Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery
by Tim Earley
Horse Less Press, 2014; 111 pp
Reviewed by Laurie Saurborn
“I first find the background, whatever it may be,” photographer Ralph Eugene Meatyard said of his artistic process, “and then I put what I want to in front of it.” Poems have backdrops, too—histories and psychologies pulled into the writing through imagery, diction, sonic devices, and other means. In Tim Earley’s third poetry collection, Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery, the background is as full of slippery roots and contorted trees as it is the desire to understand and the yearning to be saved. Whatever the medium, what is relegated to the background seldom remains there. And so unruly, uncontained, it grows, tangled and manic, into the poems crowding these pages.
Against this densely woven thicket, the speaker growls, fornicates, expounds, and observes. Direct yet cyclical, repetitious yet protean, the book opens:
I will kill you with the pivet from my cycling drum. I will kill
you with the electric mouth of the sea. I will kill you with
the plastic toxins, the dourcats, the European garrote, the di-
vorce papers, the mustard-lidded wail of your eldest child. (11)
Earley’s eye focuses on multiple planes. Both creator and captive, the speaker emerges from, travels within, and disappears into the text. Prone to slippages that subvert expectations of sense and time, diction serves as a primary creative force, signifying the movement of the speaker’s attention not through time lived, but through time read, from biblical to feudal, colonial, and beyond. This universe sings, “porg, dundle flue, muslin, spindle” with the same ease it states, “each addict is a military system.”
Structurally, the untitled prose poems reveal themselves, line by line, as evidence of language’s progressive, mutable nature. They speak to the impossibility of separating language from place, literature, and the political. It is as if the speaker remakes the world as a collage through the collision of familial legacies, of neurological, physical, and psychological selves, and of landscape as it is and was inhabited. The text operates within a literary and linguistic history and it drags, kicks, and pulls that history forward.
Earley’s poems are tumultuous places, but never lonely. Characters move within, not simply against the backdrop but netted and caught, obscured though fully recognized. There are groups: the coal miners, “whelping men with neck goiters and oversized ears and teeth as black as their eye.” There are individuals, such as Velvetine Leopoldis, an “imaginary girlfriend.” There’s Wheedie, Sparkle, the dog-murdering Uncle Almarine, and Twila, of whom it is said:
they drugged her and shocked her brawl until she could not remember long stretches of her past or where one Twila ended (81)
Disappearing as quickly as they crest, Earley’s characters represent the peculiar condition of being human through brief glimpses and revelations. No one stays in the open for long. Given the ever-shifting nature of these poems, it is probably unwise to assume a fixed “I,” or a steady point of view.
The book’s title is appropriated from poet John Clare’s collection by same name, but these poems have more in common with the prose of James Joyce (particularly, Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake). Earley utilizes nonce words and neologisms, employs punctuation as interruption, and allows omissions to become alterations (Satin for Satan; the unverse for the universe). Reconstruction becomes linguistic evolution, change encompassing what has been and what is becoming:
Thwarted fleen in millymask. drucked flylysped interlit. They fen and fife their torts in tilture to the ampulance. (49)
Comprehension becomes secondary—even tertiary. Stuttering into breakage, the destabilized voice is righting itself in a way that remains opaque to the reader. Where does the landscape—the backdrop—begin? Where does the body? In scenes both internal and external, these poems represent the unknown and perhaps unmappable spaces of overlap. Language blurs the edges. Yet as fond as the poems are of fragmentation, they can quickly morph into detached observation:
The window serves as intimation of an unnamed act of violence in the presumably recent past, as windows are generally repaired, even in rural, socioeconomically deprived settlings, within a few days’ time, though the repair is often “jerry-rigged,” which is to say the rest of the glass is knocked out by the resident and then replaced with plastic fixed into place by duct tape. (35)
Tone more remote, syntax less contorted, that which is observed—window, glass, duct tape—steps into the foreground: the details of a rural, domestic scene in which violence may have occurred. Perhaps it is only when the speaker is fully submerged that boundaries begin to disintegrate. Here, it seems the speaker has stepped far enough out of the landscape to see it clearly.
This book demands a willingness to divest oneself of the locating particulars of confession and empathy and adopt instead a mindset both language-drunk and exploratory. If rendered visually, the result would look less like a Meatyard photograph and more like Hieronymus Bosch’s painterly impressions of Appalachia. These poems are language, and the ways language has changed and continues to change. Herein is much to celebrate; within the decomposition is great joy. As John Clare writes in “Dawnings of Genius”: He feels enraptured though he knows not why.