Hon­or­ing Whit­man but grounded in farm coun­try

The Charlotte Observer (Sunday) - - Pastimes - BY JOHN HOPPENTHAL­ER Correspond­ent

In his 2006 es­say “Fear of Nar­ra­tive and the Skit­tery Poem of Our Mo­ment,” Tony Hoagland rues the emer­gent pe­riod style of Amer­i­can po­et­ics — vari­a­tion on the ex­per­i­men­tal lyric — for its “emo­tional re­moval,” its re­sis­tance to “straight­for­ward­ness and or­ches­tra­tion,” and its de­tach­ment from “ac­count­abil­ity.”

“The one thing [those who write such po­ems] are not go­ing to do,” he ob­serves, “is com­mit them­selves to the sweaty en­clo­sures of sub­ject mat­ter and the po­ten­tial em­bar­rass­ment of sin­cer­ity.”

More than a decade later, it is pos­si­ble to ar­gue that many of our no­table po­ets have reck­oned with the well-es­tab­lished con­tem­po­rary bias against and de­val­u­a­tion of nar­ra­tive verse, and they have reestab­lished such poetry as a flex­i­ble site for shap­ing per­sonal and pub­lic ten­sions into art. That is to say, com­mit­ment to telling sto­ries in poetry is, once again, hip.

Of course, like Robert Frost dur­ing the height of the ex­per­i­men­tal Mod­ern Era, or Natasha Trethewey dur­ing more re­cent decades, some po­ets never aban­doned nar­ra­tive for what was trend­ing at the mo­ment. Shelby Stephen­son, whether it be with poet’s pen or gui­tar in hand, has stayed true to his artis­tic driv­ing wheel: “to feel the world’s par­cel” and “shake the pain out.” Stephen­son ex­cels at telling tales spe­cific to the North Carolina farm coun­try in which he was born and raised, al­low­ing that in­tri­cate par­tic­u­lar to stand for the macro. As cur­rent North Carolina Poet lau­re­ate Jaki Shel­ton Green has said of Stephen­son’s poetry, “He has a way of bring­ing the ghost back to all of us, and invit­ing ev­ery­one in.” “Small is my theme — yet has it the sweep of the uni­verse,” wrote Whit­man.

In “Paul’s Hill: Homage to Whit­man” (Sir Wal­ter Press), Stephen­son self­con­sciously dons Walt Whit­man’s bardic per­sona, in­cor­po­rates his fa­mil­iar cat­a­loging tech­nique and even, at times, iron­i­cally mim­ics some of Whit­man’s most fa­mous lines. The speaker seems to de­sire cel­e­brat­ing his Amer­ica as straight­for­wardly as Whit­man did; how­ever, per­sonal grief, a mourn­ful sense of com­plic­ity, and his per­va­sive ground­ing in coun­try blues — how it pro­cesses trou­ble, be­trayal and re­gret — won’t al­low an un­com­pli­cated song of him­self to emerge. As a child, “I used to kill ev­ery snake I saw,” Stephen­son writes; the im­plied sug­ges­tion, of course, is that the re­flec­tive nar­ra­tor now knows there are too many snakes on the prop­erty to do away with, so we have to live with them. Lines that bring to light his fam­ily’s im­pli­ca­tion in slav­ery com­pli­cate the po­ten­tially sen­ti­men­tal nar­ra­tive (“The slave-loft where you must have sat — July — was empty that day. / When the

grass grows over me I will

not be over you.”), as do mo­ments that bring to bear Stephen­son’s grief about his ail­ing wife, Nin: “She wears de­pres­sion like a cloak. / She does not want to but­ton it. / That’s a good sign.”

These checks against Whit­man’s ec­static ro­man­ti­cism serve to bal­ance and create a more am­bigu­ous space from which the speaker might poke among the barns and fields of mem­ory, even as he re­al­izes such rem­i­nis­cence of­fers no es­cape from that which bur­dens the present: “Griev­ing’s real — bet­ter than noth­ing. / I hold the chipped ice in the cup for her. / What a bless­ing, she says.”

The great speci­ficity of im­agery and de­tail, the skill­ful shad­ing of tone, the qui­etly dra­matic or­ches­tra­tion of the poem’s move­ment, and the speaker’s soul­ful cred­i­bil­ity al­low the world of Paul’s Hill to lift off the page and into our heads to stay. This is our former North Carolina poet lau­re­ate at his finest.

John Hoppenthal­er is pro­fes­sor of cre­ative writ­ing and lit­er­a­ture at East Carolina Univer­sity. His most re­cent col­lec­tion, “Do­mes­tic Gar­den,” was pub­lished by Carnegie-Mel­lon Univer­sity Press and re­ceived the 2015 Brock­man-Camp­bell Award for the best NC book of poetry.

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