Richard Carr, Ace (The Word Works, 2009)
Allen Hoey, Once Upon a Time at Blanche’s (Tamarack Editions, 2009)
Naton Leslie, Emma Saves Her Life (Turning Point, 2007)
Noel Smith, The Well String (Motes Books, 2008)
What happens when a poet creates the voice of a real person, or an imagined person in a particular place and time? And what if this person is silenced by circumstance—by lack of education, leisure, safety, or the conviction that the story should be heard? The temptations are many—to condescend, caricature, misread, impose, or judge. It takes tremendous grace and humility on the poet’s part for such poems to become a gift and not an appropriation.
Four new books succeed admirably at this task. Richard Carr in Ace, Allen Hoey in Once Upon a Time at Blanche’s, Naton Leslie in Emma Saves Her Life, and Noel Smith in The Well String have steeped themselves fully in the voices of characters who have come to occupy whole books of poetry.
The poets work without self-congratulation and with respect for human wholeness. Each of these four page-turners communicates a people and a time. The focus on voice, religiously undertaken, yields results first salty, then subtly spiced. We taste not just the drama of the characters’ lives but also the exact flavor of the silences they endure.
The poems create the sense that someone has listened selflessly, with honesty and compassion. They catch the lyricism of plain speaking, the sweet turn of forgotten diction, the syncopations of other-time phrasing, the blunt and skipping rhythms of everyday speech. The poets tune us to these qualities, speed the tales, and focus attention. They have not just transcribed, but scored this music.
Naton Leslie works from his own memory, from letters his grandmother wrote weekly, and from a scrapbook that she kept from age nine onward. He creates a dialogue between poems in Emma’s voice and poems about her. His portrait glosses over none of her toughness, her occasional self-congratulation, her impatience with the stupid, snooty, selfish, and slothful. In the especially feisty “Emma Readies for a Party,” Emma reflects on the Pennsylvania Farmers Mutual banquet, which she enjoys “except last year”:
… Some of those bitches
from the big farms brought pies
—they didn’t make them either.
Then one of them had nerve
enough to comment on my crust.
She had just had an operation
on a boil on her face, one eye
covered in a pirate patch.
Flat, she said, No flake to it.
I worked half the morning
on pies and bread and now
these fancy fannies were talking.
I wheeled around, lifted her
patch and smacked her right on
the boil. You should’ve seen
her go down. Will said later
I was a hard woman to take
anywhere. I just laughed.
Leslie’s poems build force as they accumulate from individual story to a full life. His restraint is brilliant; he never sentimentalizes, exaggerates, or embroiders—perhaps because Emma never would. Emma surprises the reader with more lyrical passages too, as in “Emma Goes to a Reunion”:
In my day we’d have met on
the family farm, but the old
Lindsay place is long gone,
like our home-place. That’s
a funny notion: My day.
It’s as though these days belong
to someone else, and I’m just
allowed in like a visitor.
Allen Hoey, too, blends narrative with flashes of lyric. He avoids idealizing his characters as he dazzles the reader with astonishingly long persona poems. In his book we soak in the voices of various regulars at Blanche’s, a bar for folks who have seen tough times and keep coming back for the solace of a beer and a shot and for the storytellers roosting there. Each story spins out, relayed to us by an alienated youngster whom the regulars tolerate and eventually accept. He is half witness, half mascot. The layered stories take us deep into the tone and time of men who have made do, hung in, and somehow pulled through. Here is the conclusion of “She Died,” one of the very few shorter poems in the collection:
…They all load up their plates and peck
like birds at the food while they
wander around the living room, into
the dining room, jibberty-jabbing about
what a shame, a godawful tragedy, she’s
so young and what a good job they done,
she looked so pretty, and I just left
and went into the kitchen and got
a bottle of whiskey from the cupboard
and a glass, ain’t no telling what a man
might do he drinks out the bottle,
and I go sit on the porch, but that’s
too close, I can still hear the voices,
like the gabbling of geese rising
and falling up the hill from the pond
near dark, so I take a chair round
the far side of the garage and sit down
and pour myself a splash of the whisky,
and the stars start to come up as my
eyes get used to the dark, and I take
another sip and look up and think,
by Jesus, someday things’ll be ok.
No matter which of Hoey’s regulars is speaking, the voice has a forward-driving urgency. Given his masterful handling of monologue, even the most bogged-down life conveys vitality. This is a rowdy book, tragic and hilarious, a down-and-dirty redemption of a book.
Noel Smith in The Well String manages the small miracle of bridging a century of voices. Her job took her to the hills of Eastern Kentucky, where her listening was complete and generous. She was able to imagine stories and conjure voices back five generations, from 1880 to today. Here is a poem from the middle of the collection, “At the Black Lung Office”:
Listen, they split the top
of these mountains clear off
like a man with his skull scalped.
Now, coal is stone and stone
the bone of earth I reckon.
Ground down clear from here to yon ridge.
You know, that grit claims your eyes,
your ears, your heart, the dust of bone,
black lungs gummed up.
I study how they robbed something they ought not.
The pure bones from the earth itself. I allow
that’s what’s destroying us.
Now, Betty went to Walmart’s and bought
our grandbaby toy earth movers. I declare
he thinks they’re the best things ever was.
Occasionally, Leslie, Hoey, and Smith burst beyond the bounds of their personae. In each book third-person poems mingle with first-person poems, as if the poets feel some side of the story can’t be covered from “inside,” or they need reflective distance. However, the tones and cadences of the characters inform the third-person narratives as well. An example is Smith’s lovely description of a fiddler in “Old Timey Flight.” He takes a song and:
Makes it shimmer like glass in the sun,
Swoops it down back up and around
Like a swallow on the wing again and again
Bringing to himself the spirit
Of Luther Strong that fine old fiddler
Back back in time this tune
Having taken off like a kite in the blue.
In Ace, Richard Carr never strays from the first person. Four scraping-by characters take turns speaking: father, mother, daughter, and grandson. Together these four unhappy wanderers create a dark, eerily harmonious, crescendoing tale of losing and seeking. The four voices are less literal, more likely to break from the actual way a character might speak, for these poems expose barely conscious longings and late-life, even last-minute realizations. Carr names what the silenced cannot say; and while his task may be made less difficult by virtue of the fact that his characters are fictional, portraying the down-and-out with respect and insight is no small feat.
In “Alley Wary,” Ace (senior) dreams of finding his lost grandson (who was aborted, but he probably doesn’t know this):
I see Little Ace fighting in the war
driving his humvee into a fight
which might never end but spread street to street
country to country and into all minds
and into the dreams of little boys certain they will die
in a fight
better that he hide himself
walk down the alley wary
step wide of the overturned dumpster and the dark door
put an end to curiosity
the rustling in a pile of trash bags and greasy boxes
a danger now
better that he hide from me.
Ace’s gritty urban portraits show openly what the other books imply: the loss of deep-rooted community is a tragedy. No matter what we may have gained when we fled the hills and farms, family and the human spirit have suffered to the bone.
All four of these books manage the delicate moral balance required in “creating” someone else’s voice. Maybe every artist owes it to the world to try this: to push down the self under the current, and listen hard to the undercurrent, the voices of others. To do this well calls for practice both in living and in writing. We need to love the people of whom we write, whose struggles compel us. That love needs to be not of the honeymoon variety, but born of long, honest, steadfast commitment. And then the voices may break their silence and ring true.