Fred Chappell   •  October 25, 2002

As Vocal As A Bird

A Review of Fable In The Blood: The Selected Poems of Byron Herbert Reece

Edited by Jim Clark, Univ. of Georgia Press, 2002, 185 pgs.
ISBN: 0-8203-2347-0, $29.95 (hardcover)

Byron Herbert Reece was born in 1917 on a farm in north Georgia. He died by his own hand in 1958 on a north Georgia farm. Between those years he published four volumes of poetry and two novels. He supplemented his income, as small farmers must do, with occasional stints of college teaching. His literary reputation during his lifetime pegged him as a loner, an outsider who belonged to an obsolescent poetic tradition, and yet also as one too heavily influenced by modern predecessors like Robert Frost, A.E. Housman and Edna St. Vincent Millay. Perhaps it would be fair to say that he was regarded by the literary establishment as being a strong minor poet but not an interesting one.

The reason that Fable in the Blood (University of Georgia Press, $29.95) will not change this purblind estimation is that the literary establishment has not gotten smarter since his time. Probably it has gotten dumber, since the horde of literary theorists has so woozily increased. That is a crying—no, a dirty—shame. Fable is a selection of Reece’s poems taken from his four books; it adds three previously uncollected poems to present an even 100 examples of his uncompromising, uncompromised, art.

The editor, Jim Clark, has performed his labors with obvious love but with fine critical discrimination. The relatively few loyal readers Reece can claim will no doubt lament the omission of some individual favorites, but I think that almost none will quarrel with what Clark has included. His selection has been so judicious as to seem inevitable.

But what is it about Reece’s work that rubbed, and will continue to rub, the establishment the wrong way? There are a number of qualities and techniques that will irritate the modernist poet and postmodernist critic and they are all related to one central factor: Reece’s work is fiercely independent. Here is a poetry steeped in tradition that is as fresh as morning milk, that has affinities not only with Robert Herrick in the 17th century and with E.A. Robinson in the 20th, that honors techniques regarded as outmoded and makes them brightly, even abradingly, expressive.

Reece loved to write ballads. He loved to mount them in rhyme and meter, and he liked for them to tell old and seemingly familiar stories. The first poem included here is spoken in the voice of the Old Testament prophet Ezekiel and tells of his vision in the Valley of Dry Bones. The poet does not change the story as it is told in the Bible and he does not smudge the narrative with any modern reference. He only adds strong rhythm and insistent rhyme and minimal presentation to recapture the spooky visionary atmosphere of the episode. He uses only such figures of speech as might be available to Ezekiel himself, as when he describes the bones lying still after their initial joining: “As a wood they were / When winter grieves / In the branches bare / Of the shape of leaves.”

When he decides to change traditional narratives, Reece does so by emphasizing inherent elements instead of introducing new or undermining old ones. Three ballads tell the story of the relationship between David and Jonathan in the Old Testament and Reece merely underscores the homoerotic implications that are clearly present in the traditional text: “Your lips were sweeter, David, / Than dew where honey drips, / But I might never kiss thee / And honor on my lips, David, / And honor on my lips.”

In a number of poems Reece employs refrain, those regularly repeated lines that contemporary poets usually regard as emptily repetitive. In “The ”Weaver he tests our patience with a double refrain: “When I was a lass as I wove with a will / (The sound of the shuttle is a sighing sound / My foot on the treadle it never grew still. / (Sing treadle-trid-treadle the wheel it goes round).” The closure of the poem justifies every repeat.

He uses with judicious sparingness dialect words like “shoemake” (for “sumac”) rare words like “jower” (to scold in a gruff undertone), and archaic words like “wist” (knew) and “tirl” (to spin or twist). I have not been able to find a definition for “loun” or for the phrase “kettle lane,” but the contexts are so clear that I understand them readily. Such terms would seem to suit Wallace Steven’s lace-cuff preciosity more than Reece’s hard-bitten plainness, yet they only add salt to a savor already wonderfully salty.

A contemporary he seemed to admire was W.H. Auden, another poet who enjoyed revivifying traditional forms like ballads and riddles. But where Auden was quick to adapt these forms to topical concerns, Reece is assiduous to keep clear of them, making his verses “pure.” In “The Riddle” he combines three forms, folktale and ballad and riddle, but uses the combination to tell a story of jealousy and revenge one could have heard sung round a campfire by Scots border thieves three centuries past.

In short, Byron Herbert Reece was a highly educated poet, discovered at Vanderbilt by the poet and novelist Jesse Stuart, who bent all his sophistication toward making his poetry seem simple. It is not simple; it is polished to a simplicity of form and sheen of surface that such sculptors as Brancusi and Jean Arp might admire and it contains depths of meaning that critical analysis is powerless finally to plumb. Ineffability of meaning was a deliberate strategy with Reece.

There are many examples of such triumphant ambiguities; a handy example is “Underground.” It is at first tempting to read it as an autobiographical episode in which the poet who lives in and despises a city that is boxed “into four-square cells,” a city that is sited “under the surface” of light, recovers hope when visited by the muse whose “luminous face” might be that of Apollo, god of poetry. But the somber tone of the piece, with its despairing refrain (“0 help! cried a bundle of bones”), suggests that the underground city might be hell and the “presence” that visits might be Christ in his mission of harrowing hell for the virtuous imprisoned there. Both interpretations are not only possible but probable.

Reece’s poetry improved with the years. Most of his very best poems appeared in or after his 1950 volume, Bow Down in Jericho. Among these I would list “The Generations of Thought,” “When First I Fared upon the Road … The Travelers” and its companion “Roads,” “Feathers and Fur,” “The Mower,” “I Looked into a Dead Man’s Fields … The Weaver,” “A Song for Breath,” “In Absence,” the five-star “A Fire of Boughs” and “The Tree, the Bird, and the Leaf.” These are the best; of all the others only “A Song of Joy” disappoints.

In “The Speechless Kingdom,” Reece set down his ambition for his poetry; it is simple and romantic, modest in statement but heroic in intention: “Unto a speechless kingdom I / Have pledged my tongue, I have given my word / To make the centuries silent sky / As vocal as a bird.” Perhaps he has done so; at any rate, he gave the effort as earnest and heartfelt a trial as any poet of the past century. He was faithful. His art strengthened but never changed its essential character. It endures.