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Ecstatic in the Poison by Andrew Hudgins

In the preface to his 2003 poetry collection, Ecstatic in the Poison, Andrew Hudgins makes a surprising juxtaposition between some lines of Wallace Stevens and the remarks of Miss Alabama from the question and answer section at the 1994 Miss Universe Pageant.  Despite their seeming incongruities though, these two quotations both share an obsession with mortality that carries over to the rest of Hudgins’ collection, which ultimately works to close the distance between Stevens’ elevated language and Miss Alabama’s profoundly simple musing, “if we were supposed to live forever than we would live forever.”

Hudgins’ poetic struggle to overcome this notion of mortality manifests itself in the collection through the presence of human voices, which, usually singing or laughing, suggest the power of the human imagination to transform the world around them.

In the last few lines of “In,” the first poem in the collection, Hudgins not only reveals the source of the collection’s title but also creates one of the more lasting images of this imaginative power, as several disembodied children’s voices laugh and sing within a thick bank of fog, “ecstatic in the poison.” Throughout his collection, these voices return in various guises to alleviate or redeem the morbid fears upon which a lot of Hudgins’ poetry appears to operate.

In the poem “Blur” from his 2003 collection, Ecstatic in the Poison, Hudgins’s speaker  gets directly at how these voices and the fear of death work in opposition to each other:  “It was my duty to stay awake and sing if I could keep my mind on singing, not extinction, as blurred green summer, lifted to its apex, succumbed to gravity and fell to autumn, Ilium, and ashes.”  Personally though, I found the moments where Hudgins’ abandons this rhetoric of voices for the surrealism of his imagination to make for the most compelling moments.

By reveling in these defamiliarizing, yet never entirely unbelievable moments—the disembodied voices of children in the fog, the discovery of a Cadillac in an attic, the appearance of a flock of flamingos in Ohio—Hudgins’ speaker confronts the strange wonder of mortality, without the sense of dread that weighs down some of his other work.  Hudgins also does an excellent job of constructing metaphors that complicate more than they satisfy the reader’s desire to make sense of his poetry.  Ultimately, it is this complication of meaning that instills the reader with the same sense of wonder and awe that Hudgins’ pursues in his work and causes it to linger long after reading.

Ryan Marr

Notes From the Divided Country by Suji Kwock Kim

In the concluding lines of “Montage with Neon, Bok Choi, Gasoline, Lovers & Strangers,” poet Suji Kwock Kim directly presents the irresolvable internal conflict between memory and identity that underlies much of the poetry in her 2003 collection Notes from the Divided Country: “may you never see what we saw/ may you never do what we’ve done/ may you never remember & may you never forget.”

In some of the most horrific poetry I’ve ever read, Kim captures the experience of her parents and grandparents during the Korean War, where vultures devour a mother’s dead child and a small boy bites into his arm to alleviate the pain of the giant hole in his stomach.  Kim contrasts this war poetry with images of a contemporary American life desensitized to violence, while struggling to reconcile her family’s violent past with her struggle for assimilation.  In this way, Kim’s speaker essentially gets at the paradox underlying Asian-American identity mentioned in “Montage with Neon, Bok Choi, Gasoline, Lovers & Strangers,” without really resolving the possibility for moving beyond it one way or the other.

On one hand, “Levitations,” hints towards the failure of the fully assimilated Asian-American speaker to understand the violence of his culture’s past as anything other than the American media’s representation of violence. Yet, on the other hand, the collection concludes with the assimilated Asian-American speaker in “the Korean Community Garden in Queens” making peace with “the gardeners of the old world,”  an ending that, if it doesn’t resolve Kim’s paradox, at least offers a reprieve from the speaker’s hauntingly violent past.

Ryan Marr

Dismal Rock by Davis McCombs

Cover of McComb's Dismal Rock

Regionalism may be a crutch for some poets, but Davis McCombs paints region with such vibrancy in “Dismal Rock” that he seems to know every nook and cranny of his subjects matter. For those of us who are immersed in this agrarian culture that is rapidly disappearing, “Dismal Rock” is a lot like home. And while he grounds the reader solidly in the first half of the collection, he moves to broader topic in the second such as Rosetti digging up his wife and completely uprooting us geographically to Jamaica for a look at Bob Marley. While these may seem jarring at first they use similar imagery and themes to achieve their poetic goals and fit if with as seam between it and the rest of the collection.

