Book Review

Organized into five breathtaking sections, Andrew Hemmert’s memoir-in-verse, Sawgrass Sky, dazzles me with its visceral coming-of-age tropes and bestial symbols. Hemmert does not hold back as he reveals the spiritual angst he endured as a child growing up in Florida—his descriptions of picturesque and at times macabre landscapes intersect with painstaking reflections on childhood. In other words, the past for Hemmert resembles a landscape rife with dejected meditations in which nostalgia holds little to no significant purpose.

In “Weather,” Hemmert depicts the Florida of his youth, with its “skinny otters dragging the bodies of washed-up gars through / mats of brittle cattails, the few reeds still standing rasping / against the wind’s tongue.” Further unease bleeds into Hemmert’s family life. In “Elegy with Salt at the Root,” Hemmert discloses how “my grandfather had called in the night crying, / hearing voices again, and this time the voices / wanted him to hurt my grandmother.” Just as despair, rendered with rhetorical grace and sophistication, permeates the descriptions and revelations throughout the book, as reader I am made to witness Hemmert’s misery and the underlying fervor needed to write such compelling poems.

Perhaps one of my favorite rhetorical aspects in the book is Hemmert’s grasp on linguistic repetition. In “Sprawl,” Hemmert illustrates urban expansion involving black bears, an image repeated throughout:

Black bears, black bears, lumbering through the suburb
at dawn with their cubs in tow, first animals
molded from mud’s shadow, black bears rolling
in the golf course bunker, digging up
the green, snoozing in playground tubes,
black bears dipping their snouts into the ribcage
of the doe that lay dead and broken
in the gutter for days before collapsing

“Sprawl” comprises a single, “sprawling” sentence built on the motif “black bears.”

In this case, repetition reinforces the dread wonder that often emerges as one grows up, demonstrating that fear itself thrives in part on being recognized without interference, just as an echo is better recognized when it repeats perpetually, like the rumble of a black bear’s growl.

Although repetition can draw too much attention to itself, Hemmert successfully hones the incantatory power of the most noticeable form of repetition, anaphora, to draw me deeper into his narratives of constant unrest. In “Coyotes,” Hemmert repeats the clause “they followed me” (as in “the coyotes followed me”) to highlight unrest. In “Coyotes,” Hemmert’s younger self fears that native coyotes will track him down regardless of where he moves to: “They followed me / to Illinois—I heard them / in the woods outside the first place / I ever lived alone, their voices / like phosphorescence spreading through / ocean waves I was suddenly so far from.” Existential fear can spawn into paranoia, a restless sense of danger always lurking behind one’s back; paranoia, then, can become its own form of trauma—seemingly insatiable and menacing as a pack of ravenous coyotes always following the odor of their only repast, in this case, Hemmert himself. Therefore, fear not only haunts Hemmert but also hounds him, like a dog’s howl echoing mercilessly throughout the night.

More to the point, the thematic impetus of fear is an incontrovertible facet of Sawgrass Sky. All the principal themes in the book are rendered in the most brilliant, profound ways when fear becomes overt. In the prose poem “Smokestacks,” Hemmert transforms the titular image into a depiction of sublime foreboding:

They shuck the sour black mussels of the coal and swallow them down. They have no hunger, so they borrow ours. Their exhaust plumes hang like a forest of crooked spines, like dented steel wind chimes. Or like seine nets swaying the waves, shedding scales and grease. They measure the depth of our starless darkness, there is an animal architecture in their steam.

Fear of growing up echoes in the grim images Hemmert crafts to describe the world around his younger self—in the case above, smokestacks. Hemmert once again employs nature imagery to personify not just the smokestack smoke, but also his ambivalence, further deepening the animalistic nature of his insecurities.

Despite the ominous overtones in Sawgrass Sky, Hemmert juxtaposes his dark subject matter with moments of hope, implying emotional salvation for his younger self. In “Spreading Board,” Hemmert describes how his younger self used to collect and kill insects, ultimately reexamining his life:

It was just an assignment, nothing
made for keeping. And just a few days
into summer, the sharp scent of decay fumed
through my bedroom. I carried
the rotting board out to the curb,
leaned it against the trash can.
Hear me out. If I could take it all back,
find the board half-buried
in the side of some sulfuric hill,
brush off the filth, slide out each steel pin
and watch the insects all come back to life,
rising again into their flight patterns
and their grass-stained music,
I would. I swear.

These moments of hope do not promise or even suggest his younger self will “move on” or has already “moved on” from his fears or unease. Instead, Hemmert’s work suggests that a change in attitude can impact one’s understanding of a situation. Framing a situation in a less negative light, therefore, changes the nature of the situation itself.

Sawgrass Sky haunts me with its morbid images of childhood wonder and terror. As a gay poet with my own fears and doubts concerning personal identity, I gravitate toward Hemmert’s stark subject matter and appreciate the level of care it must have taken to convey the book’s difficult truths. Hemmert does not sugarcoat his verse with pompous language. Such a ploy would not work, as Hemmert understands, given his concrete diction and mastery of narrative clarity. I strongly recommend Sawgrass Sky to anyone who loves emotionally and musically grounded poetry.

About the Reviewer

Jacob Butlett (he/him) is an award-winning gay author from Dubuque, Iowa, who is pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing from Southern Illinois University Carbondale. Some of his work has been published in The MacGuffin, Panoply, Cacti Fur, Lunch Ticket, Rabid Oak, and Into the Void.