Robert M. West   •  October 25, 2003

Better American Poetry

New Books by Jeff Daniel Marion, R. T. Smith, and Ron Rash

Ebbing & Flowing Springs: New and Selected Poems and Prose 1976–2001, by Jeff Daniel Marion
Celtic Cat Publishing, 2002, $25.00 cloth

Messenger, by R. T. Smith
Louisiana State University Press, 2001, $16.95 paper

Raising the Dead, by Ron Rash
Iris Press, 2002, $12.00 paper

Since 1988 we have seen the annual appearance of a volume titled The Best American Poetry. New York poet David Lehman oversees the series; each year he asks another poet to guest-edit the volume, which ends up including seventy-five poems published in recent issues of various literary magazines. The series has reprinted some very good poems, but too often it disappoints. It’s not as if American poets aren’t doing good work; rather, the series seems determined to ignore much of the good work that’s out there. For instance, the omission of southern poets appears systematic: of the seventy-five poems chosen for The Best American Poetry 2002 (the latest volume at this writing), only half a dozen are by southerners. How rarely, too, does it reprint work (by poets from any region) that demonstrates anything recognizable as verse craft. For both these reasons it’s not surprising that Jeff Daniel Marion, R.T. Smith, and Ron Rash have yet to appear on its pages.

Jeff Daniel Marion has published seven poetry collections over the past quarter-century or so, but the pace hasn’t exactly been regular. There was a five-year interval between his first and second books, Out in the Country, Back Home (1976) and the slender Tight Lines (1981) — and then nearly a decade passed between Tight Lines and his third book, Vigils (1990). Moreover, Vigils was a small new and selected poems, not another set of all-new work; that wouldn’t come until four years later, with Lost & Found (1994). Then something changed, and a trio of books appeared in short succession at century’s turn: 1999’s The Chinese Poet Awakens, 2001’s Letters Home, and now 2002’s Ebbing & Flowing Springs: New and Selected Poems and Prose 1976–2001.

It may be that Marion has simply had an easier time finding book publishers as his reputation has grown among academics and other Appalachian writers. Knowing that he was born in 1940, however, makes another theory hard to resist: that, faced with the approach of his sixties, he turned up the heat, hoping to establish a sizeable oeuvre before becoming (in the words of his semi-autobiographical stand-in, the Chinese Poet) “the mist/ rising over the mountain.”

Ebbing & Flowing Springs represents admirably what has indeed turned out to be a substantial body of work. It includes ninety-one poems from his first six books, twenty new poems, four short stories, three pieces of nonfiction prose, and a preface that is itself a work of art. In selecting the contents for such distillations many poets skimp on their early writing, but Marion doesn’t do himself that injustice: thirty-one poems come from his first two books. Poems like “At the Railway Station Back Home” and “By the Banks of the Holston” deftly and memorably evoke the landscape and culture of Marion’s native East Tennessee. A few times, as in “November 30,” we find him playing the perfectly transparent observer, sounding like an Imagist:

now grass clouds its skin
in ice,
crunches underfoot

the old road always bears west,
its ruts hard

prickly pins of starlight
sting in this turning

the moon frozen
in a great black puddle

This is a fine little poem. It has no emotional resonance, but then again it’s not aiming for that kind of impact; the same could be said of many of the other early poems. They may be somewhat limited in their ambition, but what they do they do well. If Marion had written nothing but such poems for thirty years, his career would be a lesser achievement, but it would still deserve praise.

The poems from Lost & Found, however, suggest an important turning point. They engage with autobiography more than the early writing does: some deal with important family events, such as his daughter’s wedding and especially his father’s recent death, and he begins to play a more active role as a poetic persona. Also, the poems open up formally: they tend to be longer, and often move down the page in staggered tercets, looking much like late poems by William Carlos Williams. For example, recalling how his father cradled a stunned hummingbird and blew on it to resuscitate it, he tells that in the end

the wings began to hum
  and my father’s breath lifted
    and flew out across the world.

In the early books Marion’s line breaks often seem intuitive, sometimes a little capricious, but in these poems the approach is fairly consistent: the breaks almost always underscore the natural divisions of sentence structure. Whether they take this staggered form or not, the poems from this period suggest a new self-consciousness about poetic form, about the relationship between a poem’s appearance and its sound.

