By: Andrew Hudgins
Reviewed by: Jennifer Horne
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010
Few poets writing today engage so thoroughly with questions of good and evil as does Andrew Hudgins. Since his first book, Saints and Strangers, twenty-five years ago, Hudgins has consistently, unflinchingly, investigated human nature, and why we so often fail ourselves and one another.
That first book title alludes to the Pilgrims and others who sailed on the Mayflower, and Hudgins’s poems often take up concerns that would have been familiar to the eighteenth-century preacher Jonathan Edwards. (Hudgins makes the connection explicit in a poem titled “Awaiting Winter Visitors: Jonathan Edwards, 1749.”) Growing up mostly in a Southern Baptist, twentieth-century South still heavily influenced by the notion of “sinners in the hands of an angry god” must have helped shape Hudgins’s perspective and his continuing interest in questions of pain, suffering, cruelty, and responsibility.
Reviewers of previous works have noted “Southern Gothic” tendencies, a Flannery O’Connoresque element, to Hudgins’s work, religion and cruelty and yearning all mixed up together, along with a sometimes bizarre sense of humor (most thoroughly revealed in his 2009 volume Shut Up, You’re Fine: Poems for Very, Very Bad Children, not included in this selection). In an essay titled “Reader to Writer” in his 1997 essay collection The Glass Anvil, Hudgins writes of his childhood enjoyment of Bennett Cerf’s Laugh Treasury: “And from Bennett Cerf . . . I also grasped that humor was serious. And that pleasure was essential to life and therefore essential to writing—something my Southern Baptist upbringing and my father’s stoic Calvinism had hidden from me.”
This new book begins with twenty-four new poems and then presents from ten to twenty poems each from Hudgins’s other six volumes of poems, in chronological order. To my knowledge, there is no standard format for this kind of volume. Published posthumously, selected works serve as a kind of greatest hits compilation, but for living poets they tend to mark a point of mid-career success, well (one hopes) before the publication of the full Collected Poems. Hudgins’s own self-referential comment on the subject comes in one of his new poems, “The Blind Woman’s Orchid”: “I read Chekhov’s Selected Stories all afternoon for free, and thought, / Selected Stories—why not selected witticisms, selected / late-night calls to selected exes—delete the drunk ones, save the sober?”
These new poems jump right in and let you know that Hudgins is working against the grain of the confessional or translucently personal. The first poem, “My Daughter,” is about the speaker’s dream of a daughter he never had. Sleeping next to a dumpster, he says, “I pulled carpet remnants over me, and that night / I married, raised a family, and outlived everyone except a daughter—a teacher—and her two children, / one damaged.” The second, “Mother,” involves a speaker remembering when he worked for a rich man who “snapped chip shots, / one after one, over the hood of his Benz.” Looking into an ornamental pond, they discuss what first appears to be a fish but is “a trained bird, a pullet.” “‘I call that one Mother,’” says the man. Things, then, are not necessarily what they seem, nor can we count on these poems to be autobiographical in any factual way.
What these new poems give, rather, is a richly particular and strange world, and also one in which sex and death are never far apart. The poem “Blowfly” (blowflies like to lay their eggs on rotting meat) ends, “This is a lesson about flesh, isn’t it? / I asked. Blowfly, she whispered on my throat / as we made tense, pensive love. Blowfly, blowfly.” And the creepy “Lorraine’s Song” has a girl whispering to a boy through a hole in a fence, “mouth or knife at / the knothole—which, which, which?”—the two choices he might find if he puts “himself” in the hole.
Throughout his writing life, Hudgins has avoided many of the pitfalls of contemporary poetry, the easy epiphanies, the narcissistic self-absorption, but has also steered clear of some of the overly intellectualized or purely linguistic experiments of the recent avant-garde. In these new poems, Hudgins’s language is satisfyingly distinct from ordinary speech yet never crosses over into obscurity. An example from “Accelerator”: “Violins slid in lard across the song’s / sad bridge, and true to spoony music’s low / simpering allure, I hummed along in her silence . . . .”
My favorite poem of these new ones was the villanelle “The Names of the Lost,” a poem in memory of Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, and Michael Schwerner, in which the repetitive structure of the form creates an eerie, menacing stillness at the heart of the poem: “The lights burned all night long that Freedom Summer.” Also powerful is the title poem, “American Rendering,” in which the speakers elide from Red Stick Creeks to “a company / of whites from Tennessee” to Mexican soldiers fighting to take the Alamo. With its echo of “rendition,” this poem, in which human fat is “the grease by which / we render America,” asks us to consider how much human suffering is necessary, or justifiable, in rendering America, with the multiple meanings of the word “render.”
Following the new poems, the Saints and Strangers section includes the long, riveting title poem in the voice of a woman who grew up the daughter of a traveling preacher. After the Lost War (1988) and The Glass Hammer (1994) are Hudgins’s most tightly organized books: Lost War tells the story of poet Sidney Lanier’s civil war experiences, and Glass Hammer is a kind of memoir in verse; the selections from these books are likely to make readers want to read the entire narratives of each.
Poems from The Never-Ending (1991) and Babylon in a Jar (1998) take up many of Hudgins’s familiar subjects: childhood cruelties, biblical references, the human relationship to the world of nature. His first-person speakers are inquisitors of both self and world, and the poems have strong narrative and scenic elements.
Hudgins’s most recent book represented here, Ecstatic in the Poison (2003), marks what seems to me a turn toward a greater nakedness of manner, a wild, serious playfulness resulting in such powerful poems as Piss Christ (after the controversial Andres Serrano sculpture) which ends, “the whole / and irreducible point of his descent: / God plunged in human waste, and radiant.” Despite what may seem to be the indifference of God or the gods to human suffering (“The God of Frenzies”), despite the earth’s placid spinning, this poet concludes, with “dubious and luminous joy,” that “It was my duty to stay awake / and sing if I could keep my mind on singing” (“Blur”).
Although Hudgins has been compared to John Crowe Ransom and other poets of the Southern Renascence, he seems more the spiritual descendant of Robert Frost, the Frost of “Out, Out—” rather than of “Birches,” perhaps with a little Quentin Tarantino thrown in. Also like Frost, Hudgins is a skilled and subtle prosodist.
Reading through all these poems at once, I at first felt the detachment of Philip Larkin, the speaker looking out of trains or down from windows at sad humanity. Yet the sense that develops as the poems sink in is of a poet locked in a furious, passionate embrace with his obsessions, a wrestler with God as in John Donne’s later poems. The epigraph to the book—to end at Hudgins’s beginning—is taken from Milton’s “Areopagitica” and begins, “Good and evill we know in the field of this World grow up together almost inseparably,” ending “what wisdom can there be to choose, what continence to forbeare without the knowledge of evill?”
Andrew Hudgins’s poetry is not cuddly and it does not charm, and yet I keep coming back to it for his uncompromisingly clear vision, for his morally powerful poems that address how, in a fallen world—one in which he always includes himself—one should live. Aug 2010
Jennifer Horne is the author of Bottle Tree: Poems and the Poetry Book Reviews Editor for First Draft Reviews Online.