The Alligator Inventions

Dan Guillory begins THE ALLIGATOR INVENTIONS with “Alligator Tooth,” a poem describing the speaker’s bayou history and how he grew up “in reptile aura,” with reverence for the beast that inhabits his poetry. Part 1 of the book describes the alligator as a time-traveling water-shaman, as the scientifically intriguing dinosaur that survived, as the spiritual alter-ego of a deceased Hopewell chieftain. The poems are packed with details from the history and landscape of bayou country.

Part 2, “Woodcock to Babson,” is a sequence of fourteen poems written as journal entries or letters from a sensitive explorer to his colleague back East. Woodcock is smitten by the lushness of his Southern surroundings, and the seemingly edenic life of the natives he encounters. Several poems describe his fascinated dealings with alligators, and they display Guillory’s talents as a naturalist. Woodcock finally realizes he has become one of the bayou’s own beasts, having once surrendered himself “to the honey and heat of the day” in a frolic with Cherokee virgins (“The Flower Maidens”). The alligatorweed, beneath which he falls asleep “each night like a corpse/ Guarded by blooms,” becomes his “emblem for a better life” (“Alligatorweed”). His final communication conveys his passion for the people, plants, and animals of the Cajun country he came to sketch and catalog.

The ten poems of parts 3 and 4 describe Cajun personalities and lore with a lyricism and poetic alchemy not matched in the former section, in which Guillory’s labor is too apparent. His great effort to describe everything in detail often renders the narrative poetry topheavy. “Bayou Boy” and “Storyville (New Orleans, 1912)” escape that weight. “Jambalaya,” an eight-page memoir about the author’s grandfather and Cajun identity, is a moving piece with the poetic intensity of well-crafted prose.