REVIEW: TRAVELS WITH THE ANTI-JOHNNY APPLESEED
While teaching 7th grade for 35 years, I would tell my students, “I’m such an optimist, even my blood type is B positive”—which it is. Raj Dronamraju, author of a book of poetry, Travels with the Anti-Johnny Appleseed, probably could not make that claim, if his book is any indication of his world view.
He states in his introduction that his poems are not necessarily autobiographical, though points in his life are referenced often. And of course voice in poetry, like a novel or short story, should not be assumed to be the author. That said, the speaker of these poems puts forth a consistently negative, cynical, depressing view of modern life—one that is full of truth, yet does not tell the whole story. Glass half full? Glass half empty? As with all complex ideas—and life is truly complex—it’s probably both. This book presents only one side of the story-a legitimate side, but only one, nonetheless.
This book is divided into three sections—Past, Present, and Future. In “The Past,” the speaker is mainly a victim. Bullying, discrimination, rejection in romance, parental divorce and resentment—all negative forces shape the speaker’s outlook. The book begins, “I can only begin to tell you/Of the living ordeal I have gone through. . . .” and, immediately, a poetic litany of life’s offenses against him begins.
“The Present” section is rabidly anti-American. “Hollywood Bad Guys” speculates on America’s reaction if 9/11 had occurred there instead of New York. “There would have been cheering and crying/But of a different kind/ Because deep down inside people hate Hollywood/Hollywood reinforces the most negative aspects of America.” (Ironically,so do these poems.) In “Sick, Sick America,” he laments that “America makes me want to take a hot shower and scrub my skin/thoroughly until it is red and irritated.” He ends “Empire of Gluttony,” with “Ugly, obese America/I will melt your fat down/And make candles out of it/To light the way to a better world,” ironically one of the most positive comments in the book.
The title poem,“Travels with the Anti-Johnny Appleseed,” comes from the last section, “The Future.” Like the other poems it is a doomsday tirade. Instead of apples, the voice rides in his backpack, watching as this modern Johnny “plant[s] seeds of hatred.” Everywhere he went, “. . . . up sprung distrust, fear, class divisions, racial prejudice.” In “The Golden Age of Knowing Nothing,” the voice boasts “You can’t convince me of anything that is not scripture based/When dogma and ignorance meet up with anger/It’s like a drunk behind the wheel of a car.”
By now you might think this is a terrible book. Not so. In its own negative way, it’s a brilliant book. All of the problems excoriated here exist. American people can be fat, stupid, blindly religious, greedy, conforming, corrupt, prejudiced, bullying, intolerant, shallow, hypocritical, and on and on. And using echoing refrains, strong metaphors, and jarring descriptions, the author has laid all of these undesirable character traits bare—as they deserve.
But where is the positive side of life? Where is the perception that this rambling indictment is only one side of the coin? Where are “Children’s faces/looking up/holding wonder like a cup?” (Sara Teasdale) The last poem, “Outdoors,” offers a glimmer of hope: “Turn off the television/Turn off the stereo/The iPod gets locked in a drawer/The Internet will not be surfed today/. . . .I can feel the sun cut through the cold air/. . . . I see others out and about/Filled with an energy/That speaks well of humanity.”
Despite Raj Dronamraju’s persistent dissection of life’s problems— no, they’re not just America’s problems—he’s perceptive and articulate; he thinks “outside the box!” And that’s exactly why he’s able to attack life’s ills. He’s able to distance himself from the mainstream and analyze it’s inconsistencies. And that’s why he should be read.
Bruce Roberts, who may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, is an accomplished sculptor and schoolteacher from Hayward, California.