REVIEW: The Night We Set The Dead Kid On Fire by Ephraim Scott Sommers

The Night We Set The Dead Kid On Fire by Ephraim Scott Sommers
Tebot Bach Press, February 2017
Review by Miles White

Ephraim Scott Sommers is a poet and musician from Orlando, by way of Atascadero and Kalamazoo. The Night We Set the Dead Kid on Fire is his first collection of poetry. “Water Body,” which appears in this collection, was published in the Winter 2014 issue of Euphony Journal. More recently, Sommers’ “This Video Kid, Too, Shall Die,” appeared in our Winter 2019 issue.

The Night We Set the Dead Kid on Fire—why, what a title! Let me dwell for a moment on the names that follow it: “My Father Sings Dylan at Sixty-Two,” “Cryin’ Bryan,” “God Grant Me a Room for Playing Cards Against My Enemies,” “Judas Home For Good Friday”… these titles could almost stand by themselves. Fortunately, Ephraim Scott Sommers has given us poems worthy of their names.

Sommers’ is the sort of unstructured verse that feels accidental at first. Instead of rhyme, meter, or refrain, he spools his poems around tightly-wound free-associations and images. He assembles vivid memory-palace verse out of metaphors and metonyms. Even his most straightforward poems are too bright-eyed to be mistaken for prose—the language is too quick and too lucid throughout. At times a single sentence will sprawl across several stanzas, and frequently entire poems will spill like quicksilver out from a single thought: see how “The Hardest Thing,” a ragged meditation on abuse, wrings volumes from its narrow physical and emotional environs.

And this wringing, this drawing of detail, is essential to the work. Sommers is an excellent storyteller: he has a gift for breaking a story down into its simplest elements and filling in the gaps with quick, striking snapshots. Sometimes the stories are his, and sometimes he lends voice to something that cannot bear to stay silent. As Sommers himself explains, nimble and near-feverish, partway through “Cryin’ Bryan”—

I’m telling Michelle all about the Bryan nobody’s ever heard of
because I’m twenty-two, and already I’ve learned
praising people I barely know and saying I don’t believe
in God is a way to make myself seem touchable.

These are poems full of feeling. Sommers writes about the common afflictions—health scares, doomed affairs, lost family members—but his verses are so urgent and so vital that the reader draws into them. The stream of his consciousness runs swift, especially in his longer poems—standout “O Hospital Holy” rockets through its five pages, slipping from one thought to the next, from one too-vivid image (“the freckled doctor crooknecks / around the awkward curtain to announce we are still waiting / on the enemy”) to another (“my grandmother’s gurney reversed into her living room / my family sardined in”).   

Ephraim and his narrators are indeed touchable, even if the other people whose names and histories dot The Night We Set the Dead Kid On Fire—friends, family, lovers all lost to one thing or another—pass by a touch too fleetingly. The poet’s first-person is still so sharp that we can hardly complain. When there is loss, or guilt, or sympathy, then pain pools into the very edges of the page. But then, when there is joy—real, unforced, undesperate joy—it feels like a revelation. The fleeting “Watching a Deaf Wedding in White City, Missouri,” one of Sommers’ best, strings its sweet images together so gently they feel dreamlike. Even the sort of fragile joy that underpins poems like “The Dirty Tangerine” or “Us Sleeping in on the Fifth of July” is welcome respite. At times, Sommers paints with both palettes: “My Father Sings Dylan at Sixty-Two” dives deep, deep into the trouble and heartache of a father’s youth, only to claw its way through to his comfortable and gentle middle-age. These, the hard-won poems, small victories for people nobody’s ever heard of, are among the most memorable.

There’s a poem a little past halfway through the book, titled “I Won’t Be Able to Say This When I’m Dead.” It’s a rough poem, as someone Sommers loves has one last run-in with trouble—real trouble. It’s hard to read, but that love makes the hurt bearable, and Sommers carries the one just as well as the other. There’s another poem in the collection, after all—near the end, an ode to a survivor not unlike the many other survivors that populate The Night We Set The Dead Kid On Fire, people who play just as large a role in Sommers’ world as the lost. It’s called “We Don’t Die.”