American Rendering: New and Selected Poems
It comes toward the end of his Michigan collection of essays and interviews, but Andrew Hudgins’s remark about the self-analysis that led to his mature (or rather, slightly immature) style is a good place to start with his work:
In my despair at not getting published, not getting a good job, not getting anywhere with the inert poems I was writing, I asked myself for the first time if I would bother to read the poems I was writing if I hadn’t written them. The answer was no. After I recovered from the shock of that answer—and it took a couple of not very pleasant months—I asked myself what were the characteristics of the poems I liked to read. The answer was poems with very strong rhythms, usually in meter, with a clean, quick, tight movement, often narrative, with the complexities in the tone, drama, and psychology, not in the syntax or allusions.
Would that every other poet in America—not only the despairing ones but the well- and over-published as well—undertake that exercise, and often. Not to come up with the same answers, but to get the ear, the hand and the heartbeat in solidarity, on the same page as it were. In Hudgins’s case, it was a step on the way to a publication history that begins with the Pulitzer-finalist Saints and Strangers and leads to the present collection, a new and selected poems that shows him to good effect all along the way, the strongest of the new poems as memorable as the best of his books so far.
A dove erupts from the brush. The hunter
swings, fires. In the glare,
a bluebird sweeping past the dove
crumples in midair,
while the dove beats on, undeviating.
“What the hell is wrong with you?”
his son grumbles. “An easy kill!”
His father tells him the blue
bird’s magic blood splashed on the dove.
In the brief sinking glide
between the beating of its wings
the dove died and un-died,
and, not knowing it had died, flew on.
The boy snickers. He doesn’t
believe this crap. Who would?
(from “The Bluebird, Singing, Leaps into the Sky”)
Who would indeed. Violence, improbable events, and did-he-really-do-that symbolism are everywhere in his work from the beginning, not to mention a sense of meter not always as relaxed as the variations on common time above might suggest. The title sequence of his first collection is told in pretty good blank verse from the perspective of a revival preacher’s daughter:
They propped their guns against the center pole,
rolled up their sleeves as Daddy stood and preached
about the desecration of God’s house.
They punched him down, took turns kicking his ribs,
while thirty old women and sixteen men
sat slack-jawed in their folding chairs and watched.
Just twelve, not knowing what to do, I launched
into “Amazing Grace”—the only hymn
I knew by heart—and everybody sang.
Poetry ought to be at least as good at made-you-look as television. Hudgins mentions that the watchword when he was in graduate school was to “simplify the action, complicate the motivation,” but it’s not clear to me that’s actually his method. It seems to me that his work is best when the action is brutal, the motivations either clear or incomprehensible, and an algebraic sense of justice does the math; “They got three years’ suspended sentence each / and Daddy got another tale of how / Christians are saints and strangers in the world.” I suppose brutality is simple in art, but all the actions in Hudgins’s poems have ramifications that echo across his books, as when the “thought of us as nails / God drives into the oak floor of this world” in one book is connected with the love of a mother for her sleeping daughter in the next book, “dark / circle of drool surround[ing] her head,” loves her with
the tenderness we save
for something that will ruin
our lives, break us, nail
into this world, which we,
like good philosophers,
had meant to hate. This world,
this world is home. But it
will never feel like home.
(from “How Shall We Sing the Lord’s Song in a Strange Land?”)
Images return throughout Hudgins’s work, sometimes as here in a further state of development, sometimes as with the carrion flies or airborne fires, as echoes of earlier mentions. I enjoy finding them in his work (along with his em-dashed addresses to the reader) the way a gardener or naturalist notes the first arrival each year of some migratory bird or insect. Not all the feeling in his poems is at quite this abject an intensity, but enough of it is that his calmer moments fall a little flat.
He’s best, then, when engrossed in a project, especially if that project absolves him of the duty to be a good Christian. Of his collections my two favorite are After the Lost War, a mini-series-esque account of the Civil War and reconstruction told from the perspective of the poet and flautist Sidney Lanier, and especially The Glass Hammer, a memoir of child- and young adulthood in the south. Given their publication dates in the 80s and 90s, they’re candid, well-meaning and fairly hot on the subjects of race and sex. As a fellow white male protestant, I’m uneasy about evaluating whether his account of Alabama in the 60s and 70s would pass as recognizable and just to any and every witness to those scenes. All the same, I’d put The Glass Hammer with Alice Notley’s Mysteries of Small Houses and Kenneth Koch’s New Addresses as one of my favorite autobiographies in verse of the last twenty years. I’d say I’m disappointed that the shortest section of American Rendering comes from The Glass Hammer, except that I keep a few copies of Hammer around so that when I feel like rereading it, which is often, I don’t have to go looking for it for long.
The problem with the lyric I, and there are a lot of problems, but the main one is that most writers forget that I is a character, and that the special relationship between the writer and this character does not relieve the writer of the obligation to tell the reader something worth hearing. Hudgins remembers this obligation clearly in The Glass Hammer. I can imagine a severer critic turning a nose skyward at these poems, which typically begin in medias res, with a grabby quote or an immediately recognizable physical sensation or ideally both, as in “Somebody’d yell, ‘Dog pile on Andrew!'” I think, though, that if you concede that Mark Twain had something, or Charles Schultz, you have to see something in a poem about karate lessons that goes from this:
Because I’d seen a man
thrust his straight fingers through
a melon, I spent childhood
stalking a long hall, punching
the air in front of me.
I punched pure air and tried
to shatter it—the air,
which simply opened, fell back,
gave way as my hands slashed through.
The air! I can’t believe
how much I hated it.
I’m sorry “The Air” didn’t make it into the selected, but then I wouldn’t have left many from Hammer out.
When he hasn’t organized his work around a person not exactly him, Hudgins has struggled to keep reticence at bay with jokes, ekphrasis, odes to objects and other diversions. It works more or less, especially in later poems such as “Beneath the Apple” where the meter approximates protestant hymnals but the subject matter is the emotional counterpoint of what the speaker sees as he steps away from a party to take a leak on a tree. The new poems are encouraging. He appears to be pulling together all his powers, dramatic self-interruption, intense physicality, good-natured almost immature mischief, and a charming impatience that wears a lot better with experience. More importantly, he is turning all his energies toward life as well as death, toward uncertain conclusions as often as foregone ones. I wouldn’t want to be part of the couple receiving this “Epithalamium”:
Friends, we stood in church for you
as you knelt before the priest,
your faces glowing. Ours glowed too,
and our love for you increased
as we glanced at one another, and thought
“It isn’t going to last.”
And for that matter, I’m relieved never to have heard in life anything like “Lorraine’s Song”:
Mouth or knife,
mouth or knife at
the knothole – which, which, which?
I do like, and find it therapeutic, to read things like that, though. It may be like the thrill some people find in zombie movies, or the feelings of life others get from the smell of coal or gasoline; it may just be a textbook experience of the return of the repressed. I think there’s something more to it, though. And though I wouldn’t know where to begin to write poems like these, I doubt I’m alone in looking forward to seeing where his next poems will go, or in hoping that they’ll be as pleasurably rereadable as his best.