Seventeen poems from The Chinese Poet Awakens and fifteen from Letters Home represent Marion’s strongest collections. In the former, an unnamed Chinese poet meditates on nature, age, frustrated ambition, and friendship; these poems are wholly convincing imitations of classic Chinese poetry, cast in a rigorous “free” verse reminiscent of Ezra Pound’s (himself a devotee of Chinese writing). The charm has much to do with the transparency of the persona: the Chinese Poet lives in East Tennessee, and is friends with the personae adopted by two other southern Appalachian poets — Jim Wayne Miller’s Brier and Dan Leidig’s Old Cricket. There’s pleasure to be had in trying to peer through the chinoiserie: what writer’s fellowship rejection inspired the poem titled “After Failing to Receive His Appointment from the Emperor the Chinese Poet Reconsiders the World”? Marion allows the experience to put him back in his place — which, as the final strophe makes clear, is not such a bad place to be:

By the river the blue heron stands
and waits, poised in the long patience.
Here the world offers itself, wave after wave
of mountains washing across the miles.
Here the sparrow sings from the sycamore.
I lift my voice
and come down to earth

In Letters Home Marion writes of another good place: the world of his fondly-remembered childhood. We read of the family’s time in Detroit during World War II, the habits of his elder relatives, his first hunting trip with his father, and other early impressions. Readers familiar with the sequence “Detroit Days” may be disappointed that Marion has offered only three excerpts, but these stand up just fine as independent poems. Again we find Marion experimenting with form: he achieves a taut momentum with enjambed, seven-syllable lines replete with alliteration and internal rhyme. Consider a brief passage from “Detroit Days: November 1943,” in which his mother learns not to hang clothes out to dry in a Michigan fall:

Welcome said
winds whistling down Great Lakes to
mountain wife hanging their one
set of bedsheets on clothesline,
sails she lifts to catch the fresh
bloom of air, let sun bleach clean
these wet flags of truce. Welcome
said tattered rags of defeat
she carried back inside, wind
whipped and frozen.

Marion clearly admires his parents’ tenacity, and he also commemorates their kindness and generosity. He contrasts sharply with some better-known contemporaries who have achieved a twisted success by complaining incessantly about their childhoods. (A pox on the publishers who have inflicted these walking wounded on us, and on the critics who celebrate their whining.)

The new poems in Ebbing & Flowing Springs could easily have come from Letters Home. Like the poems in that book, most deal with recollections from childhood or with older family members, his father particularly; also, several adopt a seven-syllable line. Clearly Marion has struck a rich vein here, thematically and technically; that said, it’s not one he’s content to mine to the exclusion of others. A few poems recall the more painterly approach of his early work. The most impressive of these is “Silo,” which opens on an elegiac note — “Here once was a farm” — and, after recalling the bounty of past years, concludes with the titular “sentinel/ rising midway in this lake,/ grave marker for what’s beneath.” Two others, “Lightning Bugs” and “Nocturnal,” adopt a three-strophe, sixty-syllable form first used (as far as I know) by Cathy Smith Bowers; few would expect a poet in his sixties to expand his formal repertoire, yet Marion has, and to good effect.

Ebbing & Flowing Springs is a well-edited book; the few errors that did creep in happen to be in the section of new poems. “Waste Not” quotes Ecclesiasticus as saying “to every thing there is a season”; I’m not familiar enough with that Apocryphal book to say positively that it contains no such remark, but the idea is a major one in the similarly-titled, more commonly read book of Ecclesiastes. The same poem misplaces a comma between verb and object in the following passage: “week after week summer’s bounty/ offered, a still life of Big Boy tomatoes/ on a canvas of silver.” In another poem, “Penned,” the final sentence stretches over twenty lines, parting ways with standard grammar more than once; while not becoming actually unintelligible, it does lose a clear sense of structure. These seem to be the only trouble spots in a book well over two hundred pages long.

