Mountain Redemption by Nick McRae
Reviewed by Kathleen Kirk, The Poetry Cheerleader
Black Lawrence Press, 2013
Perfect bound, 42 pp., $8.95
In Mountain Redemption, Nick McRae is engaged in the redemption—as in recovery or salvation—of a certain place in time: his childhood, his upbringing, and his informal but intense education by way of bible stories and as witness to the violence that is part of what happens in the course of life in the rural South. “This is what happens,” says the father in “Thanatophobia on Shinbone Valley Road,” holding up two halves of a rattlesnake. The speaker in “Thanatophobia” has found a dying fawn “half-crushed” on the road and cannot bring himself to do the mercy killing required by the moment and the deer’s suffering. McRae must know many readers will hear “Traveling through the Dark,” by William E. Stafford, as quiet background music to his own. In Stafford’s poem, the speaker, after compassionate deliberation, “pushed her over the edge into the river,” ending the life of a doe and the unborn fawn inside her. In that poem, the speaker was also protecting and preserving the human life bound to come along the Wilson River road. In McRae’s “Thanatophobia on Shinbone Valley Road,” the speaker must, as the title tells us, grapple with his fear of death, his wishful thinking, and, like all of us, the consequences of action or inaction.
There’s another dead deer still warm with life in the poem, “Beheaded Carcass of a Deer.” Proof of life resides in the belly of the poem, a broken sonnet:
Otherwise the steam would not still rise
from the neck’s stump; the blood pool wouldn’t grow
in a widening ring like a red-black halo
on the leaves before my and my father’s eyes.
That’s a dark and gorgeous image, that “red-black halo.” The deer has been left behind by poachers, who took “its pilfered head / with velveteen antlers” as their trophy. The head gone, the boy and his father can only presume antlers were the prize, just as this reader can only presume the poachers were the legendary Robinson Brothers of an earlier poem in the book:
But folks had seen their work,
the fly-swarmed carcasses of deer they’d poached—
the heads severed, meat unharvested,
hides marked with a shaky, knife-scrawled R.
Both poems contain redemptive compassion. The boy and his father do harvest the meat: “We drag it homeward: silent, sick, devout.” And the Robinson brothers are re-imagined as having troubles of their own:
Folks didn’t know the older brother wept
when, on the radio, a preacher read
the Psalms, or that he played the fiddle deep
into the nights he once drank his way through—
and no one knew the younger brother’d lost
his wife to shine and almost ate his gun
a time or two.
McRae wrestles demons in Mountain Redemption. In “Take, Eat,” a poem with the epigraph, This is my body (Mark 14:22), the speaker understands communion in a visceral way for the first time, thanks to the previously casual use of crawdads as fishing bait. When he sees them cooked for humans to eat, he can’t take it, runs from the house, and encounters his own proclivity for casual violence once again:
I leaned hard on a tree as thin as a cow tail,
stepped on the trunk, waited for the damp snap,
the acid gasp of its breaking.
Tree is crawdad is Christ is epiphany is boy. Glorious. (Not to mention the cow tail!)
And “Gutting the Farmhouse upon Grandfather’s Death from Alzheimer’s” is full of deliberate violence, “full of sweat and rapture.” Father and son rip cabinets, pipes, and banisters from the house, gouge the walls and smash the windows, laughing, liberated. With ironic glee, the poem consciously echoes Wordsworth—“My heart leaps up”—in its opening couplet:
My heart leapt when I thought
of all I could destroy.
Presumably, the dead man is the same Grandpa who stuffed his grandson’s hand in a bucket of freshly-dead rattlesnake to teach him a lesson in “Killing a Rattler.” If, as Wordsworth said, “The Child is father of the man,” learning the lesson and destroying the Grandfather’s house may both be necessary actions on the road to redemption.
And Nick McRae is earnestly seeking the right path. Several poems are explorations of his namesakes in religious history: St. Nicholas of Lycia, Nicolas of Antioch, and even Nicholas Copernicus, whose religious upbringing did not prevent him from dedicating his life to science and the search for truth.
McRae’s poems exhibit rich use of language and form—tight yet subtle rhymes, colloquialism, plentiful literary and biblical allusion. Their storytelling and rhyme make me think of Robert Frost as another of McRae’s poetry ancestors, but he is also writing in the Southern Gothic tradition of Andrew Hudgins and with the commitment to narrative, formalism, and religious inquiry of Mark Jarman, both blurbers on the back cover of this chapbook.
