By: Bruce Alford
Reviewed by: Jennifer Horne
Elk River Review Press, 2007
Bruce Alford’s first book, composed of sixty-six poems, many of them set in the South in small towns, truck stops, and roadside attractions along blue highways, offers an almost carnival-like abundance of sights, smells, and sounds, an imagistic and linguistic richness sometimes strange, sometimes surprising. Alford is a good list-maker, as in “Freedom,” where he catalogs the “Southern tacky” contents of a roadside store:
. . . the “Save Your Ash”
toilet-shaped ashtray, a vial of Elvis sweat with a post
that reads, “His perspiration will be your inspiration”
the flaming-pink toothpaste dispenser, the South’s
incomprehensible reverence, resting in a layer of dust
upon born-again peanuts from the Jimmy Carter era.
These catalogs, along with a certain visionary expansiveness, echo Whitman, but the stronger influence on Alford is William Carlos Williams, especially the Williams of Spring and All. Alford uses couplets, triplets, free verse, and sometimes more formal stanzas and rhythms, along with collage and found bits of text, in his project of inclusion and reclamation. His is a distinctively American voice with a sly sense of humor. Some poems, like “Sara Lee,” are laugh-out-loud funny, with the pop-culture punch line “Nobody doesn’t like Sara Lee.” In that same poem, Alford makes overt allusion to Williams, writing “We were / pure products of America / crazy black teens . . . .”
The title poem and several others make reference to Hegel and Heidegger, but if you’re not up to speed on your nineteenth and twentieth-century German philosophers, don’t be intimidated. Instead, consider the image of Heidegger, accused of Nazism, on a train moving through the Appalachians, thinking to himself “I’m screwed” (“Heidegger Blues”), or ponder the levels of meaning in the phrase “terminal switching,” or travel with Alford to quirky museums like “The International Checker Hall of Fame.” Throughout the book, these poems engage such subjects as place vs. transience and, as Alford writes in his preface “what it means to be human,” especially in an America of rapid transit and transitions.
A certain amount of displacement is almost inevitable under such conditions, and Alford pays attention to various kinds of displaced persons, from homeless men to truck drivers to a “woman with her wig on crooked” (“Meteor”). Simply paying attention can be a kind of salvation, and these poems make it clear that, as he states in his preface, Alford believes that “Neither a poem nor a religion can bring you back to life, but a saving power abides in them.”
Perhaps this is one way for American poets to maintain their sanity in the ever-more-clamorous marketplace: not by standing on a chair shouting to be heard but by quietly gathering up the odds and ends discarded or ignored by others and making of them a glittering mosaic you just can’t not stop and look at. Alford’s poems assert the possibility—the necessity—of seeing differently, even newly (a lá Ezra Pound), making meaning of and finding beauty in “Broken tiles, bits of glass, faux pearls— / all the refuse of this world” (“These Provoke in Some the Hubristic Belief that Things Escape Destruction”).
Jennifer Horne is the Poetry Book Review Editor for First Draft Reviews Online.