By: Wayne Greenhaw
Reviewed by: Jennifer Horne
River City Publishing, 2007
Wayne Greenhaw is something of an institution in Alabama, well known for both his fiction and nonfiction, winner of both the Harper Lee Award for Alabama’s Distinguished Writer of the Year and the Clarence E. Cason Award for Nonfiction. Now, in his nineteenth book, he has turned his attention to poetry, or, one might better say, has collected in print the output of a lifetime, what Greenhaw is his preface calls “my personal journals as I wandered through life.”
As his subtitle suggests, most of the poems are set in Greenhaw’s two homes, the Alabama of his birth and the Mexico he discovered as a young man, the place he revisits again and again. Rich with images of both places, this book reads like an album of photographs, each picture with its own story. There are snapshots of places—San Miguel de Allende and Hank Williams’ grave, Biarritz and Birmingham—and of people—William Christenberry, Clifford Durr, Neal Cassady, Harper Lee, and many others—musicians, politicians, and artists, people and places that mean something to Greenhaw.
These are not poems that think out loud, or that worry too much about form; as Greenhaw writes, “If you’re looking for perfect poetry, go to Yeats or Shelley or Keats.” Rather, they commemorate, celebrate, and sometimes kick up their heels at a particularly lively memory. What one hears in these poems is the voice of Greenhaw talking, a rich, keenly observant sensibility, one that sees more to appreciate in life than to complain of.
Of the 115 poems in this book, all read as biographical, reminiscences of history experienced and history related. “La Cucaracha” recalls the “country boy from Alabama” new to San Miguel who “was an eager audience” for tales of “the man who interviewed Howard Hughes in / the moonlight at midnight high on the ruins near Oaxaca, / . . . or the poet from San Francisco who swore he knew Ambrose Bierce.” Other poems describe the Fort Mims Massacre and revolutionary times in Mexico or recall the Birmingham of 1963 and the civil rights era in Montgomery. These are fun to read, but I think the ones that stayed with me most are those that paint simple scenes: three boys skinny-dipping in “Mims Tierce’s Cattle Pond” or a couple “drinking cheap champagne from a Dixie cup” in “Midnight Waltz on Hank’s Grave” or “short, stocky women buying asparagus / from the bins of produce tienda” in “People Paying.”
Accessible, teeming with Greenhaw’s personal memories and his experiences in literature and politics in this state and in Mexico, Ghosts on the Road is a book of poems for Alabamians, for those who know Greenhaw, and even for people who do not ordinarily read poetry.
Jennifer Horne is poetry book review editor for First Draft Reviews Online.