Shared from the 4/23/2017 Arkansas Democrat-Gazette eEdition


Place of hope springs from poetry


Poetry is language under pressure, a way of juicing words of their meaning. It is a way of rediscovering the hauntedness of sound and rhythm, of recovering the intent behind our reflexive communication. It is the opposite of the instinctual, emotive and earnest flow that some believe is the most authentic form of human expression. Poetry is slow talk, not babble.

And we don’t pay it enough attention, because it embarrasses us. Maybe it’s the spareness of the language, or the invertedness it requires of us. “A poem is a naked person,” Bob Dylan once said, making sense. We can pretend the nakedness doesn’t matter, that we’re all grown-ups here, but the arrival of a poem introduces shame to the room — we all feel we have to react to the poem-ness before us, even if that means shrugging like it’s no big deal, there’s nothing there we haven’t seen before.

I started out reading Rebecca Gayle Howell’s American Purgatory ($14.49, Eyewear Publishing) as a courtesy. She is sort of a local writer, a Kentuckian who lived here for a few months. Howell is a senior editor for the Oxford American which, despite its Mississippi origins, is now ensconced in a building on Little Rock’s South Main Street that used to house Juanita’s, the Mexican restaurant and concert venue, and the offices of Spectrum Weekly. You want to take notice when the home folks do good, and her book won the Sexton Prize for Poetry last year. So there’s a certain “get the Eagle Scout’s name in the paper” instinct at work here (because we figure if we don’t notice our own, then why should anyone else?) as well as the countervailing (and unfortunate) suspicion that we need to grade our local products on some sort of curve.

I don’t believe that, but don’t mind telling you I thought Howell’s book would be a lot more ordinary than it turned out to be, and that if I ended up writing about it at all it would be a paragraph or two at the end of a column, not as the entree. Not because it didn’t deserve to be written about, but because the perceived audience for any kind of bookish content is small and poetry is the hardest sell.

American Purgatory is extraordinary. You can read it in an hour, maybe, if you’re the sort of straight-through reader who doesn’t at least occasionally drop your book to your lap and stare off into the middle distance working out the implicit horrors of what you’ve just read. In terms of time it’ll cost you no more than an episode of The Walking Dead. And it will scare you deeper.

You can take it as a story, which is a good thing in a time when a lot of the poems published in The New Yorker feel slight and trembly or glazed with elliptical cool. What you get right from the jump is a world gone sideways, a few years hence, with the contrast cranked and several layers of civility stripped back. They call it dystopian, but to the people who live it it’s just the way it is, labor and luck and the next few yards. If I wanted to sell it to the movies I’d call it Cormac McCarthy (who is name-checked on the back of the jacket) meets Rivers, a 2013 novel by Michael Farris Smith, only this time the imagery isn’t floody but Dust Bowl dry:

The dirt storms regular now,

as if the downdraft’s haul of loose ground

is its own harvest, the wind a blind scythe.

Twilight rides the weather, black-mass

filth, a bulwark full of force against the risk

you’ll try to see ahead. You don’t.

Cars wreck, shop glass breaks.

Stand in the road while the grains spray

your skin scattershot. Your raw eyes.

The day-darkdust does what it wants.

So does the sun. Tomorrow I’ll see clear

the fields fenced by old telephone poles.

I’ll see Golgotha repeating.

This is a road movie about working-class pilgrims traversing a world where “no one gives birth anymore” and where “[t]he best job is laying fence” because everyone wants a fence to keep out the likes of you. The protagonist falls in with Brother Slade, an Endtimes preacher with whom she skims the dwindling ponds for fish. He teaches her that to catch them, you have to believe in your own innocence, to believe “You don’t mean any harm.”

Then there’s the grotesque Kid, his heart exposed like the sacred blazing heart of Jesus, “riding his bike, Fibonacci spiral/in a cement lot” and thieving potable water from the fortunate “wetmouths.” And the dowser Little, odd and silent, looking to a place no one else sees. Sometimes the earthy imagery, pregnant dogs and queen ants verges on High Southern Gothic, but it never quite tips into Erskine Caldwell land. While there’s as much Bible in the book as a late ’60s Dylan album, Howell is a restrained and precise writer alert to the emanations her words produce. Whenever you sense a squeal of feedback, you understand it’s a deliberate effect.

Her poems are brief, and her rhythms staccato sometimes, with the occasional lyrical run. If you are the sort of reader who counts feet, it can be a little rattling — 17 syllables to this line, 11 to the next, 13 to the next. It’s free but not formless verse. The lines break like waves, with the momentum rolling over, a little riptide drawing you farther out before the next thought begins. It’s an insidious structure that looks random or, worse, like some undergraduate’s bluff, but if you think about the choices and the intent behind each choice, you might be hard pressed to see how it might have been done better.

There are 38 poems in American Purgatory spread over 56 pages, decorated with ‘‘maps’’ and other illustrations. The cover is an ingenious aerial shot of some Levittown-ish suburb, wine-stained with the streets painted over in arterial red. The imagery isn’t subtle, but then purgatory isn’t hell but a more provisional afterlife, a place of purification rather than punishment, from which deliverance is assured. A place that allows hope.

I want to be generous with architecture and real estate journalist John Freeman Gill’s highly touted first novel The Gargoyle Hunters (Knopf, $27.95) because it’s a fun read and we’re not owed anything more than that. But it might have been even more fun had it been delivered as an honest memoir or maybe as a straight-up nonfiction appreciation to the New York of the author’s youth, a place that might only be suggested by the current incarnation.

It’s not that the plot, the story of a young teenager named Griffin who seeks his estranged father’s approval by joining the old man on nightly raids of the city’s soon-tobe-demolished buildings to “liberate” bits of ornamentation and craftsmanship, isn’t a sturdy enough spine. It’s just that the coming-of-age business (Griffin’s courting of a rather too perfect slightly older woman) seems so obviously spun from the nostalgia middle-aged guys develop when looking back on what was their probably painful adolescence. There’s a sweetness to these anecdotes that feels wished for — despite Griffin’s protestations that he’s rather selfish and at times inexplicably cruel, he comes across as the well-meaning kid we all wish we had been. There’s no grit here — it’s all too frictionless and pat.

Yet that hardly matters, since the best parts of the book are the ones that delve into the technical issues of sawing limestone and Griffin’s father’s impassioned lectures on the physical history of the city, and the place of the anonymous carvers and tradesmen who left their fingerprints all over its disappearing facade.

While there’s a highly cinematic adventure story about the exploits of Griffin and his father — who, in contrast to Griffin’s sketchy, vaguely troubled sister and remote mother, emerges as the only genuinely nuanced character in the book — the real meat is in the details. I’d rather Gill tell us more about James Bogardus, the father of cast-iron architecture, than indulge in Indiana Jonesstyle peril scenarios.

That said, he’s a more than serviceable writer who flashes a little humor and a knack for storytelling. And he’s free to tell whatever stories he wants. But his highest and best use seems to be excavating the soul of a city, not relating the sentimental education of a not quite real boy.


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