I “discovered” Sean Hill through a poem published in Poetry magazine this past April. Titled “Bemidji Blues,” it describes snow, shadow, cold and music in the city in which Hill now lives, Bemidji, MN. The craft of this poem is wonderful―particularly its shape and the way in which he repeats words (in different meanings) as end rhymes―so I went looking for other work by him.
Hill’s first – and so far only – book, Blood Ties and Brown Liquor, (University of Georgia Press, 2008) describes a totally different world, the world in which Hill grew up, the town of Milledgeville, Georgia. The craft is equally good, involving many different forms, and there are a variety of experiments. The combination of this craftiness with the serious subject of what it was to be African American in earlier generations, is powerful.
This is the only book of poetry I have read which includes a genealogical chart – of a fictitious family. Silas Wright and his forebears are a major subject of the book. However, some of Hill’s actual family are also included, such as his grandmothers and their stories.
A series of six poems titled “b. Nov. 14, 1926: Grandmother poems” appears to draw on actual remembered stories. Here is one of them:
#1: Ernest and the Plowing Bull
On the farm we growed cotton for sale and corn
greens potatoes peas sweet potatoes and okra to eat―
three milk cows a mule and chickens for eggs and meat.
I had two brothers, in 1921, ’22 and ’26 we was born.
Phineas the oldest Ernest next and I was the baby.
Lived with my mother and father, Inez and Charlie―we called
her Nin―and grandmother and grandfather, Eva and Sam. Y’all’d
liked Ma Eva. She and Nin they’d go out for the cows and bring em
up to the house so we’d have milk fresh from the teat.
Ernest had a bull. He broke him to the plow. Bull named Pete.
He would plow and Ernest could even ride him.
They’d tromp through the yard―Ernest on top―looking to get cool
walk down to the pond and wade into that green brown pool.
I find the contrast of the sonnet form, with full rhyme scheme, the diction and the homey story-telling makes a great combination. Only a few of the poems have such precise structure, but all combine skill in the form chosen with rich narrative.
One poem which is widely available on the internet, with good reason, is this short poem about Silas Wright learning to write his name. It is balanced by a poem later in the book about the widowed Silas actually fishing and remembering his wife.
Silas Wright at Age Seven 1914
Silas Wright follows a fish’s wriggle
In the shallows between reeds. He scribes the
Line in his tablet—as much pride in that line
As a man in his son. He almost giggles—
Still he goes on. The next letters come easy.
With this he’ll have more than a mark to bind.
Rambling across the page again and again
In messy rows on it flows until he
Goes a little off the page’s edge. He smiles.
He’s surprised to hear when his mouth opens—
Silas Fishing 1967
That heron yonder’s
a good fisherman―
and wait. But it ain’t
a good day for fishing―
neither of us having
no luck―just minnows
nibbling my bait.
There he goes―up and off
to another pond I suppose―
trailing those long legs, flapping
slow and steady. I cried and cried
the day Mama died. And it hurt
me deep when my wife . . . when
Devorah passed. But I didn’t
shed a tear. Been near ten years
and here they come
like the drops from
that heron’s feet.
There are many other characters in this book, vividly and gently presented. They are a delight to know. But Hill will not let the reader be too comfortable. He starts the book with a reminder of how much was not right with this world in a brief preview poem titled “Southampton County, Virginia Aubade1831,” which refers to Nat Turner’s insurrection:
Some whites don’t rise with the sun
having departed in the night,
man woman and child, leaving behind none.
The sigh of a broadax mingled
with cricket and frog song.
The mockingbird greets the morning
with many tongues.
I highly recommend this book and will watch for new work by Sean Hill.