Linthead Stomp by Tim Earley
Horse Less Press, 2016; 135 pp
Reviewed by Zack Anderson
If the function of the epic is to explain the origins of a nation that considers itself great, what does this form become for a state recognizant of its own decline? Linthead Stomp, Tim Earley’s new book-length poem, roars and judders between “aphorisms unending” and epic modalities as it delivers a possible response. This tension between aphorism and epic propels the poem along while maintaining a hearty skepticism of a conventionally stable lyric persona. As the speaker announces in the opening pages, “I’ll keep singing this song until our year round manger scene understands that the only liberty is death and whatever you venerate is what kills you kills your children savior is erasure.” This is epic as apocalyptic revelry, not as empire-building.
Formally, Linthead Stomp is organized by patterns of accretion and dispersal. Prose blocks give way to isolated lines, allowing Earley to freely vamp on themes between more concentrated tableaux. Even in the prose passages, though, individual lines retain their aphoristic shimmer and the reading experience is more fractal than linear. Alliterative play, distorted signals, archaisms, and the incredible distances that these sentences traverse always bring the eye back to the scale of the line. At the same time, Earley’s syntax resists the illusion of a stable subject position by consistently exceeding its own containment, since “[t]o have selfhood I must possess identities that erase selves and when I run out of selves must purloin other selves and to have a voice I must be a thing and being a thing swallows my voice to swallow I must cut every other throat and then a landslide of butterflies exemption burden command.”
In its sprawling reach and attention to the level of the line, Linthead Stomp shares a kinship with works like Frank Stanford’s poem The Battlefield Where The Moon Says I Love You, Abraham Smith’s Ashagalomancy, and Tom Waits’ Mule Variations. Yet Earley’s book feels decidedly committed to its historicity. It reveals the attritions and ecstasies of the rural, impoverished, white South (as in the titular linthead) while emphasizing the instability of such a subject. The epic may have been invented to explain and reify identity, but the sheer profusion of Linthead Stomp washes the “I” downriver as just another material, historically contingent noun: “I am a thing for I am a place. That is some unassimilable shit.”