Marion has never published a collection of prose, either fiction or creative nonfiction; after reading the few short stories and essays gathered here, many will wonder why. The best of the stories may be “Wayside Diner,” a monologue by a widow reflecting on her marriage and her forty-five years of waiting tables. The most ambitious of the essays is “By the Banks of the Holston,” a portrait-in-the-round of the river running through Marion’s home landscape. These and the other prose pieces display the same sensibility we find in the later poems: they don’t shrink from feeling, but the sentiment rarely crosses the line into sentimentality. Marion takes risks in this regard, but the risks pay off. Who pleases more: the tightrope walker who scurries across with no nonsense, or the one who flirts with the danger? Ebbing & Flowing Springs is a fine book for many reasons, one of which is the extraordinary balance it discovers between emotion and artfulness.

*  *  *

Jacket blurbs on poetry books are interesting things. What they actually say is usually predictable and irrelevant: some hyperbolically assert the importance of the poet’s work in general, while others find purple ways of saying that the particular book in hand deserves our attention. No, what is much more interesting about these piggyback endorsements is who writes them. Certainly it means something to have a jacket blurb by a respected author; your work probably does have merit if such a person is willing to attach his or her name to it. Also, though, the names on the back of the book can themselves suggest much about the contents‚ subject matter and approach. On the reverse of R.T. Smith’s Messenger, for instance, we find praise by Mary Oliver, a major figure in the tradition of American nature poetry; Charles Frazier and Kathryn Stripling Byer, a novelist and a poet, respectively, both of whom write about the culture of the American south; and John Montague, an Irish poet half at home in America. It doesn’t surprise, then, to find plenty of nature poems (one about a raccoon, one about a woodpecker, one about herons), or poems that mark their maker southern (a monologue by one of Poe’s characters, a dedication to James Dickey, a remembrance of Harpers Ferry), or poems suggesting that this american is half at home in Ireland (one about the Troubles, one about mornings in Dublin, one about visiting a Galway church).

It also doesn’t surprise, given the versification practiced by Oliver, Byer, and Montague, to find poems neither metrical nor prosy, but something in between. Smith concocts a music of alliteration, assonance, and internal rhyme — usually subtle but sometimes more pronounced, as these lines from “Hardware Sparrows” demonstrate:

Out for a deadbolt, light bulbs
and two-by-fours, I find a flock
of sparrows safe from hawks

and weather under the roof
of Lowe’s amazing discount
store. They skitter from the racks

of stockpiled posts and hoses
to a spill of winter birdseed
on the concrete floor.

The “oze” sound in “sparrows” carries over to “Lowe’s” and “hoses,” the “ock” sound in “flock” to “hawks” and “stock-”; the first line alliterates on b, the second on f, the third on s, and so on. An “ore” rhyme appears throughout the poem, including the final word of each of the four sentences. (A longer poem, “Lilting,” deploys assonance in a similar fashion.)

Once in a while Smith seems to get carried away with the music and, as Poe sometimes does, lets sound take precedence over sense. Here too “Hardware Sparrows” serves as an example. Smith says the weather has been stormy and unpleasant lately, and ends by interpreting the birds‚ behavior both as comfort and as example; he says they show us that we can “float once more on sheer/ survival and the shadowy/ bliss we exist to explore.” You have to admire the rapid-fire rhyme of “bliss” and “exist,” along with that last mining of “ore” with “more” and “explore”; more subtle but equally praiseworthy is Smith’s use of the sh alliteration to streamline the transition from iambs to anapests. The lines sound so good it almost seems churlish to ask whether they really mean anything. What definition of “sheer” does the poet mean to invoke with “sheer survival”? What would it mean to float on survival, sheer or otherwise? What would it mean to explore bliss? The poem’s precise imagery has given way to vague inspirational sentiment. The book’s few lapses in precision are all the more striking in light of Smith’s more typical rigor.

