Backwater Mystic Blues

Pacific Rim Review of Books, Summer 2007
Lloyd Ratzlaff’s book, Backwater Mystic Blues, is unfortunalely burdened with one single out-of-place word on its cover, “essays.” In the competitive world of literature, this designation is not likely to inspire shouts of joy and clamoring for the latest reiteration. Essays are what we read and write because our professors tell us to, because we have something to debate or affirm, because we need to be up-to-date, or are what we check vigorously for accuracy. Seldom do we curl up by the fire or outside in the sunlight with a good book of articles and a sentiment keyed for introspection. This is precisely where Ratzlaff’s hook belongs, however.

Each of the twenty-five sections present snapshots centered on particular events or emotions in the author’s life. As a former pastor and counselor, the writer has ample stores to draw upon. Unlike many books from former Christians now Atheists or former Atheists now Christians, this collection never bends too far from grounded honesty and the notion of a journey. Ratzlaff is on a tour through life, and along the way he finds for backtracking, rerouting, and pausing to take stock of the situation. He refreshingly steers clear of accusing institutions or people for where he ended up, but draws instead on previous experiences and the measures of each he still carries with him. Whether it is first love, conflicts at school, professional pressures, failed or new relationships, death of loved ones, or international travelling, the writer remains fully in control of both his perspective and his pen.

The pages radiate a refreshing honesty and openness that dozens of therapy sessions could seldom affect, and as a payoff the reader receives not only a window into a life, but a soul. In contemplation of Ralzlaff’s, one is challenged to contemplate their own in an environment that practically compels it. The author’s background as both pastor and counselor pays huge dividends here. The drag of the mundane and the mixed rapture/terror of the divine both find expression — the mundane made keenly relevant and the divine fully believable and grounded.

Robert Frost said about poetry, “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.” It is unclear whether he ever imagined the same could be said about essays, but Backwater Mystic Blues is likely the first collection of these among the hundreds this reviewer has read that brought spontaneous tears to the eyes. The author’s use of words, rhythm of thought and image is pure poetry disguised as a “mere” addition to this genre. It is unfortunate that author or publisher chose to give this collection the designation they did- As a result it will likely be overlooked by selective readers or stores as either a grind or a bore; nothing could be further from the reality. Backwater Mystic Blues deserves to be read, and reread. Consider it narrative poetry, a collection of reflections, a series of intimate snapshots if you will — and find the soul of a poet and a friend within its pages. It is time curled up in a chair before fire or sunshine well spent. — Martin Van Woudenberg

Martin Van Woudenberg is an author and educator with three published books. He writes regularly for PRRB, and currently resides in Langley, British Columbia with his wife and four childr