Map. guides readers through universal caverns

Image courtesy of CWP Collective Press

Tom Dreitlein’s new chapbook, “Map.” serves as just that – an excavation and tentative guide through the imprints his childhood and traumas have had on his psyche. He turns them over on these pages, often through intentional and telling lineation, in a vivid voice that carries his reader through the pages like a guide calling through caverns.

and everything was thick again

If you haven’t heard Dreitlein read his poetry, these poems will lack something. His distinctive phrasing needs to be read aloud to appreciate its cadence fully (go ahead and do so yourself, if you can’t conjure Dreitlein’s voice). Lineation helps; he makes ample use of indentures and white space, playing with the page to draw the reader in and out, creating deliberate wavelengths.

He’s expository sometimes, laying bare his relationship with his father, his friends, the divine, but there are layers beneath everything, ghosts peeking around the corners of these poems. You get the sense he’s trying to tell you something he can’t quite face, trying to touch something that’s whistling away like the wind through the cracks between the pages. Or as Dreitlein puts it,

I’ve spent days with my lips stitched open, my stomach stitched shut. These guts had nowhere to go, but out my mouth.

Lines of italicized text, centered on otherwise blank pages, lead the reader from one poem to the next, intermittently. They’re muse-like, riddles and forewarnings, a siren song from the first poem, “My God Can’t Have Hands,” through to the last. I won’t ruin the device for readers who haven’t discovered it yet; its efficacy lies in that discovery. But it’s a clever one, a wink and a nod that made me re-read it again, just to see how the story changes once I know the ending. And it does, and it doesn’t. It depends on who you are, where you are, when.

Like all of our lives, Dreitlein’s “Map.” makes more sense in retrospect. It reads better the second time around, after a moment to digest and reflect. There are gems here, hidden beneath tangled phrases and occasionally confusing constructions. But they’re there. Consider:

and he can see there how each tradition is, too, its own brittle prison.

Dreitlein’s is a Rust Belt production, through and through. It speaks most directly to children of broken windows and warped steel beams, of cigarette-twirling fingers and generations grizzled by disappointing futures. As a member of that not-so-secret society, I can’t say how it will play to other audiences. It rests comfortably within the tropes we expect in the city of broken promises and deferred dreams. For example:

I, too, come from a town that fled a sinking city/and tried to build a utopia/out of recycled church pews/and unused railroad spikes.

It’s en vogue to make art about Buffalo, these days. Millenials are mining the city for art like our forefathers did for steel, entrenching ourselves in the city’s poetic dereliction like they dug the Erie Canal all those years ago. We’re scraping every last fleck of grit from under the city’s fingernails before the resurgence scrubs it for us, and “Map.” is as guilty of that as any Buffalo poetry. That’s not a bad thing, as much as a warning. We’re all riding the trend – I’m as guilty as anyone – but like all tinfoil idols, it’s bound to crumble and take us with it if we don’t also secure foundations elsewhere. See also:

in the corner/what is left of my spiral notebook is running together/the way all stories do/when you let them sit too long.

Nonetheless. “Map.” has a strong rooting in universal truths. That our families break us as much as they bind us, that gods are as unreliable as clouds and as steadfast as circling drains, that we can grapple with those truths for lives upon lives, and never quite reach what we think we’re looking for. But there’s comfort in that, and raw, refreshing honesty.

Ya know?


Map is out now from CWP Collective Press, and can be purchased here. Tom Dreitlein can be reached at


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