Michael Dowdy’s Urbilly

This week, I’ve been reading Michael Dowdy’s amazing debut collection, Urbilly, the winner of the 2017 Main Street Rag Poetry Book Award.  This is a great collection of poems that all work together to voice something really meaningful that is in some ways about modern Appalachia and its people. But it’s also about a great deal more.

cvrurbilly_postcard

Through the pages, the idea of the “urbilly” becomes so vivid. I would attempt to explain, myself, what an urbilly is, but I think Dowdy does that best on his website:

“Urbilly?  Think antic field guide to parts (un)known & exploited. Mountain / megacity mashups, rural / urban hullabaloo, New River / Gowanus cocktails. Backwoods & Brooklyn. Mountaintop removal & Edison bulbs, landfill & farm-to-table, Muriel Rukeyser & Big Daddy Kane, James Still & girders of steel. Think Urbilly as the anti-Hillbilly Elegy.”

When I was an editor at drafthorse a few years ago, we had the pleasure to publish a few of Dowdy’s poems that are included in Urbilly. Click on “drafthorse” to read a group of the poems, but here’s one of my favorites.

The Out-Migrant’s Family Tree, as Seen through Binoculars

Smudged along the lower ridge
a copse of knobby hardwoods

withers in coils of cold wind.
Squint past the blind curve scribbled

in cut banks of brush, just there,
where fog-coated sycamores

unfurl scrolls of icy bark,
where taillights trickle beyond

Oblivion, Virginia,
where calm haunts the revenant.

Laurel hells strangle hearth and flue.
Even springs zigzag uphill.

No good here my wistful words.
Those provenance jackets veil

a sparrow chest and stuffed gut.
Here, where decades stretch threadbare,

my grave dark eyes, sockets deep
as karst caves, skitter and rest.

A tongue rhododendron tied
slips loose; restless legs snap to.

My sneakers swoosh in hoarfrost,
scything kin from the harvest

of time, stutterers who hauled
fieldstone, sunk wells, and raised beams

right about there. You have to
cock your head just so, just there,

where clouds lung the mountains’ ribs.
Where trunks bend and crack the last

inky leaves bear down, hold outs
against the thieving north winds.

 

 

 

 

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Lynne Sharon Schwartz’s No Way Out But Through

One of the great pleasures of my graduate studies was the opportunity to work with Lynne Sharon Schwartz. She was a tough reader and a firm critic—not ungenerous at all—but she was not the kind of person who suffered fools or foolish writing. She was one of the best mentors I could have asked for.

LSS and Denton

I learned a lot by working with Lynne Sharon Schwartz, but I have probably learned almost as much from reading her work. I read her novel, The Writing on the Wall, after my first semester with her. Later, I read her memoir, Ruined by Reading: A Life in Books. I loved it so much that I bought copies for many of my friends who were writers, knowing they too would see the beauty she describes in her life-long relationship with reading. It wasn’t until after I finished my graduate work that I also realized this excellent prose writer was also a skilled poet.

nowayoutbutthrough

I have loved everything by Lynne Sharon Schwartz that I’ve ever read, and her latest collection of poetry, No Way Out But Through, is no exception. So many of these poems are elegies—elegies for her parents, her sister, her youth, even for the Brooklyn where she grew up but that’s gone now, forever changed. Even in the poems examining death and the loss of her closest friends and family, there’s something beautiful, almost hopeful, in the way Schwartz shows how we remain connected to those who have passed. But among these poems of loss, there is also great humor. Schwartz has a brilliant eye for seeing what’s askew, and even when she’s deadpan in her delivery, the note is always just right.

Here is a poem from the collection, “Forgetting,” which originally appeared in Narrative. You can view the original publication here: http://www.narrativemagazine.com/issues/poems-week-2014-2015/poem-week/forgetting-lynne-sharon-schwartz.

Forgetting

Absence rarely makes the heart grow
fonder, or so my mother said, popping
a blackberry into her mouth—
we’d raided the patch at the far edge
of the woods. Absence, she said,
begets forgetting. And while you mightn’t
so swiftly forget a blackberry’s taste
or a thorn’s prick, or a cloud’s sheep shape
skimming low like a darning needle
over a lake, how fast the lineaments of face
or voice or touch vanish, like that!
She snapped her fingers,
bolted down the berry.

Rachel Hadas reviewed No Way Out But Through for the Los Angeles Review of Books, describing Schwartz’s poetry like this: “She’s an archivist of memories, a celebrant for the forgotten or nearly forgotten, who also writes eloquently of the undertow of oblivion. She’s an anthologist of anxiety dreams. Irritated by Cordelia and partial to the Fisherman’s Wife, she’s a contrarian reader. At all times, Schwartz’s poetic voice is piercingly honest. Her tough-minded intelligence leaves plenty of room for questions and regrets.” You can read the entire review here: https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/times-technique-on-lynne-sharon-schwartzs-no-way-out-but-through/#.

As I mentioned, Schwartz has an excellent sense of humor. One of the many poems where that comes out is in this poem about sex.

What the Poets Never Write about Love

The actual words murmured: not
Ah, your silken thighs, your breasts
like tender hills, but, Shit,
my zipper’s stuck. My arm
is getting numb, please move. Wait,
I’ll do the sleeve, and no, it hooks
in front not back. Hold on a sec,
I have a hair in my mouth, and move your ass,
I can’t breathe this way. Remember,
I asked you once before to cut your fingernails?
Not to rush you or anything but
I can’t stay in this fucking position another minute.

This act they say displays our animal nature
yet we’re not, after all, like animals in love,
who finish, pant, grunt, saunter off.
They do not lie together after, or kiss,
laughing at their words of love, awkward
intimacies of bodies getting in their own way
on the tumbling, humbling path to bliss.

The voice of each poem is so strong, and Schwartz’s characteristic wit constantly shines through. I look forward to coming back to these poems again and again. I’ve enjoyed them as a reader. I’m learning from them as a writer. And I’m excited to think about Schwartz will write next.