The book’s title poem tells that, when Smith was a boy, he had a dream in which a mysterious bedside visitor told him, “You must say your life to save it.” Much of Messenger suggests he took that advice to heart: a dozen or so poems offer portraits of his childhood, and a few others tell anecdotes starring himself as an adult. Some of these autobiographical poems may leave you wondering what you missed (the archetypally-titled “Boy, Recollected” is an example), but some are quite arresting. Smith is at his best when writing about his most intimate anxieties, as in the fine poem titled “His Mirror.” He begins by describing the bedroom in which a man (left unidentified) had died; then he tells how he fretted over being unable to retrieve the man’s clothes out of the room’s locked chifforobe. In the months that followed, he watched the mirror on the impenetrable door gradually lose its silver. The mortal first loss seemed related to the second, which, as the poem’s ending tells, led the poet to fear a third loss and then a devastating fourth:

I worried when the silver was
all gone the door would open
to cracked knotwood staring back
and empty hangers jangling,
that I would no longer be able
to say I had his eyes.

Speculation comes from the Latin speculum, meaning “mirror”; it’s fitting, then, that a poem titled “His Mirror” should ask us to guess our way along. We begin the poem not knowing who the dead man is, surmise after a few lines that he must be some elder kinsman, then read a conclusion that allows us to draw one of our own: that the man must have been the poet’s father. But then again nothing in the poem indicates the poet’s age at the time, so the man could have been his grandfather, and thus we’re left to speculate further. Of course the man’s exact identity is irrelevant: the central issue is the poet’s fear of disconnection from a dead patriarch, of abandonment to the living present.

Messenger is a book that could provoke a long commentary indeed, but let me close with a brief note on the poems about Ireland. There are those who will object that you have to be of a place to write about it, that you have to be of a people before you can write of their experience; there will also probably be those who say that we’ve read quite enough from the American Abroad, whoever he or she might be. At least four of this book’s best poems, however, are set in Ireland: “Linen List,” “Bantry Boat,” “The Girls of O’Connell Street,” and “Coursing” are vivid, interesting, and precisely turned poems endowed with real feeling, as genuine as anything by Smith’s Irish contemporaries. The future anthologist of Irish poetry who omits them on the grounds of their author’s citizenship will be making a mistake.

*  *  *

When we personify a writer’s inspiration, we usually borrow the Greeks‚ figure of the muse, a beautiful — if not necessarily faithful — woman. Greek tradition, however, also gives us the notion of the daimonion, an attendant spirit whose name is related to our word “demon.” A muse is someone you hope will guide your pen; a daimonion is a voice that may not leave you alone. There’s no question which figure is more suitable in talking about Ron Rash. In 1994 Rash published his first book, a collection of short stories titled The Night the New Jesus Fell to Earth; in 1998 he published Eureka Mill, his first book of poems. In 2000 he brought out Casualties, a second book of short stories, along with Among the Believers, a second poetry collection; in 2002 he published his first novel, One Foot in Eden, as well as his third book of poems, Raising the Dead. (Mind you, the poetry books are all full-length collections, not chapbooks.) Such a record of publication might not be so impressive if Rash weren’t such a formidable artist: his poetry and prose fiction are anything but off-the-cuff. It’s also hard to believe that someone can write so much so well while playing the roles of husband, father, and full-time teacher: he routinely teaches five classes a semester at South Carolina’s Tri-County Technical College.

Raising the Dead is set against the backdrop of a thirty-year-old injustice. In the early 1970s, Duke Power Company managed to have residents of South Carolina’s Jocassee River Valley evicted, so it could build a dam and flood the valley. (As I write this, the Federal Communications Commission has just decided to increase the number of broadcast outlets the media mega-conglomerates may own. Americans seem unable to stop their national, state, and local governments from conspiring with big business.) The book’s title comes from the fact that all the dead had to be exhumed and reburied elsewhere; clearly Rash regards this as a desecration — the ultimate indicator of the government and power company officials’ inhumanity. The first poem, “Last Service,” alludes to the exhumations as it tells of a church’s poignant final meetings on its old site. Even after its cemetery had been emptied and the building had been stripped of everything that could be moved, Rash writes,

they still congregated there,
wading then crossing in boats
those last Sunday nights, their farms
already lost in the lake,
nothing but that brief island
left of their world as they lit
the church with candles and sang
from memory deep as water
old hymns of resurrection
before leaving that high ground
where the dead had once risen.

