Book Review

Daniel M. Mendoza reviews "Bledsoe", by William WrightWilliam Wright’s long narrative poem Bledsoe is immersed in the deep Appalachian South. The opening sections trace young Durant Bledsoe’s strange encounter with a yellow king snake and his parents’ efforts to lift the resulting sickness that has rendered the boy mute and timid. Later sections of Bledsoe take Bledsoe and his mother up to a mountain den to see Vaney, a medicine woman. Wright’s ability to capture the nuance of place through a common vernacular bring to mind other writers and poets like Barry Hannah and Paul Ruffin—both of whom have been called regional writers. Here is an example of Wright’s talent in Bledsoe:

Air tanged, sibilant. Farsighted,
struck through with revelation.

Autumn’s machinations
raised the orchard’s wine-scent,

each apple a womb of cloud,
each stem a deciduous trance

this high up, where the world
became a sealed mouth.

Bledsoe and his mother’s exit from their Appalachian home is an entrance into a nature before humans. Nature, here, proves overwhelming for this pair; everything on the ridge is a bright “revelation” or “trance,” but it is too momentary, too much of a heavy glimpse for them to recover anything meaningful from it. Even Vaney cannot escape the overwhelming presence of the ridge. She is not an individual; instead she is fused with nature: a “peach pit face” and hair a primordial “froth” spilling “over / her shoulders.” The early sections of Bledsoe may remind the reader of Theodore Roethke’s “Far Field.” But Roethke’s narrator takes much from nature. By wanting to “sink down to the hips in a mossy quagmire,” he endeavors to get a meaningful reflection of infinity through the earth. Nature, however, is not as obliging in Bledsoe, and its narrator makes unique strides to remind us that the earth is in a perpetual “first Creation”; that is, a creation without humans.

The reader will find much poetic fulfillment in Bledsoe cohered by image and idea. One of the best sections of the poem, “Once, when he woke before dawn,” conveys Bledsoe’s struggle with the Appalachians’ dark presence:

Once, when he woke before dawn,
Bledsoe went to check on her,

 sat at the fireplace drawn down
to a knot of ash. No wind,

 and rain a memory, gothic underglow
in the day’s gray hand. Then a red shimmer

Wright’s ability to pack a kind of Chekhovian foreshadowing into these stanzas is admirable. Bledsoe’s want is a search for an answer to the human condition, something more than the revelations that the natural world provides. And if there is anything concrete that Bledsoe finds before the end of the narrative, it is the assurance of death for himself and his kin, not for the Appalachians who with their “gray hand[s]” encompass and mock him. Later in the section, the Appalachians overwhelm Bledsoe’s—and the reader’s—senses with the “nodal fluttering” of hummingbirds, “tremolo[ed] dogs,” under an ominous, “dark yellow” sky. The sharp language of the poem forces an intimacy that is not overwhelmingly sympathetic to the central character, as most confessional poetry is apt to be. It is instead a drive toward singularity, fusing Bledsoe and the reader.

Roethke’s influence in Bledsoe is a quaint one. The epigraph, a quote from Roethke’s “In a Dark Time,” lends an initial surface guide to Wright’s long narrative poem. Where Roethke’s speaker often found meaning and, to a certain extent, even union with nature—“I meet my shadow in the deepening shade”—the nature of Bledsoe’s Appalachia is strictly indifferent and menacing:

the days Bledsoe struggled to cultivate

the world his father began, a force
uncontainable, too wild to tame.

Robert Frost’s poems also resonate throughout many of Bledsoe’s sections. Section 27, “Spring came, winged seeds lifted to sun,” with the earth’s “deep life shimmer[ing]” is reminiscent of Frost’s “Putting in the Seed” (The Road Not Taken and Other Poems). Other sections will remind the reader of Frost’s darker poems, like “Once by the Pacific” or “Acquainted with the Night,” where the world becomes a void, absent of the symbols humans use to interpret their existence. The imagery and singularity of meaning in Bledsoe is its most admirable strength. While a lesser, imitative poet can illustrate a scene in grand fashion but lack coherence, Wright has managed to tie every image back to Bledsoe’s very human struggle. A third of the way through the poem “Harvest paradox, autumn’s pilfer” illustrates:

Ants scalded, flushed out all
divisible. Their tiny fires

swarmed, smoked. Even rot
absolved. Seeds let loose

and buoyant on the mass
of their own beginning

The earth becomes a mocking thing, demonstrating its ability to regenerate again and again. Meanwhile, Bledsoe and his family become tired; in vain agony they live within the “[p]ulp of [a] dying mountain town.”

There are particular instances when Wright runs loose with description, and instead of stirring the reader’s imagination, he becomes sophomoric. Phrases such as the “asphalt’s linear / prophecy,” and “Car engines / jeweled by distance” sound like Beat Generation musings that trip and stumble off the tongue of the narrator. One section, “His father who brought him melon candy,” is a meditation on Bledsoe’s dead father. This could have been a section that asserted a man’s final struggle against time and nature, but instead the reader sits outside the poem and observes the central character’s clichéd lament:

His father who brought
him melon candy.

Who confided. Who loved
so much the creek

Fortunately, this is the only section where the reader is taken out of the action of the poem.

In 1991, when Zulfikar Ghose wrote, “There is reality before there is poetry,” (The Art of Creating Fiction), I am sure he was honing in on those poets who have taken the form to be a haven for young men hot over the OED and women seeking therapy for their middle-class depression. But there are no vain abstractions or characters begging to be held in this long poem. Reader, there is reality in Wright’s Bledsoe.

About the Reviewer

Daniel M. Mendoza has published book reviews in Pleiades: A Journal of New Writing.