There is a sense of local folklore and mystery throughout the collection but especially in “What Floyd Said”, “Local Color”, and “Salt Cave Revisited”. But the strength of “Dismal Rock” is not in the mystical or even stretching over the limits of the region to include more recognisable figures in a cohesive way, but in poetic realities of the tobacco culture. Poems such as “The Tobacco Economy” may not resonate with those who are not acquainted with burley tobacco, for those who are it is powerful and poignant. And “Nicotiana” is especially beautiful for those raised in tobacco towns, but is relatable to writers and anyone with any type of agrarian past. It is a well crafted poem and invites the reader into the heart of it from the very beginning. “Tobacco, he was told, paid for your educationand all along the bluff/ that afternoon, grasshoppers sprang up from his footsteps/ and shook faint ripples through the amethyst air of late July. (14)” This section  is as beautiful as it is powerful. It sets up a history for the poem as well as setting. The poem ends with, “He thinks of the words as he writes, of the dark like silt/ beneath them, and of the secret hiding like a crayfish there.” He ends the poem with a universally understandable metaphor for writing, but does it in a fresh and interesting way. It is one of the many poems in the collection that set up tobacco culture as the narrative of a region. In “Dismal Rock” McCombs gives regionalism a shot of liveliness and makes the gritty realities of the region beautiful.

-Lindley Estes

The Theater of Night by Alberto Rios

Cover of Rios' The Theater of Night

Alberto Rios’ “The Theater of Night” is narrative poetry at its best and the perfect pick for those who love narrative such as myself. In this collection, Rios charts the relationship of his great-grandparents Clemente and Ventura. He does this in a series of 48 poems that stand as beautifully on their own as they do in dialogue with each other. The poems are mostly comprised of couplets that are irregular and unrhymed. They are indicative of the relationship in the way they work together but also of a larger preoccupation of Rios’ in his other works, that of inherited culture. While not completely central to this work, the idea of culture and lost culture makes an appearance in the sixth of six sections in the collection. The title poem especially conveys this theme. The poem begins with, “It is 6:00 in the evening, a new-century evening/ In the still-strong light of the desert./ The clock says 6, bu I would not know it/ From 5:30 or 6:30, not 7 or 5./ The numbers confuse what is not confusing. (99)” This poem, about a film whose language is not understood the idea of chaos is brought up. This section also deals with mortality and the ending of time, it is evening for Ventura as it is for the world. The idea of mortality is brought up in simply narratives like a last cup of coffee with Ventura in “Coffee in the Afternoon” and how the couple, though dead an still be seen in the movements of their son in “Clemente and Ventura Show Themselves, if Just for a Moment, in Their Son.”

The idea of memory is also central to the collection, with photographs and smell as central themes. Oranges, especially are tied with Ventura who the collection seems preoccupied with over Clemente.

The young Clemente and Ventura do not deal with culture as much as they do with identity. In one of the most vibrant and fast paced poems of the collection, “The Pomegranate and the Big Crowd” Rios is able to balance the urgency of their first kiss with the poem’s larger poetic meaning admirably. The poem ends, “Clemente and Ventura in that quarter-second lived/ Their lives, a quarter-second not finished yet. (12)” It is this unassuming beauty that makes Rios’ collection worth reading. In “The Theater of Night” Rios has mastered narrative poetry in a way that reminds us why we read poetry in the first place.

Keeping it Fresh – Pablo Neruda

Pablo Neruda’s New Poems was a lovely collection. I found it in my basement while looking through my mother’s old books and ended up more than happily digesting his work for the rest of the afternoon.

The book is segmented into series of poems. Having never really read much poetry until recently, I didn’t realize that this was common for these sorts of collections. I also didn’t realize that the same motifs were often interspersed throughout these. In “Hands of the Day,” the first series of the book, such common threads were the images of blood, hands, God, words and language, cups, seeds, and dogs. This repetition reminded me of Schnackenberg’s collections. With hers, I had found it somewhat forced and almost redundant. With Neruda’s, it seemed to flow a bit better—perhaps it was in the fresh wordplay he used with each. For example, in “Enigma with a Flower,” he shows his attention to sound and imagery, “’til whiteness was all, a pavillion/breaking night’s abject abysses,/and in the moved incandescence/the seeds spilled over amazed” (3). He used alliteration and assonance to depict this simple yet beautiful image. Because of this, I actually was delighted to see the image show up again in “Casa de Mantarus en Punta del Este:” “strange things fall from the pine/green mustaches,/music,/peaked pinecones,/armadillos,/torn leaves of a book” (13). He puts it in a new frame and a new form, like it’s a fresh variation of a musical theme. I really liked it.

