As a rule, we Pittsburghers are (perhaps unduly) enamored with anything that turns the focus to our city, especially when it portrays the city with the kind of beauty and accuracy Angele Ellis brings to both the poetry and the prose in her newest book, Under the Kaufmann’s Clock. The photographs by Rebecca Clever scattered throughout the manuscript perfectly compliment both the tone and the subject, combining to make this the kind of book that sends instinctive swells of pride through my little Yinzer heart.
Angele Ellis is a community activist and fixture of the Pittsburgh literary scene whose work has appeared in more than 50 literary journals. Poems from her previous Six Gallery collection, Arab on Radar, won her an Individual Artist Fellowship from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts; she’s also the author of the chapbook Spared and co-author of Dealing with Differences. All of this combines to say Ellis has all the right credentials to paint the city of Pittsburgh in words, along with the breadth of language to do the city justice.
Meanwhile, the photographs by Clever, herself a Pittsburgh native and local artist, present a slightly different view of Pittsburgh. It could be the use of black and white, but they seem to portray more of the city’s gritty realism than the warm nostalgia that drives so many of Ellis’ works. Having said that, it didn’t feel like these two viewpoints were fighting each other, rather that the combination of old and new, past and present, gave the collection a complexity it would have lacked without the photographs.
The mixing of prose and poetry in Under the Kaufmann’s Clock is used very effectively, though I do find it interesting how many of the poems are narrative-driven and how many of the stories are built on imagery—a true blurring of the genre lines that makes the collection as a whole feel connected and complete. The underlying Pittsburgh imagery also provides a unifying through-line, present even in the works that aren’t overtly about the city, such as the sexually-charged poem “Vanilla” (“Ornament your uprightness / like an Isaly’s Skyscraper Cone”) or the forlorn prose poem “Ashes” (“Wading barefoot into Carnegie Lake, I felt your tongue between my toes like mud and minnow bites.”).
Though I often love the surreal and speculative, the moments in this collection that Ellis flirts with such conventions are not my favorite. Stories like “Room 101” are well-written and entertaining, but lack the emotional depth of the more grounded works. The exception to this is the poem “The Ghosts of Bloomfield,” that masterfully connects the slightly surreal with the spirit of Pittsburgh’s Little Italy.
On the flip side, the pieces that felt the most inspired by childhood memories had the most resonance. Prose pieces like the titular “Under the Kaufmann’s Clock” and poems like “Wonder Bread” capture the intangibility of the past, using unique and often intimate details to tell universal truths. This is not to say her more abstract works don’t pack a punch. As an example I’d cite the poem “My Last Confession,” which is an artful exploration of pain though it uses fewer concrete images than many of her poems.
The works in this collection will be of a special interest for anyone with a connection to Western Pennsylvania, but the emotions and themes explored are certainly not limited to that narrow geographic focus. It is a very accessible collection for literature fans of all stripes, whether you’re a poet, a fiction writer, or just a fellow Yinzer eager to see your city through someone else’s eyes.
— Jessica Simms