North Carolina Literary Review Online 2017

Page 86

86

2017

NORTH CAROLINA L I T E R A R Y RE V I E W

better understanding of his own life. In “Sticks and Straws” two siblings trade memories of the houses they grew up in, the way siblings often do. In poem after poem, Absher rolls out colorful details and colloquial language that reveal much about the poem’s time and place, but also much about the narrator, the “mouth work” that gives him away as delightfully provincial, as in “Two Things That Don’t Matter”:

do: “liltingly, like stitched quilting, telling.” Varied and complex syntax, too, contributes to the craft of these poems. This poet has a penchant for complex syntax, a strength in her poems. But in a few instances the sheer length of a syntactically interesting sentence, the piling on of clause upon clause or phrase upon phrase, hampers clarity and causes the reader to lose the thread of thought. Luckily, that’s not the norm in this book. More common in these poems are clarity, varied diction, and telling details. More common, too, is strong closure: “What, indeed, are any of us doing here?” she asks in “Sonnet for Marsh Rabbits at Sunset Beach.”

RIGHT J.S. (Stan) Absher reading at Flyleaf

Books in Chapel Hill, NC, 11 June 2015

as the chalky pearls secreted in crawdad heads. Daddy gets Mama to lie topless in the back yard. In the pine woods I step on mushrooms and pump out their spores in dense brown clouds.

The middle section, “What You Ask For, What You Get,” is the most puzzling and, to me, the least satisfying in terms of the book’s unity. It departs from local stories of the familiar and shifts to other places, other ways of seeing, other ways of telling. The opening poem, “The Depot,” sounds like a dream or a morality tale. In other words, the shift occurs immediately at the beginning of the section. Following this opening poem are three short ones that apparently are translations of poems from Greek antiquity. All three have to do with death and, in different ways, warding off its sting. All three center on children, as sacrifice to death or as agents of comfort for the dead. Continuing with the focus on children, “The Boy Who Waved,” which resembles a fairy tale, pays tribute to the Brothers COURTESY OF J.S. ABSHER

J.S. Absher’s Mouth Work won the North Carolina Poetry Society’s 2015 Lena M. Shull Poetry Competition, judged by Virginia poet Ann Garbett. It’s a treasure of narrative poems told mainly in first person, usually by everyday rural folk. Voice rings true in these poems, hitting all the right notes in claiming a Southern past. The book is divided into three sections, preceded by three introductory poems that provide hints of how ephemeral and mutable life is and how the past spills over into the present. Its title comes from “Two Ways of Damming the Eno,” the third poem, about the river in North Carolina’s Orange and Durham counties: “The beaver’s paw – and mouthwork – a scrounger’s / delight of sticks and bark, of rocks and mud / and pulpy stalks engineered for use – / is also provisional. Floods will wash it out.” The first section, “Quick Tongues, Hot Tempers,” tells of hardscrabble small-town and rural lives from the 1940s to the 1970s. These lives belong to ordinary families that go through ordinary circumstances. Colloquial and tough, the narrator often looks back to the years when he was young – to childhood or later when he is just starting out on his own. In “What I Knew and When,” for example, the narrator looks back to when he was almost sixteen and hanging out in a locked shed, where he played poker with guys who would pull out knives and guns if they thought someone was cheating. He ends up on a bus heading west and meets a girl; but when her daddy finds them, he’s off again, drinking for days and hopping a freight train for home. In hindsight, the narrator realizes that back then, when young, he thought he knew more than he did: “So who are you? She’d asked me on the bus. / I don’t know, I should have said. I never knew.” The years have brought self-reflection and a

I’m going on thirteen, when life’s as mysterious


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