Another thing that I noticed in Neruda’s writing was the conversational tone he used. As a big employer of such a style, I appreciate this. In “Arrabales (Sad Song),” this came through with his almost journal-entry tone. He narrates simply, yet poignantly, “Walking up San Antonio/I saw the quiet way of the poor:/broken hinges that rasped,/tired doors wanting only/to sob or to sleep” (25). Later (in his second series, “World’s End”), the poem “Today Too” also shows Neruda doing this: “That’s why winter surprised me,/unforeseen, with its air of an accident/like the smoky exhaust/of a battle remembered” (51). I don’t know, I guess I just like it when writers keep it simple like this—it seems unnecessary to be purposefully vague and to use words that only two percent of the population understands. Neruda is poetic without such—he writes what he sees and what he thinks of it in a voice that is lovely to hear. Seeing these poems reassured me that good poetry could be as simple as that.—Linda Heartlein

Through the Stonecutter’s Window by Indigo Moor

Indigo Moor’s book of poetry titled Through the Stonecutter’s Window focuses strongly on visual art. Many of the poems in this collection are centered around paintings, and he even dedicates a section of this book to “Six poems based on the painting Aspects of Negro Life #62: Song of the Towers, by Aaron Douglas”. The book is segmented into sections titled by times of day – Daybreak, Midday, Midafternoon, and Dusk. Moor also incorporates quotes throughout his work, particularly at the beginning of each section, and several dedications, as well. Another interesting point of Moor’s poetry is his experimentation with lines and indentations, which draws the reader’s eye to his work in a very pleasing way.

My favorite poem out of this collection is titled “Plain Sight,” which is “From an interview with an artist’s model,” as Moor labels it, just under the poem’s title. Moor describes the model’s positioning and attitude throughout the modeling session, and then describes how the artist’s drawing creates her image, where “Charcoal and pastels / crumble along your skin, / vicariously fondle / your hips and thighs.” Even more so than those lines, the last lines of the poem struck me even more stongly – “I have had lovers / who knew less / of me–and / I have lost / them that way.” This simple statement of the model is so heartbreaking, but at the same time, it raises art to a level above all else, and Moor includes poetry in this sense of art.

I would definitely recommend this book to others – especially those who are familiar with, or have an interest in, art and how it can intersect with and have conversations with poetry.

Jessica Wilkinson

Fancy Beasts by Alex Lemon

Opening up Alex Lemon’s collection Fancy Beasts is akin to taking a sudden plunge into a sea of images focused around  American life. Each poem has the ability to stand alone, but put together, they speak to each other through Lemon’s use of  everyday phrases and brand names. Throughout his poems, Lemon experiments with unconventional line breaks, and in  some of them, he makes use of the somewhat older poetic convention of capitalizing the first word of every line. Both of  these form decisions confused me at first, but the content of Lemon’s poems do not suffer from his choices. Though some of  his images are rather gruesome, they also function very effectively in the context of his poems – the startling appearance of  these gruesome descriptions jolt the reader into feeling the emotions of his poem even more clearly. Two examples of this  dark description occur when he says the “the man gives birth / to a dead dog” in his poem titled “it had only been dead a few  hours,” and when he says “what it means to have your face scalped neatly away” from his poem “haunt”.

Lemon also experiments frequently with the page alignment and spacing of his poems, as well as the use of titles, even going so far as to give no clear title to thirteen pages of his work, and he labels it only with “!!” at the beginning of the section. At first, the lack of a similar structure throughout the entire text frustrated me, but as I read it through again, my favorite part about reading Lemon’s book Fancy Beast was the sheer variation in the work that the book contained. I would definitely recommend this book to anyone else who is willing to take the time to read through it several times, and isn’t bothered by the sometimes horrific images that Lemon uses to carry the emotion in his poems.

Jessica Wilkinson

A Part by Wendell Berry

Pastoral literature has a long, rich history, beginning with the Greek poet Theocritus and continuing until the late nineteenth century. Historically, its subject matter focused on representations of shepherd life, often idealizing it to the point of being unbelievable. Wendell Berry’s A Part presents a contemporary interpretation of the pastoral through the distinct viewpoint of an Appalachian author. Though his poetry does not depict the idyllic life of a shepherd, it does give insight into the complicated nuances of rural life through description of his experiences. Influenced by the pastoral, he examines the cyclic relationship between life and death through the concepts of place, religion, and nature.

