Jun 16 2023
Poetry Review – TRANSCENDENCE: Nathan Leslie enjoys Charles Rammelkamp’s backward look at the 1960s
If you aren’t familiar with the work of Charles Rammelkamp, you are in for a treat. A brief gander at his biography informs the reader that Rammelkamp’s poetry is steeped in historical and biographical research–a far cry from the confessional poetry of the 1960’s, the period which garners the author’s interest in his latest collection Transcendence.
As the smoking Buddha cover (by Gene McCormick) and interior subheadings might indicate, this is a collection immersed in the trippy, effusive counterculture of the 1960’s. The collection is divided by sections including “Kiss the Sky,” “Glen Webber Investigates,” “Tune in, Turn on,” “Mindfulness” and “The Psychonaut.” However, where we might expect Beat Poetry, Rammelkamp instead gives us heavy doses of carefully controlled vignettes and narrative poems, carefully researched and articulated in almost a journalistic manner. This is the Charles Rammelkamp signature–little in the way of flashy showmanship; instead, the words offer a snippet of reality. A bit of expose here, a bit of history lesson there.
From “The Good Friday Experiment”:
A Harvard graduate student, Walter Pahnke, Working on his Ph.D. dissertation under Tim Leary, Gave capsules to twenty divinity students, Half with niacin, half with psilocybin During a Good Friday service at Marsh Chapel.
This poem, appearing early in the Timothy Leary section of the book (“Tune in, Turn On”) offers the reader a direct delivery which heightens the irony of the poem–”God is everywhere!” a divinity student exclaims. So, here in this collection, is LSD.
“Kiss the Sky” leads the collection with a multi-faceted exploration of the author’s youthful experience (primarily observational). Much humor accompanies the poems in this section. To wit the poem that opens the collection, “Excuse Me While I Kiss the Sky.” This poem uses the trigger of an elderly woman wearing a Purple Haze t-shirt to transport us to Greg’s student pad.
Greg had lazy eye syndrome–amblyopia– His right eye wandering around in its socket Like a ricocheting pinball. As I watched, the eye crawled down his face, Sprouted eight spider legs, Ran down his pants and scurried under the couch.
What is most remarkable about this section in Rammelkamp’s collection is the way in which the author catalogs a multitude of facets regarding LSD in a country deep-diving into previously unknown territory. “Scrambled Eggs, 1968,” for instance, details the health concerns taught by Mr. Brooks from the author’s memory.
“Ten, fifteen years from now, You might have kids born with gills or six fingers.”
The first section of this outstanding collection is a triumph of breadth and textured poetry—each one revealing a hidden side of the 1960’s. This is not a trip into nostalgia. This is a trip into trips.
“Glen Webber Investigates,” the second section of the book is less memory-laden, closer in spirit to Fusen Bakudan, Rammelkamp’s collection about WW2 Japanese balloon bombs and missionaries. Here though we are given access to the mind of one Glen Webber:
a wet-behind-the-ears journalist, tagging along in the postwar paranoia about the existential threat of Communism
The poems in this section are linked, focusing on the story of Frank Olsen, a CIA agent who presumably jumped to his death. No spoiler alerts here.
The final components not previously mentioned of this terrific collection are “Mindfulness” and “the Psychonaut”–one which covers the era’s predilection for Eastern spirituality, the other which circles back to LSD, less directly, touching upon a character dubbed “the Psychonaut” who, let’s just say, explores the mystical doors of perception.
There is something wonderfully subversive about Transcendence. Not only is it completely “underground” in terms of subject matter, but the author also keeps the reader guessing in his deployment of historical research and crafty character-centric methodology (Leary, Webber). Charles Rammelkamp has outdone himself with this collection. Tune in–you will not be disappointed.
Nathan Leslie won the 2019 Washington Writers’ Publishing House prize for fiction for his collection of short stories, Hurry Up and Relax. He is also the series editor for Best Small Fictions. Invisible Hand (2022) and A Fly in the Ointment (2023) are his latest books. Nathan’s previous books of fiction include Three Men, Root and Shoot, Sibs, and The Tall Tale of Tommy Twice. He is also the author of a collection of poems, Night Sweat. Nathan is currently the founder and organizer of the Reston Reading Series in Reston, Virginia, and the publisher and editor of the online journal Maryland Literary Review. Previously he was series editor for Best of the Web and fiction editor for Pedestal Magazine. His fiction has been published in hundreds of literary magazines such as Shenandoah, North American Review, Boulevard, Hotel Amerika, and Cimarron Review. Nathan’s nonfiction has been published in The Washington Post, Kansas City Star, and Orlando Sentinel. Nathan lives in Northern Virginia.