come again,
the lighthouse remains,
the channels flow,
will go on
Aware of his own mortality, Wheatfall is not afraid to show his vulnerability. In “For the Most Part,” he lays himself bare:
For the record I am a black male
whose legs continue to grow weak,
whose knees incessantly throb and ache
despite Copper Fit compression sleeves….
On occasion, a shot of bourbon rocks my senses,
infrequent sex stiffens my joints,
an 81 mg aspirin tablet—a daily necessity
And, in typical Wheatfall fashion, the poem lands on an upbeat note: For the most part, in the sweet by-and-by,/I hope to live forever.
The poet is not only physically vulnerable but also admits to emotional vulnerability. In “World War C” he says, I am scared, man––/oh, how I am scared. In “Beyond the Shadows” he writes, We know despair/and despair knows us. And, in “Freddy’s Stimulus Check,”
In this the days of COVID-19––
The Smiths cannot pay their rent;
a lawn service mows my lawn.
Freddy has not received his stimulus check;
I will periodically reallocate my investments.
A homeless family has not eaten;
Karen and I are eating three meals a day….
All over the world, people are dying;
I am alive here in Portland, Oregon.
I feel guilty.
How authentic: this fear, despair, and guilt of a poet who was not afraid to share his feelings at the beginning of the pandemic and would attest to them now.
Throughout this collection, Wheatfall surprises us with allusions to Ernest Hemingway, Winston Churchill, Patrick Henry, Leonard Cohen, and Charles Bukowski. He also delights us with unexpected images that emerge from his plain-spoken poems. For example, in “The Man on Earth’s Moon,” he writes:
Wait for it.
Watch for it. Stars will shine again.
And the man on earth’s moon?
He will look back and smile.
and in “Summer Day,”
Wearing cowgirl boots
Is hot-hot on the heels
Of so much fun
The bottom line of Without Extreme Prejudice, Lest We Forget is that COVID-19 is no match for hope–– three years ago or now. Eventually, the vagabond will die, Wheatfall proclaims in “Sing Like Italy.” Then,
seniors will rejoice in mercy that is grace,
some will visit the gravesite of the less fortunate,
Sally will again hang washcloths on clotheslines,
Sam will return to his rickety rocking chair,
sisters will sob in their mother’s arms
sons will man-up and hug their father
Wheatfall’s poetic honesty reminds me of Galway Kinnell who said, To me, poetry is somebody standing up … and saying, with as little concealment as possible, what it is for him or her to be on earth at this moment.
With Extreme Prejudice, Lest We Forget suggests we look back in time––with as little concealment as possible–– at the poet’s observations of the early years of living with COVID-19. He offers us hard and hopeful truths: the hallmark not of one single poem in this collection but of the entire body of Wheatfall’s inspiring and captivating work.
(This review is adapted from the “Foreward” of With Extreme Prejudice, Lest We Forget written by Carolyn Martin)
Carolyn Martin is a lover of gardening and snorkeling, feral cats and backyard birds, writing and photography. Her poems have appeared in more than 150 journals throughout North America, Australia, and the UK. Since the only poem she wrote in high school was red-penned “extremely maudlin,” she is amazed she has continued to write. She is the poetry editor of Kosmos Quarterly: journal for global transformation and OPA’s book review editor. Find out more at www.carolynmartinpoet.com.