Although Rash writes in a later poem that “history is sometimes more/ than irony,” he certainly finds a powerful irony here. That said, the closing of “Last Service” isn’t emptily ironic: it invites us to identify the evictors as a kind of collective Antichrist, a power that raises the dead only to reaffirm their lifelessness.

Raising the Dead isn’t all about the valley’s flooding. Jocassee serves as a metaphor for the irrecoverable past; against that recurrent background Rash sets many poems that deal with other losses. “On the Keowee,” for instance, tells of the long search for a drowned woman in the titular river; as a last resort the sheriff turns to a man who knows how to use a leashed snapper turtle to find an underwater corpse. (It stops at what it takes for food.) In “The Release” a man listens for his dying father’s last breath; when it comes he inhales it, “a life/ distilled to one stir of air/ soft as moth wings against palms,/ held a moment, then let go.” “Black-Eyed Susans,” one of the book’s most tonally complex poems, is a monologue by a widower; he tells of the day he realized his wife was still passionately in love with her dead first husband, buried nearby. A sequence of poems at the book’s heart commemorates the death by auto accident of Rash’s eighteen-year-old cousin (in 1974, the same year the Jocassee reservoir reached full capacity); in one of those poems, “At Reid Hartley’s Junkyard,” Rash tells of taking his aunt to find his cousin’s smashed car:

My aunt
gets in, stares through glass her son
looked through the last time he knew
the world, as though believing
like others who come here she
might see something to carry
from this wreckage, as I will
when I look past my aunt’s ruined
Sunday dress, torn stockings, find
her right foot pressed to the brake.

So the poem ends. Rash has a gift for poetic closure: with what more gripping image could he have ended, with what more fitting single word?

Another aspect of Rash’s technique that deserves mention is his versification. As the three passages quoted above suggest, many poems in the book adopt a seven-syllable line — the same line Jeff Daniel Marion uses in many of his recent poems. (The two poets are acquainted; their shared enthusiasm for an unusual form must be more than coincidence.) Rash, however, sometimes combines that line with rhyme schemes; the most interesting example is “In Dismal Gorge,” a villanelle beginning “The lost can stay lost down here,/ in laurel slicks, false-pathed caves./ Too much too soon disappears.” Mark Strand, in his essay “Views of the Mysterious Hill,” argues that, through its frequent repetition of refrains, the villanelle inherently disputes the possibility of permanent loss. Rash thumbs his nose at this: his refrains (the first and third lines quoted) insist that loss can indeed be absolute and irreversible. The name “Dismal Gorge” comes awfully close to “vale of tears,” and that is certainly the worldview Rash presents.

Raising the Dead is a grim book, but one poem, “The Dowry,” may be a bit too grim. A man who fought for the Union in the Civil War cannot get his lover’s Confederate father to allow their marriage; the father, who lost a hand in the fighting, vows he will never approve the wedding until “what he’d lost to a sniper/ filled that sleeve again.” Months pass and the father repeats his refusal to various intercessors; finally the suitor amputates his own hand and presents it to the father. The action seems terribly unlikely, and no note documents any real such incident. Gratuitous horror appears from time to time in the work of one of Rash’s most notable admirers, the poet Anthony Hecht; let’s hope that Rash doesn’t follow Hecht’s example in that regard.

The grammar in some of these poems may occasionally aggravate sticklers, but there’s never any question about what they mean. Rash’s language often gains vitality when it employs a nonstandard terseness. “Compass Creek,” a poem about a lost settler, begins, “Wading across he had lost/ his handful of direction,/ no choice but follow the creek’s/ slide and leap downstream.” You could fix the comma splice, insert “he had” before “no choice,” and add “to” before “follow” — but the lines would certainly be less compelling. Rash could have learned these sorts of ellipses from Ernest Fenollosa’s study of Chinese (as Ezra Pound did), but I suspect he learned them naturally while growing up in southern Appalachia.

Of course it’s impossible to say with certainty which contemporary poems will last and which will not. Anyone familiar with the history of poetry in English, however, must cast a doubtful eye on most of the poems honored in Mr. Lehman’s annual. If you’re looking for contemporary poetry that has a chance of eluding oblivion, Marion, Smith, and Rash have given you better places to start.