Jack’s Naughty Bits: Thad Rutkowski, Roughhouse

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Jack's Naughty Bits

While I normally find no ethical compromise in taking elitist potshots at all but the most rarified of literary production, I can be won over by things outside the Norton Anthology. The stray song lyric strikes a chord (Cream’s “I’ll soon be with you my love/ And give you my dawn surprise” for example); once a blue moon I’m taken with something I read in a zine (Bust has always been a favorite); and every odd year I find myself capable of taking in a little Charles Bukowski and the like. But most of the time, being an editor, I think that writers need an editor. And in some cases the editorlessness is all-too pronounced.


But perhaps it’s confession time. My virulence against mediocre writing is clearly backlash against the embarrassment I feel at my own earliest attempts. Truth be told, I arrived at my college dorm freshman year and, with a black indelible marker, proceeded to cover the walls in poems. And yes, Houston, they were bad. Real bad. Real good-god-does-anyone-still-remember bad. If memory allows me to dredge the floors of the great seas of shame, I believe that most of them were unapologetically “Pink Floyd–inspired” — as damning an epithet as could be attributed to any production of the pen. Had my roommate only been there to read them in advance, to help me see with an eye other than my own, then maybe I would have realized the error of my ways, capped the Mr. Marks-a-Lot and put up a few Vanilla Ice posters like everyone else.


All this was running through my mind when a friend suggested I go see S/M slam poet Thad Rutkowski. My first thought: slam poetry, S/M slam poetry — now there’s a sub-genre. And a sub-genre it is, but not without bright spots. Rutkowski live was quite compelling, so I got my hands on his novel, Roughhouse. And though it’s clear that he, like Eliot, could have used a Pound to tighten up his wasteland, Roughhouse definitely has its moments. My favorite was the crafted jewel reprinted below, as tight and nuanced a 123-word story as you’re likely to find anywhere — even in the Norton Anthology.

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From Roughhouse by Thaddeus Rutkowski

I went with a girl to a lake. We walked on boulders that lined the shore. She stood on a rock a few feet above the water, put her hands behind her back and said, “If my hands were tied, you could push me in.”


I looked at her hands for a moment, then took off a sneaker lace and wrapped it around her wrists.


“You can untie me now,” she said.


I made no move to release her.


“I’m going to ask my mother if this is normal,” she said.


I took off my other lace and wrapped it around her ankles.


“No,” she said, then said my name.


As time passed, her voice got louder. I did not push her in.

© Thaddeus Rutkowski