A few readers will remember Jeff Epton from his years on the Ann Arbor City Council in the 1980s. Epton was probably a true socialist, yet he got along rather well with moderate Republicans (yes, there really were such creatures, and they actually lived and could get elected in Ann Arbor!). They were all able to get the city’s business done without excessive name-calling. Epton was playful, unlike the dour Democrats we seem stuck with now, and he could often get his colleagues to laugh out loud. The political climate didn’t seem all that exceptional then, but in retrospect it seems like another world.
Changes in his life took Epton away from Ann Arbor, into parenthood and a life in Washington, D.C. And now he has reemerged as a poet. In the introduction to his new book Wild Once and Captured, he writes: “Now, in my 65th year, being a poet has become a rock for me, a core piece of how I think about myself.” The fact that Jeff Epton is sixty-five might be even more startling for some folks than the fact that he has become a poet.
Needless to say, Epton’s collection doesn’t necessarily fit any of the rules for books of poetry. For one thing the illustrations by Stacee Kalmanovsky, which remind me a bit of Chagall watercolors without the flying cows, provide a context for the words that seems to change them, making them part of a larger yet still deeply personal discussion. In addition, Epton sprinkles his book with quotations from other poets, and he chooses an eclectic lot (Sherman Alexie, Mary Karr, Marge Piercy, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, among others). This, too, contributes to the feel that when we read Wild Once and Captured we are entering the thought processes of the author, discovering the places he’s been thinking about and how he got to them. There’s a moving prose elegy for Phyllis Hall, an old friend who lived in the Corktown neighborhood of Detroit and who opened her house to a large extended family that included Epton for a while. He writes that early on he realized “that whiteness was both a privilege and a sort of stupidity about the world. I thought these things with a kind of sorrow I couldn’t evade …” And he continues that “Phyllis’s house was the place where my whiteness mattered least and where I did not have to evade the sorrow because I could briefly set it aside.”
Sometimes in the book he adopts ancient voices and creates new characters to speak them. For instance, he writes a long and sympathetic retelling of the story of Jezebel, first told in the biblical books of Kings. Epton’s poem begins
You know when we met
I was a girl who loved
Baal for his rain and sweet water
and might love you for your youth and sweet breath.
And Epton concludes his poem, making a hero out of the woman portrayed as a traitor for three millennia, by having her say, “What you decree, may come, but Jezebel does not flee.”
And, of course, he doesn’t shy away from politics. The very next poem is entitled “Always Jewish, Lately Palestinian.”
Jeff Epton will read from his poems at a wonderful old place but a new reading venue, the West Side Book Shop, on January 20.