Place is an idea that is at once ephemeral and permanent. One literally exists in a specific location, but also more figuratively in a state, or how one relates to the place. In the poem “The Cold Pane,” Berry uses both interpretations to convey how closely tied humanity is to life and death. He puts the reader directly in a place, looking through “a cold, clear pane…” that separates “the living world/and the world of death…” (Berry 8). The metaphor of the window pane is common poetic convention; it allows us to see through while at the same time prevents us from accessing and interacting with what we see, in this case, the boundaries between life and death. The poem takes an unexpected turn when the author puts an agent into the poem and gives him two choices: to look too closely and “fog it [the pane] with his breath,/or hold his breath too long” (Berry 8). What is interesting about his interpretation is that it suggests that coming too close to the invisible boundary between life and death can affect our ability to see it clearly or, more morbidly, that doing so can actually cause our death. Berry places the man in his poem and the reader at a window pane to complicate the notion of humanity’s removed connection with death.

Religion, and Christianity in particular, focuses as much on death as it does on life. A person’s behavior during his or her lifetime directly affects what happens when he or she dies, making the two inexorably linked. There are many expressly religious poems in Berry’s collection, but the one titled “A Purification” succeeds in conveying Christian themes without ever specifically mentioning God or biblical references. In it, the speaker digs a trench at the beginning of spring into which he puts paper, waste from the outhouse, and also his sins: sadness, greed, and inattentiveness. He refers to them as “the gathered refuse/of mind and body” (Berry 10). The speaker, then, is literally and metaphorically cleansing himself of unwanted things by confessing their existence and then burying them. Though the confession of and purification from sin are two distinctly Christian ideas, Berry also provides a distinctly different view about the idea of renewal. He buries his refuse in the “deathless earth. Beneath that seal/ the old escapes into the new” (Berry 10). It is here that we can see how Appalachia has affected him. By situating the poem in the springtime and calling the earth deathless, the author suggests that life does not end when we think things are dead; the seasons continue and so does the world. Also, by recognizing that what is old creates what is new, Berry communicates the idea that life is cyclical, differing from the conventional Christian understanding of death leading to an otherworldly after life.

Human interaction with nature is a commonly examined theme in both prose and poetry. Appalachian literature often offers a unique perspective and treatment of this theme due to its authors’ typically close, first hand experience with both its trials and triumphs. In the poem “An Encore Maybe,” Berry relates the birthing of what seems to be some sort of animal, perhaps a cow or horse. He describes the process of the animal “find[ing] the door/to this world…”, taking its first breaths, and finding its mother’s teat. Describing the birth as a rediscovery of the world conveys a sense of prior existence, saying “you would think it had been born  before” (Berry 56). At first glance the poem may seem only to be about life, as it details a birth, but it also deals with the notion of death, given the importance of the last line. The author, by suggesting that the baby animal must have had previous knowledge about birth, implies that the reason for this must be that it had been alive before. In other words, it opens up the possibility of reincarnation, an interesting concept for a clearly religious Christian man to offer, one that hints at his Appalachian background.

In A Part, Wendell Berry explores how the separation between life and death is not as clear as it may seem. By elevating ordinary life occurrences, he places deeper meaning on everyday experiences. The influence of his Appalachian heritage and history has clearly given him a distinct perspective on the concepts of place, religion, and nature and how they speak to each other as well as to the cycle of life.

By: Lindsay Morgan

Native Guard by Natasha Trethewey

Natasha Trethewey’s Native Guard is a truly unique collection of poetry. Her book contains a section of elegiac poems about her mother, followed by a section of poems about the Civil War in the south, and finally a section of poetry that combines her personal history and the remnants of racial tension in the south long after the civil war. Her imagery is vivid and fresh and her language precise and crisp. This book gives insights to history, both personal and regional and intertwines them in fascinating ways. This book would be thoroughly enjoyable to anyone, but especially those interested in the Civil War, race relations in the United States, or the ways of negotiating trauma.

-Amy Maddox

Three Seasons: The Anthology of a Lifetime by Ty Caudle

As the title implies, this book encompasses a series of poems which take readers on a journey from childhood through the end of life. Caudle’s writing preciously describes those childhood memories, and eloquently describes the final moments of a life well-lived. Further, his last poem, “Winter of Discontentment,” ends with words that greatly resonated with me. “There is no more time to reason, there is no more time to try, there is only, ‘Semper Fi, do or die.” In the Marine Corps, they have a saying, “Once a Marine, always a Marine.” Even when you are no longer active duty, you are still a Marine for life, and even in death, you are still remembered for your service. I thought this was an excellent way to bring this book to a close, because in death there is no more of the things we worry about in life, there is only peace. The only thing I didn’t understand is why it’s called “Three Seasons” instead of “Four Seasons,” since it encompasses an entire lifetime. Overall, I would recommend this book to a friend, colleague, or family member. Four out of five!

-Dawn  Alman