By: Willie James King
Reviewed by: Sue B. Walker
Tebot Bach, 2007
Willie James King is a masterful poet-physician, environmentalist, and surgeon-priest. He attends to the ills that befall the bonehouse of the body in which we live and recognizes that it is at once the mortal frame, our spiritual being, the work we do, and the earth we inhabit. The House in the Heart is a potent poetic prescription that helps right wrong. Words may save us, even from ourselves.
One notable malaise that King investigates is racial discrimination. In “Old Cahawba” the auction block at the first Capital of Alabama stands “undefiled by lichen and time,” a reminder of travails that still brood and breed a terrible wrong. King writes about “growing up Black in Alabama when most men were too frightened to defend their own families, where even white children addressed eighty-year old men as ‘Boy!’” Not just the elderly, but youth are also disaffected. King says his “bone-hearted brother” ran away to Racine, Wisconsin, “seeking another place because of his color.”
The earth is our human body, dust to dust, and King sees that the health of our planet is intricately related to our fundamental selves. It likewise has suffered, endured high winds, squalls, torrents, and drought that stunts even the growth of kudzu.
King renders the interconnectedness of the environment, individuals, and the situations that create lasting scars. Many poignant poems in the book record family history. As philosopher Susan Bordo points out: “the body can never be regarded merely as a site of quantifiable processes that can be assessed objectively, but must be treated as invested with personal meaning.” In “I Have Learned,” King says his mother shoved him against a “cast-iron wood-burning stove,” telling him that he was like his father, this son who was made to swear that he would never drink whiskey, even as his father finally drank himself to death.
With keen awareness that language is a way human beings confront cultural [dis]ease, King shows that words possess the capacity to heal and afford happiness. He says that sometimes his soul answers when he speaks, else he “couldn’t hover in this deep lull of love, sweet hull of happiness [his] body calls home.” Willie King writes with assurance, sensitivity, courage, and resolve. His book of poetry, with a splendid introduction by Cathy Smith Bowers, is one every humanitarian, and especially every poet, every writer, should display prominently on their library shelves.
Sue B. Walker is Poet Laureate of Alabama and Stokes Distinguished Professor of Creative Writing at the University of South Alabama.