Painting Over the Growth Chart 
By Dan Rattelle.
Wiseblood Books, 2024.
Paperback, 63 pages, $15.

Reviewed by A.M. Juster. 

The spirit of Robert Frost surely does not look kindly on claims that some new poet walks in his footsteps, particularly one with a fancy-pants European MFA. His ghostly glower might soften just a bit in Dan Rattelle’s case once he learns that Rattelle’s mentor at the University of St Andrews was Don Paterson, the United Kingdom’s greatest formal poet—and one who comes from the Scottish working class with no degrees and who cites Robert Frost as the poet to whom he “always returns.” The great poet’s craggy face would probably even slide into a slightly bemused grin upon learning that Rattelle now manages two cemeteries in a tiny New England town.

Rattelle’s first book, Painting Over the Growth Chart, should keep Frost grinning. He might narrow an eye briefly about the occasional free verse poem, but even those poems would offer Frost some solace with their geography and gritty perspective, as in this section from “Juniper”:

its waxen leaves

can handle even


New England weather.

Each is a species 

of place, refracted

             as if through green glass

or puddle water.


Here—roots clutch

gravel with all 


their courage.

With a second reading Frost could not help but admire the misdirection of this poem’s free verse lineation because the poem maintains an iambic beat with a few anapestic substitutions—a delightfully subversive trick for slipping a metrical poem past today’s literary gatekeepers. 

Frost also would have admired the elegy “All Souls” with its couplets that, for the most part, echo iambic meter. The craft in the first couplet is subtle:

October is out of breath

as yours left you. 

Contemporary elegies typically start with a dull journalistic declaration of someone’s death, but not here. The person being mourned is never named and we learn nothing about the person except that the epigraph gives us 1957-2017 as the boundaries of the person’s life. For this poem the focus is the experience of grieving, not the memory of the person being grieved. The first line revives a classical convention by using “breath” both literally and as a trope for the soul. The second line adds useful ambiguity to the speaker’s grief because the word “as” could be temporal or causal. The last two lines (“But then again/you ought to know”) gain force by being flawlessly iambic.

The poem pivots on “Mine,” the first word of the third line, by extending the metaphor and linking the speaker’s breath and soul to the dead person’s breath and soul:

Mine hangs around

like leaves in the branches

The poem becomes more powerful as it invokes bleak images of one of Frost’s iconic trees:

Birches stretch and fall


like living ghosts.

They rot from the heart


and leave behind

their snowy husks.

It then ends quietly, with an everyday action followed by simple words filled with doubt and a sense of lingering obligation to the person lost, not the crisp instruction about what to think that concludes so many contemporary poems:

So that when I get home

and take off my coat


and hang it in the closet,

I don’t mean to speak


of any greater hope

than what I have.

Those last three lines, which invite the reader to imagine what hope the speaker has and why, make it a wonderful poem in the tradition of Frost.

Rattelle’s lyrical poems also echo Frost both in obvious ways and in their inventiveness within the constraints of form. The book’s opening poem, “Postcard: Bluesman, Glasgow,” is written entirely in rhymed iambic pentameter except for the iambic dimeter of the second line, an abrupt yet skilled adjustment to the music of the poem. He uses this technique again in “Postcard: The Swans at the Royal Botanic Gardens” and “Postcard: A Bar in Stirling.” In some of the more religious poems, one also sees the lusher influence of Gerard Manley Hopkins. In “Ordinary Time,” for instance, he weaves one multisyllabic end-rhyme six times through a fourteen-line poem.

The poems that would be most likely to delight Frost are the longer narrative poems. Although the title of “Self-Reliance” would seem to evoke Emerson’s famous essay, that virtue was also one of Frost’s core values. The conclusion of this two-page blank verse elegy aims right at his frosty heart:

                        From time to time

His name gets mentioned and, without recourse 

To irony, they place it in a list

Of lasts-of-things like Yankee craftsmanship,



                                         dying breeds.

“Craftsmanship,” of course, was as important for Frost in poetry as it was for him with machine repair or house construction.

The poem most reminiscent of Frost is the long poem “Rising By A Winding Stair,” which is a narrative in plainspoken iambic pentameter interspersed with dialogue. This poem should not be written as a knockoff, for it tells the story of a kind of relationship that Frost, with his value system, would not have understood. For all of Ratelle’s affection for Frost, these poems avoid sentimentality about the past and look with a clear eye at the present and the future.

America’s literary establishment is working hard to root out poets like Dan Rattelle. Frustrate them and read his book.

A.M. Juster is the poetry editor of Plough and his work has appeared in Poetry, The Paris Review, The Hudson Review and other journals. His twelfth book will be his first children’s book, Girlatee (Paul Dry Books), and his thirteenth book will be his translation of Petrarch’s Canzoniere (W.W. Norton); both books will be published in 2025.

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