It was March. I was 12.
Cool breeze blew through the curtains,
caressed my body like spring break.
I heard the train whistle off in the woods
and thought about my parents in the next room,
the way they must be warming their bed,
holding each other like fireflies at dusk.
The walls were warm, new skin
holding me inside my comfort
zone. Book pages flipped
at will. I wasn’t reading any more, pulling
my breath out of the bottom drawer
of underwear and socks, dreaming
about craters in the moon and pocks
on my fresh young
face. There were no killer viruses or men
in panel trucks waiting to pull me
into black holes of despair, no melting glaciers,
and no Big Pharma ads every
30 minutes on TV. I was safe, like fruitcake.
Review by Dennis Hinrichsen
As I read through this issue I found myself coming back to John Dorroh’s poem, “Ad Valorem,” again and again. It had charmed me. I love how it begins so simply and directly, then opens up to this wonderful montage of images from a more Paradiso March. I love the image of the fireflies holding each other at dusk—something off there—I always saw fireflies as singularities—but also warm and tactile. It works. Commands my attention. And then the downward movement through the stanzas—enjambment feels like a smart choice here. And then all the wonderful surprises in stanza two. The pages flipping at will set against the not reading set against the breath coming out of a bottom drawer of underwear and socks, ending with the scalar shift from moon to face. What a fine, beautifully lined stanza. And then another scalar move to summary and our current situation with COVID et alia—a shift that comes out of song form via the bridge or Shakespearean sonnet in that third quatrain. And then the sweet simple move back to the key of the poem with another charming and to me surprising image. Fruitcake, safe? Not once ever in my world, but here it’s an earned certainty.
Review by Paul Jones
There are spectacular moments in this memory poem. Parents are imagined “holding each other like fireflies at dusk.” The speaker at 12 is less aware of dangers—I remember the fear of polio and the celebration of the cure, but this speaker is as “safe, a fruitcake.” As with the fireflies, I am delighted with the freshness found here. And who has ever found freshness in a fruitcake.
Review by Joe Bisicchia
In the claustrophobic pain of a pandemic, it feels right to look back at a simpler nondescript time ever so longingly, a time to value even if we did not realize it at the time. In this meaningful nostalgic work by John Dorroh, “Ad Valorem” values the wide-eyed imagination of innocence in an ephemeral, fickle world. As the reader, we go dreaming of the moon and its surface, a Shakespearian journey in a way like Juliet facing changeability in a face. Perhaps we are only ignorant to all the change ahead, but the present ignorance sure feels safe.
Time stands still perhaps for the pure and ever brief break of spring, but shall move swift like a train, unseen no less, like all that must happen with adults, far off into the future, yet here now in some hard to hold down mystery close as under a shared roof. Surely for the innocent, there must be appreciation of adulthood to be the vibrancy of a firefly, and yet even that shall one day darken, and thus have its value in making most of what presently is, if that is ever possible. Not necessarily easy, for so much bores like a book. There is so much priceless value and interest to “new skin” and “comfort,” but time does not stay as is, as spring. And soon to come will be horrors like acne. Time swiftly comes and goes like spring clothes and daily underwear.
Dorroh’s portrait of the past is a harbinger for all our litany of inevitabilities. How shall we make the most of the present? He compares the time stuck ultimately like a fruitcake set aside, safe but maybe only to be forgotten and maybe never even savored. For sure, no matter, by impatient beast or patient time it won’t last forever on its plate. Ignorance may be bliss, but it goes stale. It has a train to catch.
Review by Fred Pelka
“Childhood is the writer’s only capital.”
I thought of this epigram by Louis Auchincloss after my second or third time through this poem. Childhood can be as much a state of mind as a remembered set of experiences, and for a poem to revisit that state—all the while retaining the poet’s adult knowledge—is always tricky to do and a triumph when done well.
I was drawn in by the economy of the first line, which tells us both the time of year and the time of the poet’s life. From then on each line, each image enriches that opening. Lines like “holding each other like fireflies at dusk” and “new skin/holding me inside my comfort/zone” hold both a sense of the wistfulness of childhood and of the turmoil of the adolescence and then the adulthood that loom in the years ahead.
And then the concrete immediacy of “my parents in the next room,/the way they must be warming their bed.” The (bedroom) wall separating child from parents might represent innocence, or alienation, or the certain way time pushes us to certain strange conclusions, night after night. And then what child doesn’t want to understand more of the life around her?
John Dorroh in this poem poses the question, and opens for the reader all these possibilities, while setting us into a distinct mental state. And also asks of us: who can see the future? Who has ever been able to predict the snares we will encounter as we shift, first into adolescence, then adulthood? Climate change, pandemics, the threat of physical and sexual violence, the greed of “Big Pharma”—what child lying in bed at night could ever imagine such a future? Safe as fruitcake indeed.
Consulting the almighty Google I learn that “Ad Velorum” is a Latin phrase meaning “to the value” or “ according to the value.” Which brings me back to “the writer’s only capital.” I don’t know if this is what Mr. Dorroh had in mind, but if childhood is indeed our capital, I hope it isn’t too much a strain on the metaphor to say that it is our interest, the writer’s and now the reader’s, that adds to the value of this perfectly recounted slice of relived experience.
Review by Jared Pearce
The tension between the Latin, tax-reference title and the final object, the fruitcake, referring both to craziness and solidity, is palpably fun in this poem. The list of items, their locations in the house, the contrast between a twelver’s and an adult speaker’s consciousness is really keen. And while the adult knows the debt of childhood must be paid, it seems that, at least for the point of the poem, it’s worth it.