There You Feel Free is the most creative book I have ever read. Many good writers are capable of writing a novel, many good poets may be capable of replicating in a contemporary context the greatest poem of the twentieth century, The Wasteland by T.S. Eliot, but only Nate Ragolia has assembled all of these elements into one thin volume. I feel lucky to have been introduced to it right as it was launched.
This is not a book to simply be read, it is a book to savor, to study, to comprehend, and that is what I have been doing.
I say it is not a book to just be read because of its unique construction. To begin with the book’s title itself comes directly out of Eliot’s poem, specifically line 17 which reads:
In the mountains, there you feel free.
Ragolia begins with his poem, his reconstruction of Eliot’s poem, a reconstruction which follows as closely as possible the lines and rhythms and scheme of the original poem, but set in contemporary language and thought. From a poetic standpoint itself, it is a virtuoso performance.
Then, just as Eliot did with his poem, Ragolia has numerous footnotes throughout the poem. But while Eliot’s footnotes tell us where he got some of his content from, Ragolia’s notes go way beyond that. His notes indeed do include references to sources for the contents of his poem, but more importantly, and uniquely, his footnotes include entire narratives about his characters.
Just a bit more, in the author’s words, about the structure of this book, or maybe I should call it a collection as does the author. In the foreword Ragolia states:
This collection, The(se) Waste(d) Land(ings), is first and foremost a remix of Eliot’s The Waste Land, incorporating contemporary references that modernize the poem. The remix preserves the original meter and structure and, as often as possible, the original tone and spirit.
Each of the poem’s five cantos contains a different story about ‘hipsters,’ planted in the footnotes.
Now given this unique structure, I set about understanding it. For starters a friend of mine, who lives elsewhere, and I got together on the phone and alternated reading a stanza from Eliot’s The Wasteland and the comparable stanza from Ragolia’s The(se) Waste(d) Land(ings). Ragolia is no Eliot but he wrote a respectable poem with some transcendent moments.
Next I set about understanding the complexity of the book by constructing a spreadsheet laying out across the page each stanza from Eliot’s poem with each stanza from Ragolia’s poem set beside it, and then next to those the prominent character in the prose section accompanying that stanza.
Then my friend and I got together again on the phone to discuss the prose in the notes, the notes about events and things and people as well as the narrative about the current day characters of The Kid, Cheyenne and Bailey, Paul, Doug, and Nick and Riley. There are some outstanding phrases and sentences and notes as well as some thrilling riffs and rants.
Ragolia literally soars when his character Paul, in the context of their mutual Mortemageniophobia group, says:
We’re here because our genius is going to kill us. The person we’ve defined ourselves as, the one who’s good and untainted by the mainstream will die if we let our ideas get big. We’re all afraid that SELLING OUT is going to kill us. It’s not.
In the same context he goes on with great riffs, like a jazz soloist, on talent and genius.
To share with you more of the goodies in this marvelous book let me just include some of the great lines:
She won an argument she wasn’t present for, and I hated myself for knowing her so well that she could… and I hated that she was gone.
Language is a snake. It grows and leaves its old skin on the rocks.
She was not alone in being unhappy, she was just the first to file a formal complaint.
He was a thought-geyser about to go off.
It’s important to appeal to a wide audience. There are people following me.
I have 457 friends. I’m popular. I’m very happy. Life is good.
There will be no social media here. No texts. I owe this place my complete attention. (As he heads into the record shop)
Our little circle is like a shelf of commemorative baseball bobble-heads.
We never could have predicted that modern would eventually mean the end of most things. No need for physical media. No need for books and records. No need for a house with a yard overloaded with vegetables and plants.Instead, technology becomes the present, and the present begins to bow to its technologies.
The clerk comes out from behind the counter, and like Charon ferrying precious undead cargo across the River Styx.