Monday, August 10, 2009

Scott Ward

Scott Ward, Professor of Creative Writing and Literature, joined the Eckerd College faculty in 1993. He has published poems in Shenandoah, Southern Humanities Review, Washington Square, Blue Mesa Review, Christian Century, and in anthologies such as Anthology of Magazine Verse and Yearbook of American Poetry and American Poetry: The Next Generation. He studied at Auburn University and at the University of South Carolina under the late James Dickey. He has published Crucial Beauty (1991, Scop Publications). He lives in St. Petersburg, Florida with his wife, Jana, and their sons, Caleb and Garland.

His latest book of poems is Wayward Passages (2006, Black Bay Books). It is distributed by the Eckerd College Bookstore,

Last week I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
Sometimes I think that Contemporary American Poetry is American culture’s best kept secret. There are so many talented poets writing today, producing work for readers of every taste and temperament. And yet, for some reason, poets and readers have a hard time finding each other. Perhaps one day some clever, technologically adept person will contrive some sort of personal ads to put Twitter poets and readers into each other’s company: “Seeking neo-romantic poet with startling vocabulary and sensuous imagery.” In the meantime, I will take this opportunity to pander by sharing four books from my recent reading, each of which should make someone out there a faithful, worthwhile companion.

A Murmuration of Starlings by Jake Adam York is an exquisite book of poems. It takes for its subject the Civil Rights struggle of the mid twentieth century. Two key events recounted are the murder of Emmitt Till and the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. “Substantiation,” the poem about the Till murder, is a series of lyric poems, which are shorter pieces, subjective, and elegiac in tone. But arranged together the poems tell the story of the trial of the killers, Bryant and Milam, and its aftermath. This structure allows York to take advantage of narrative elements such as conflict, character, climax, while the short sections create moments of lyric intensity:

They say they took him for a ride to rough him up,

scare him on a river bluff, then let him go.

They say they let him off near Glendora,

never seen again. They say Ain’t it like a negro

to swim the river with a gin fan round his neck.

This book creates a deeply felt moral revulsion as much for the lies that are told as for the violence that is inflicted. Moral engagement of this intensity is a rare thing to encounter in any book, and York has made the experience a poignant one for his reader. At several points, York takes us inside the minds of the killers, and it is a dark and empty place. I think of Milton’s Satan who says, “which way I fly is hell, myself as hell.”

From the 1965 Voting Rights Act to the election in 2008 of Barack Obama, Americans can be justly proud of the progress we have made, even while we work toward greater equality and racial harmony. A Murmuration of Starlings is a good book to call to mind the heroic struggle that African Americans made with patience, dignity and forbearance. Poetry is a great place to encounter history because along with the facts come the human feelings, the psychological import, the tragedy and glory of human action.

Pinion, by Claudia Emerson, is about a family working a tobacco farm in the American south of the 1920s. Together they endure the dulling, bone crushing labor, their parents’ pathological relationship, floods, lust, dearth, longing, and most trying of all, solitude, both social and mental. The poems create a sadness of extraordinary poignancy, conveyed through the psychological portraits of two siblings, Preacher and Sister. There are moments for me, each time I pick up this volume, when the act of reading becomes an act of eavesdropping owing to the vivid quality of Emerson’s characters. A lasting impression of this book is the marvelous, sometimes terrifying, capacity that people have to endure. One of Emerson’s best uses of imagery is the use of bird images as a refrain to suggest a longing for transcendence which is always possible, yet always just out of reach. The poem “Bathing Mother,” details a moment when Sister is caring for her dying parent; she says,

I bathed the mother of us all, my hands

dark swallows flying close over the surface

of a pond—whose depths churned, unimaginable—

to make it still, until it was so.

I wish that every American who has followed the issues of the war in Iraq could read Here, Bullet, by Brian Turner. As the reader encounters the poems, policies and politics fade out of his mind and the long, glorious history of Iraq comes to the fore. We are reminded of Alhazen of Basra; of Gilgamesh; of the Tigris and Euphrates, where the Garden of Eden once luxuriated; of Baghdad’s zoos and museums. This historical and cultural awareness is a subtle reminder that Iraq is more than a policy objective; it is a historical place, which means it is a human place. The soldier-speaker of the poems never loses sight of this fact.

Indeed, many of the poems are about the speaker’s struggle to remain fully human while witnessing inhuman things. In poems like “R&R” and “Observation Post #798” the reader learns something about the uncertain hand holds a soldier must grapple, one after another, to keep from slipping from the sheer slope of terror and suffering into despair and emotional hardness. In “R&R,” the speaker goes on leave to see his lover; the poem ends this way,

I have a lover with hair that falls

like autumn leaves on my skin.

Water that rolls in smooth and cool

as anesthesia. Birds that carry

all my bullets into the barrel of the sun.

I think my favorite poems in the book are the elegies, among them “Eulogy,” about the suicide of an American soldier, and “AB Negative (The Surgeon’s Poem),” which chronicles the death of soldier Thalia Fields, a woman from Mississippi, as she is being transported en route to Landstuhl to hospital. “2000 lbs.” which is about a roadside bomb that goes off in Ashur Square, Mosul, is really a series of elegies, and it is a horrible and riveting poem. All these works convey, in a way that news reports and op-ed pieces cannot, the human cost of the war.

And finally, there is Understanding Fiction, by Henry Taylor. I cannot praise this book enough. Taylor possesses not only a consummate poetic skill, but also a philosophic wisdom that I admire in poets like E. A. Robinson or Robert Frost. He can craft what seems like off hand narratives, such as “Frank Amos and the Way Things Work,” a poem which sneaks up on moving profundities about how human intelligence and curiosity work to fit us into the world and into relationships with each other. He is a masterful translator in “The Writing Life.” And he is just as adept in highly structured, traditional forms like the sonnet as in “An Ending” which is a graceful love poem, deft in technique as in sentiment. His voice is gently ironic, staid, by turns wistful and wry, but there is a patience in it as well, a sort of calm faith that if one takes the time to observe the world with care, even trivial things—a pull top beer bottle, a baking dish, a popped balloon—will yield unforeseen and mysterious significance. I have so many favorites in this book, but only space enough here to mention one. The poem “Master on None,” is a poem about how we employ time and work to create our character. At the end of the poem, the speaker, pondering the most necessary kinds of knowledge, yearns for the skill to discern

…when a hand, lightly placed on a child

might wean him without force from the TV set

where, as long as the light of the world’s last days

washes over us, we can believe

we will always be here.

I’ve always admired that stanza for its ambiguity. The first sense is, “you can bet we’ll watch TV to the bitter end.” The second, more profound, sense is “when we watch TV we are dulled into a dangerous state of forgetting our mortality.” When we forget that, our time on earth loses its meaning.

I hope many readers will enjoy at least one of these poets. Emerson and Taylor have published many books and each has won a Pulitzer Prize for poetry, so they have more to offer if you like one of the volumes above. York and Turner are a bit younger. Murmuration is York’s second book, Here, Bullet is Turner’s first. But if these two volumes are any indication, there will be much good work coming from these poets in the future. And so, since I have taken such pains to bring you together, let all pitiful goers-between be called to the world’s end after my name.
Selected poems by Scott Ward available online include "The Bats," "My Brothers Make a Lantern," "My Grandmother's Legend," "Showering My Son," and "Cruel."

Learn more about Scott Ward at his faculty website.

--Marshal Zeringue