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New Covenant Bound

By: T. Crunk
Reviewed by: Lewis Robert Colon Jr.
The University Press of Kentucky, 2010
$19.95, Paper

Beginning in 1933, the Tennessee Valley Authority, a main component of the New Deal, sought to modernize the agrarian and largely poor Tennessee Valley. It was a roaring success. Dams were built. Power lines went up. Men in suits descended upon the South and devised more sophisticated navigation methods and better soil fertilization for farmers.

Of course, thousands of farming families were forced off their land in the name of TVA progress. Families were made to abandon land their forebears had also worked, land under which generations of family members were buried. In the Wikipedia version, the injustice is reported in nice, round figures—five thousand displaced in western Kentucky, fifteen thousand forced to relocate due to the dams. It isn’t difficult to get the data.

The poems in Tony Crunk’s new book, New Covenant Bound, attempt to release some of the humanity bound up in the data. Alternating between lyric poems written by a grandson and epistolary prose sections written by a grandmother, Crunk’s preoccupation is not so much the original displacement of one western Kentucky family but the ways in which the single wound of that displacement can expand across two generations.

The grandmother’s colloquial sentences have that ring of Hollywood voiceover that when done poorly is trite and when done well is arresting. Crunk does it well: 

        We started out seeing the government cars parked along 
        a road or by a creek or off in a pasture. Started 
        seeing men with their maps and their spyglasses and 
        measuring rods out walking the riverbank. 

        Your grandfather came across a couple of them out back 
        of the cane field. 
The grandmother’s entry ends soberly: 

        Then finally it started to come clear. And then they 
        called the big meeting to tell us all. Officially. 

        We were to be moved off the land and the land flooded.

While the grandmother’s entries are responsible for pulling the narrative plow, the grandson’s poems react, not so much respond, with reverie: 

        I am going back 
        to seek my place 
        in the abandoned past 
        shoulder to shoulder 
        with the Illinois Central 
        long iron rail 
        by short cross tie 
        endless ladder 
        pointing home

“Home” for the grandson is both a home that’s been destroyed—“under a hundred foot of water”—and a home that exists seemingly as a place holder. His grandmother will write him, “After forty-odd years, I’ve never once called it home.”

The grandson’s feel for sound and measure are characteristic of Crunk’s prior books, yet the formal qualities of New Covenant Bound are understated. While the grandmother’s entries relay the story with austerity, it’s the grandson’s poems that are sadder—for his lines attempt to tether to a history that is both tangible and intangible, the home he knows well and the bygone “home” he knows only through his grandmother’s personal historiography. By juxtaposing the words of grandson and grandmother, Crunk sets the tragedy in a wider scope, showing how a single injustice twenty years in the past can still be operative in the lives of those in the present.

The voices in New Covenant Bound face the same difficulty we all face when combing the terrain of family history, not to mention national history. There are gaps. We strive to fill them, but first we must comprehend their depths. Feb. 2011

Lewis Robert Colon Jr. lives in New York City.

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