Book Review -- The Street, A Memoir (John Yamrus) by Peter Mladinic


Come Back: a review of The Street, a Memoir, by John Yamrus. Anxiety Press. 2023. $16.00 paper.


There were as many churches as bars. Each church’s bells had a distinctive sound.  Religion was everywhere.  Longing is everywhere. It gets into the white arrow of the sign above a bar owned by a former NY Yankees pitcher, into bibles’ red pages, into lives of those who remember the Gillette Friday Night Fights and those who don’t. In John Yamrus’s memoir The Street he gets his point across quick: we’re in this together. His longing is ours, his readers.  A longing for people, places, and things that were. And are lost. A longing fulfilled.

 Weep for the past.  In The Street weeping goes on behind the scenes of a coal mining 

neighborhood.  A longing with no trace of sentimentality for things once touched: the cork wrapped in black electrical tape for a game of cork-ball, a turntable on which a 45 Buddy Holly disc spun round, a scent of honeysuckle from a garden, block-like heels of black shoes wore by grandmothers, and laced like shoes boxers wore in the ring.  Dick Tiger vs Emile Griffith, the Friday night fights. Rosary beads held, now lost, like books the poet Langston Hughes drops overboard from a ship at sea in The Big Sea, and a live recording of Lena Horne’s Stormy Weather.  Yamrus is exacting, sharp in his describing things.

 instead, we’d get worms for fishing...late at night in the back yard, with a flashlight, walking really quiet and slow and shining the light kinda not directly on the ground because if it shone directly on a worm that had come up from the dirt into the grass, it would dive right back in and be gone from us forever.

 At the end of part I, Memory Lane, a small pig runs through streets and is caught and brought to a Greek family preparing for a cookout.  The pig’s throat is slit. It stands stunned and is shot, with two pops from a pistol.  This scene is poignant, so is Yamrus’s memory of Tippy, his uncle’s dog, that was chained, and that Yamrus wanted to pet but was afraid of because Tippy hated everything. 

 A longing for places: the house inhabited by an old man and his two spinster daughters, their garden fenced by barbed wire; an alley that had a foreboding life of its own; a TV room in the author’s house, a classroom in which a nun said of non-Catholics, “they don’t value life as we do;” a yard the author called home, in which he paced reading a Kerouac novel, wanting to be seen by neighbors. That wanting in a back yard as significant as a coal bin under stairs.  

  today i was reading this book about Bob Dylan, and in it someone said that his songs take him “out to the meadow” my mind, that’s the meadow i picture...that corner lot filled with junk and dirt and gravel and cars...that lot where a house could have 

been built. that lot with a gravel drive right down the middle.


that’s my meadow.

 The Street is set in a valley. It is houses, lots, a tarpit, shops, bars, churches and more. In a field Yamrus flew a kite, and talks of the difficulty of trying to get the kite to stay up, and the satisfaction felt the one time it stayed up.  Again, with an exactitude that makes kite flying a metaphor for writing.

 At the heart of The Street is a longing for people. Uncle Dutch in a kitchen lights his cigarette with style. These people had style.  Uncles, cousins, bar owners, and Black Mary whose opaque presence—dressed in black as she was—evoked fear in Yamrus and his young friends.  Yamrus’s father was a coal miner.  He died at 45, at home in the dead of night, in his son’s bed his heart stopped.  In his life he had style, wore his cap tilted, and seemed to glide into a room like a boxer entering a ring and a pitcher walking to a mound.  He is described at the end of Memory Lane and at the beginning of RMA, (remember me always). He teaches his son how to throw a curveball:

 i can still hear him saying “you just snap your this...” and he’d hold the ball in his hand (great big coal miner’s hand) and show me how to let it roll over my finger.

 People “come to life.”  Some, like the two spinster daughters are distant, others like the author’s grandmother are near.  Yamrus himself has a style.  Loose and limber on the outside, when he goes in, sharp and tight. Precise as a boxer with a lethal left jab. For readers unfamiliar with his work, Yamrus is prolific in both prose and poetry, a fixture on the small press scene since the early 1970s.  His style is spareness, in lines and sentences that are visceral, and “go for the jugular,” right to the heart of the matter.    In The Street he goes back in time, remembering, to go forward.  Kite flying is his metaphor for writing, a challenge.  And going down killer hill on the handlebars of his best friend Lenny’s bicycle is a metaphor for going forward, from the present toward the future.  It involves risk, will, effort, and unforeseen variables.  Also in that descent, perched precariously on Len’s handlebars, exhilaration.  A strong sense of the thrill of doing it.  

 At the end of the memoir, Len with his family moves away.  He was the author’s best friend.  He is lost. John Yamrus describes with passion and poignancy a lost world found in the remembering and in the writing. We are “in this together.”  His longing is ours in this vivid memoir The Street.


Peter Mladinic


Peter Mladinic’s fifth book of poems, Voices from the Past, is available from Better Than Starbucks Publications.  An animals rights advocate, he lives in Hobbs, New Mexico, United States. Sent from Mail for Windows






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