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By: Tony Crunk
Reviewed by: Lewis Colon Jr.
Mercy Seat Press, 2007
$12, Paperback

Tony Crunk writes the kind of poems that compel folks who claim to “hate” poetry to admit that well, actually, they like his poems. Crunk’s is a poetry of unlabored images and unadorned language. His new book, Cumberland, is complicated in the best way for contemporary poetry to be complicated. Its complicatedness doesn’t make readers feel they’re being defeated in a chess game governed by a distant set of idiosyncratic house rules. The challenges in this poet’s work sneak up on you, the wrapped meanings undressing slowly with each rereading. The complexity here isn’t a wall readers have to painstakingly chip away at, but something that seeks them from behind seemingly lax stanzas.

Cumberland takes place over four sections, but the mood of the poems is unvarying. The subject matter is, too. There’s a continuum of subjects reaching through Crunk’s earlier book Living in the Resurrection and into Cumberland. There’s also a religious undercurrent to many poems in Cumberland, a fixation on the afterlife and other soul destinations that, combined with this poet’s penchant for writing about family (his father in particular) and the familial flavor of the small, sometimes rural community can often cause poems to sideswipe sentimentality. Take, for example, this portion of the title poem:

    and I am left 
    your son a stranger to you now 
    your shadow bound for wandering the earth. 
    And death is the thread of a spider’s web snapping. 
    Dragonflies setting off across Dothan Pond 
    bear the soul away 
    to the pastures of plenty 
    where angels sit in the branches of the sugartrees

One could argue plausibly that such euphoria borders on the sentimental. But we’re not in Rod McKuen territory yet. Granted, the imagery here is capital-R Romantic, but the title poem stands up to inspection—the work of an expert craftsperson. Crunk’s work does this. It creates a sort of cognitive dissonance, potentially making an inattentive reader mistake Crunk’s efforts for that of a novice (which he most assuredly—as recipient of the 1994 Yale Series of Younger Poets Prize, for one thing—is not).

It takes a special kind of skill to do what Tony Crunk’s poems do, to make deeply layered verse appear nonchalant. It’s somewhat comparable to the placid touch of Robert Creeley, who also creates a reading experience that can sometimes feel similar to watching a fat man who dances gracefully. And Cumberland is this kind of book—graceful, unpretentious, and rewarding to those who know and love great dancing.

Lewis Colon Jr. lives in Tuscaloosa. 


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