published by Kind of a Hurricane Press, 2014
download here 


Walter Ruhlmann is a softie.  Oh, yes he is.  But a hard softie.  He keeps on keeping on, as Curtis Mayfield sings, despite heartbreak and extreme loss.  He knows how to express his sorrow and ennui, but there’s a resilience and lust for life evident in much of his work.  I don’t know how he does it, but Ruhlmann pumps out a lot of poetry each year, without losing his depth and emotional poignancy.

His latest collected work is called Twelve Times Thirteen, a title that rings like a name of a Twilight Zone episode or a show from America’s golden age of radio.  In the book’s prologue Ruhlmann explains that it’s partly inspired by 5×2, a film directed by François Ozon, and that the poems cover the twelve months of 2013, of which “the first six were about the worst [he] had ever lived.”  Each poem title is made up of its month’s number (“Three Times Thirteen” for March, for example) and the name of the song that inspired the piece. 

While at first the concept of including actual song titles in poem titles jarred me, I came to appreciate it.  If anything, it bolstered my almost obsessive insistence that all titles should be works of art in themselves, so seeing titles selected by a variety of bands (from Boney M to  Nine Inch Nails) reinforced in me how important it is to have cool titles.  I’m sure Rene Magritte would agree.

Also, presenting poems with corresponding songs invites one to become familiar with the songs he or she hasn’t heard, as well as suggests that the poems would be enhanced if the songs were played in the background while reading them.  We all keep a running “soundtrack of our lives,” don’t we?  (See the film adaptation of Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity.)  You folks around my age still remember the mini-religion of “mix tapes” like they were yesterday.  (What do the youth court each other with now: mix playlists?) Consider Twelve Times Thirteen a mix tape with extra lyrics, the poet’s words overlapping the band’s.

Ruhlmann sums up his 2013’s doldrums and grief immediately in the first poem, “One Times Thirteen: Tesselate, Alt+J”:

The gap between two winters elapses so slowly.
January –
hatred is such a hard feeling when the slowness, the harshness hardens your blasted heart…
Despising the land you dwell in, longing for something else, again, as if the road you started
walking on would never end.

He metaphorizes the 31 days of January as “broken windows to go through,” and that window motif recurs at least one or two more time later in the book.  This subverts the sappy positivity in The Sound of Music’s Maria’s “When God closes a door, He opens a window” line.  We all know what can and most likely will happen when climbing through jagged pieces of glass.  A journey through a year becomes a bloody Via Dolorosa of the spirit.

Though Ruhlmann’s style tends to veer into the esoteric, acclimation comes easily, and Ruhlmann narrates perfectly coherently when the time is right and directness is needed.  The horrible year of 2013 can be expressed in translatable language only so far, after all.  How does one at Ground Zero describe a mushroom cloud?  Truly, this book is a gloomy cousin to Ruhlmann’s preceding book, The Loss and GMO (Greats Moments of Oblivion).  Esoteric or not, his stuff shines best in golden lines (and anyone who knows my artistic preferences knows that I’m usually a sucker for lovely lines rather than waddling wholes). 

What a creative and therapeutic way to assess a hellhole of a year, to process twelve months of broken windows.  Ruhlmann has left us with a painful and touching mix tape as memorial.  I synced the songs with their poems (or the poems with their songs) – and it worked, almost as convincingly as the Dark Side of the Moon/Wizard of Oz trick.  (Google it if you don’t know what I mean.)  Also, I had a very pleasant side-effect from the experience: I’m now a fan of Alt+J and Gold Frapp. 

So, in honor of Twelve Times Thirteen’s format, let me end this review with clips from a mix tape of my own.  Here are some favorite lines and passages.

“Two Times Thirteen – No I in Threesome, Interpol” (which contains quintessential Ruhlmann sexuality):

…these secrets – moist and dark – hiding at the back of this drawer,
concealed behind your socks, sucked cocks, licked asses and flesh masses.

“Three Times Thirteen – Black Balloon, The Kills” (which emphasizes the ephemerality of our day-to-day bodies, which are kept going only by constant consumption, and the totally independent state of death):

The food you eat is not the one that will sustain the corpse you bear.

“Five Times Thirteen – Desire, Anna Calvi” (which admits our failure to fully suppress our deepest emotions and desires):

Maybe I’m wrong but I believe that no one can fight feelings coming from one’s depths, from the
moistest part of part of oneself, the bottom of the well…a whore of a pressure that pushes against you and won’t leave      you at rest.

“Six Times Thirteen – Abnormally Attracted to Sin, Tori Amos (which echoes The Brothers Karamazov’s Dmitri’s spiel about the beauty of both the Madonna and Sodom):

…when Hera still believed
I could have performed the most splendid deeds
when all I wanted was some sordid filth.

“Seven Times Thirteen – Closer, Nine Inch Nails” (which contains one of the best metaphors for acute arousal and sexual selfishness ever; no “softie” here):

July shouted word in my ears…
aroused the razor blade hidden inside my shorts.

…The bulging beast went stuff and stuffy and spurted all its spores,
all over the soft face of the source of my bliss.

“Nine Times Thirteen – The Price of Gasoline, Bloc Party” (which more than hints at flirtation with a married man and the narrator’s self-diminishment that’s symbolized by a miniscule and limp-prone penis):

Don’t flirt with the bearded man.
His wife will be upset.
Especially if he accepts some hot business.

…They made you think you were fitted with something huge and uncanny but all you can see is
a pin hardly able to remain stiff.

“Ten Times Thirteen – Sand River, Beth Gibbons & Rusty Man” (which continues the theme of self-diminishment and impotence, but in regard to doubtful reception of the narrator’s writing this time):

Forty next year. Will this lead you to write more than you already do and share this infamous
wording, logorrhoea, verbal diarrhoea that would bore even your closest friends unable to read
it through?

“Twelve Times Thirteen – River, Joni Mitchell” (Mitchell’s introductory piano riffs off of “Jingle Bells” and the song refers to Christmas, but there is no holiday cheer or tidings of great joy here):

Dystopia is your fuel, you can envisage nothing else than an apocalypse.


Walter Ruhlmann works as an English teacher, edits mgversion2>datura and runs mgv2>publishing. His latest collections are Maore (Lapwing Publications, 2013), Carmine Carnival (Lazarus Media, 2013), The Loss and GMO (Flutter Press, 2014) and Crossing Puddles (Robocup Press, 2014). Visit his blog.