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Recommendation: Sean Hill’s “Blood Ties and Brown Liquor”

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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—
That’s mine.

Silas Fishing 1967

That heron yonder’s
a good fisherman―
patient―will wade
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.

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Thinking about Form and Content

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I have long been of two minds – or more―about the relationship of form and content.  Which comes first?  Which, in a poem, becomes primary?  They’re linked, but how?

I’ve found an explanation worth sharing from Paul Horgan and a stunning example of how they can work in satisfying tension from Ellen Bryant Voigt.

Paul Horgan, in Approaches to Writing (rev. 1988) connects form and content organically, saying that the initial impulse (idea) can only become a finished work

if as early as possible it begins to find, in the writer’s imagination, the precisely appropriate from for its fulfillment.
Once that is glimpsed, even incompletely, the subject, the idea, is safe . . .

In other words, the planned form gives the idea (content) staying power in the writer’s mind.

In Kyrie Ellen Bryant Voigt took an unusual subject for poetry, the influenza epidemic of 1918-1919, and combined it with a tight form: a series of sonnets and near sonnets.  The structure is able to carry the confusion, fear, anxiety of the time, as well as a variety of characters and crises, and to keep them in a frame; the contrast increases their power.  I think it must have helped greatly in the composition process as well.  Here is my favorite of the sonnets:

To be brought from the bright schoolyard into the house:
to stand by her bed like an animal stunned in the pen:
against the grid of the quilt, her hand seems
stitched to the cuff of its sleeve―although he wants
most urgently the hand to stroke his head,
although he thinks he could kneel down
that it would need to travel only inches
to brush like a breath his flushed cheek,
he doesn’t stir; all his resolve,
all his resources go to watching her,
her mouth, her hair a pillow of blackened ferns―
he means to match her stillness bone for bone.
Nearby he hears the younger children cry,
and his aunts, like careless thieves, out in the kitchen.

Though there are no end rhymes, this follows the sonnet form of four quatrains of increasing intensity and a final couplet which wraps up the poem in what goes on outside of the boy: all of it painful for the him.  We never learn the boy’s name, but he will appear in other pieces, trying to cope with the changes after his mother’s death.  This is powerful work.