Reviewed by Michael Leach
Patrick Reardon’s epic poem The Lost Tribes is a cri du coeur as thrilling for our time as Alan Ginsberg’s Howl was for his. It celebrates the lonely and the desperate, the forgotten and ignored, the poor, the working class, and the lucky but lost Americans the author finds
in the land of milk and honey,
in the barber shop mirror,
in the electric hours before dawn,
in all that is seen and unseen,
in the Greyhound bus terminal,
in the name of the father,
in the nick of time,
in the land that time forgot,
in lieu of flowers.
With tragic irony, Reardon observes,
I found the lost tribes
and they told me to leave them alone.
The poem is divided into seven parts, but Reardon unifies them through a single, unspoken theme: each of us, all of us, are one. What happens to any of us, happens to all of us. The multiplicity of characters who live in this poem embody that single theme.
A great poem is not a general thesis, of course, but a symphony of sounds that infuse and surround particulars. Reardon writes specifically about the outcasts and outliers he identifies with in his native Chicago:
I found them
in the shadows under the el
amid the stars of broken glass,
red, green, brown, clear,
in slanting morning sun
Another Chicago writer, Nelson Algren, wrote of the same tribe:
“Once you’ve come to be part of this particular patch, you’ll never love another. Like loving a woman with a broken nose, you may well find lovelier lovelies. But never a lovely so real.”
Patrick T. Reardon is a Chicagoan, born and bred, and as much a part of its literary tradition as is Algren or Hecht. He has been writing about the city, its urban underclass and literary scene for more than 40 years. He was a reporter at the Chicago Tribune, is a contributor to Third Coast Review, and has written 10 books, including The Loop: The “L” Tracks That Shaped and Saved Chicago. Deep down, in whatever he writes, Reardon is a poet who sings the song of us.
A poet writes alone but is never “an island apart from the shore.” As John Donne put it, a poet blows our mind by showing us that “every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less…” Reardon fits the definition. He is “involved in mankind.”
The Lost Tribe is about the pain of being human. Reardon does not hold back when writing about his troubled Chicago Irish Catholic family, particularly his brother David who died of suicide, and whose tragic song Patrick first intoned in his book, Requiem for David. Novelist Norman Mailer once said that an artist must be brave enough to write the truth about his family, even if it hurts them so much, they may stop speaking to him. Eugene O’Neill did that in Long Day’s Journey into Night. Reardon does that here. Parts of The Lost Tribes are so painful that I had to stop reading. Not because of the suffering that Reardon removes from the attic of his consciousness and lays out for display in his front yard like a tag sale of regrets. But because of the suffering I remember from my own past that sits, gathering mold, in my consciousness. The truth sets us free only if we bring it out into the light. The Lost Tribes is a ring of fire inviting everyone through. It is a dangerous poem. “The lost tribes,” he writes:
They found me
with David at the altar of God
in our black cassocks and white surplices
messaged by gold and flame
and incense and soaring space,
but hearing a deep transmission:
“I am not worthy.”
Running toward pain,
Each wound a caress.
“What is a poet?” asked the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. “An unhappy person who conceals profound anguish in his heart but whose lips are so formed that as sighs and cries pass over them, they sound like beautiful music.” Reardon fits that definition, too.
A disclosure: Pat is a friend of mine. I’ve compared him to a lot of great writers. I can’t help it.
The Lost Tribes is an anthem shouted from the margins.
The Lost Tribes is available from Grey Book Press.
Michael Leach is publisher emeritus and editor at large of Orbis Books, and the author of many books, including Soul Seeing: Light, Love, Forgiveness.