Indeed, Jarman’s “Butterflies under Persimmon” is a poem McRae must know and love, with its intense focus on “the newly dropped / persimmon in the wet grass” and ants and butterflies like satyrs ready to devour it. McRae focuses on persimmon, quince, and apple in poems of insight, ambivalence, and, yes, redemptive beauty. I love the poem, “Apple,” which closes the book by restoring Eden, in a way, leaving a man on his belly in the grass, just like Jarman’s speaker under the persimmon tree, “there on my belly / in sun and shadow,” and just like a serpent, too, brought low by his own reverence.
Kathleen Kirk is a writer whose work appears online and in print in Eclectica, Menacing Hedge, Poetry East, RHINO, Poems & Plays, Spillway, Waccamaw, and elsewhere. She is the author of five poetry chapbooks, most recently Interior Sculpture: poems in the voice of Camille Claudel (Dancing Girl Press, 2014) and Nocturnes (Hyacinth Girl Press, 2012), and the poetry editor for Escape Into Life. She blogs about poetry, reading, and life at Wait! I Have a Blog?!
Suddenly, A Knock on the Door: Stories by Etgar Keret
Reviewed by C. L. Bledsoe, The Lit Reporter
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2012
Paperback, 189 pp., $14
Suddenly, A Knock on the Door: Stories is a collection of flash fiction from the Israeli absurdist, Etgar Keret, who is probably best known for the film adaptation, Wristcutters: A Love Story, based on a novella from a previous collection. Keret has several collections, and I’ll admit I came to him independently of the movie, which I’ve since seen and enjoyed.
Keret writes very brief stories that usually begin with fairly mundane situations and progress into surreal scenarios. The title story describes a writer who is forced to tell a story, at gunpoint. As he tries to tell it, another intruder shows up, until there are three different people holding guns on him, and yet he can’t seem to tell a story. Humor is a big part of Keret’s milieu, along with political overtones. Many of these stories deal with very human situations, such as a son grieving the loss of his mother, social violence and political turbulence, and loneliness.
This collection marks a turn from Keret’s usual style. In previous collections, Keret tended much more toward the surreal and dream-like. Kneller’s Happy Campers, for example, the novella that Wristcutters is adapted from, tells the story of a limbo for suicides, and one young man’s search for love. In this limbo, life continues pretty much the same as it had before. People work crappy minimum wage jobs delivering pizzas or what-have-you. Everything is gray and boring. The stories in A Knock on the Door are much more straight-forward. Keret’s talent isn’t that he can come up with crazy scenarios, but rather that he can create compelling, interesting characters who happen to exist in fairy-tale-like worlds. In this collection, he maintains that ability.
There are plenty of absurdist moments. “Lieland” tells the story of portal that leads to a world in which every lie a person tells has come true. This means that all those fictitious distant relatives whose illnesses are used as excuses to get out of work are stuck in a kind of limbo, and the liars are responsible for their lives. “Healthy Start” is about a lonely man who goes to restaurants and pretends to be the person random strangers are meeting. “Teamwork” is about a violent man whose toddler son tries to convince him to kill his abuser.
At their core, these stories are about connections. In even the strangest situations, characters try to break through the morass of their daily struggles and connect in meaningful ways, moving beyond the weirdness to get at real meaning.
C. L. Bledsoe is the author of the young adult novel, Sunlight; three poetry collections, _____ (Want/Need), Anthem, and Leap Year; and a short story collection called Naming the Animals. A poetry chapbook, Goodbye to Noise, is available online. Another, The Man Who Killed Himself in My Bathroom, is available here. His story, "Leaving the Garden," was selected as a Notable Story of 2008 for Story South's Million Writers Award. His story, “The Scream,” was selected as a Notable Story of 2011. His nonfiction piece, “Thesis,” was nominated for 2012 Best of the Net. He’s been nominated for the Pushcart Prize five times. He blogs at Murder Your Darlings. Bledsoe has written reviews for The Hollins Critic, The Arkansas Review, American Book Review, Prick of the Spindle, The Pedestal Magazine, and elsewhere. Bledsoe lives with his wife and daughter in Maryland.
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