In the mood for hawks, snakes, horses and lonely, but fierce women? Given up on contemporary poetry, poems written for poets, camps of code-talkers engaged in self-congratulating games of inter-reference? Try Carrie Jerrell’s After the Revival (WorldCat | Amazon). True, it suffers a bit from the usual first-book excesses–the occasional over-reaching, metaphors which try too hard, and (at times) a kind of garish urge to be odd. Nonetheless, Jerrell’s poems are carefully written lyrics with a keen narrative sensibility.
As for me, I have not given up on contemporary poetry; in fact, I write the worst of it–unreadable, insensible, too-inside for the insiders. And so, I admire Jerrell’s book (which I discovered on Marly Youmans’ blog) for other reasons. Foremost, perhaps, because I can think of no other contemporary poet who has written better love poems for rural Indiana. John Matthias will forever own the St. Joseph River valley, and Indianapolis deserves its waste land of bad taste, but the case could be made (on the strength of only a handful of poems) to make Carrie Jerrell the state’s next poet laureate. At the very least, give her all the blighted little towns south of Seymour. Of the poems which name Indiana, I am most fond of two. The first provides a hawk’s snapshot of a forlorn and lonely landscape, “Self-Portrait of the Artist as Glezen, Indiana”:
I’m 4 a.m. deer-piss-drenched camouflage,
the haunted woods, the doe’s brown eyes, the gun
and Tater Warner’s hardware store on Main
and Cherry, baseballs aisle five, a tent
beyond revival, organ out of tune,
“Amazing Grace” played back-pew Baptist flat,
potluck to follow. Flying red-tail high,
I’ve circled every furrowed field for life
and only seen my shadow, the willow swing
by Panther Creek, an empty gravel road,
an unchained shepherd taking the long way home.
I met a shepherd like this during one of my long runs. On a cold January day, it took us a good twenty minutes of threats and concessions before we could pass.
Although it ends less well, I’m equally drawn to “In an Indiana County Thick with Copperheads”. Had the poem been written 50 years earlier, it opens with what would be a picture of my mother (minus the meth), somewhere south of Bedford:
Tweaked out on her mother’s meth,
the twelve-year-old walks
the county roads of my childhood,
sees stars in a sky crow-feather black,
finds the pack of wild dogs, the teeth
of the mottled Lab less frightening than
her uncle and his bristle-brush whiskers.
There’s little left to do here but grow
long and mean, to meet each day
like a belly meets gravel.
In addition to the other fine poems which self-identify as set in Indiana (including: “For the Sparrows Who Lost Their Nests in the Southern Indiana Tornado” and “View of Petersburg from Bell’s Hill Strip Mine, Pike County, Indiana”), there are those which evoke the place. First read the book’s excellent and harrowing title poem, “After the Revival”, and then turn to the view from a cracked, rear view mirror in the well-timed “Love Letter Written While Speeding Past the City Limit Sign” (also entitled “Drive” at DIAGRAM). Perhaps Indiana also accounts for at least half of the setting for spiraling conceit in “The Fire Tower”.
I think Jerrell currently writes in Kentucky, but I doubt she will ever completely rid herself of Pike County, Indiana. I’ll be looking for more poems from this poet. It might be nice to see more of Jerrell and less of her personae in the future. Her sensual, religious meditations (although a bit too impersonal) are a promising turn. She chose one of these to end the book, and perhaps (following the title poem’s evocation of death) to end on a hopeful note. Likewise, hoping for more, I’ll end this review with the final poem in the book, “When the Rider is Truth”:
I am froth and lather, sent steaming
through jade fields while he sits
heavy in the saddle, beating love songs
on my flanks I’m slow to learn.
His snapped whip rings like church bells.
He prays my name. In different winds,
it rhymes with win and race. At night,
he rests against my neck and tells me
stars are born between my heartbeats,
though they’re unreachable this trip.
Still, with him I feel sure-footed
running on this soil of sand,
this miraculous green,
where every day is like no other
in its symmetry of hill and valley.
When shadows blend, I want the blinders on.
I want the spurs and speed. It’s then
I understand tight reins, the firm grip,
the bitter iron on my tongue,
the blood and sharper bit I’m driven with.
Jerrell, Carrie. 2009. After the revival. Ewell, UK: Waywiser.