Of the best books of poems published in 1985, an unusual number are first collections. It is difficult to recall a year when so many young poets made such impressive beginnings. In Saints and Strangers, Andrew Hudgins demonstrates some fruitful ways of emerging distinctively from the metrical confusion of the past decade or so, and he presents a wide array of memorable characters and situations.
In several respects, Hudgins is reminiscent of the early James Wright. His lines are most often decasyllabic; his diction is usually that of casual speech; his subjects are often more appalling than the speaker seems to think they are. The important differences between Hudgins and the early Wright are that Hudgins uses rhyme much more sparingly than Wright did, and that Hudgins avoids the predictable phrasing that sometimes weakened Wright’s poems of the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. Nevertheless, the vocal similarities are sometimes striking, as in the opening lines of “Claims”:
It’s boys who find the bodies in the woodsand mostly boys who put them there.At cowboys and Indians—a murder game—they found two naked, dead, and rotting girlscovered with leaves and brush—not even dirt.
As Wright acknowledged, this is an older voice than his; he said he was trying in those early books to write “in the mode of Robinson and Frost,” and the same might be said, with reservations, of Hudgins. He works in sentences and in lines, and draws often on the power of narrative to carry the reader forward. Yet he is also willing to launch into something like surrealism, when speakers turn some alientated perspective on everyday occurrences. Throughout the collection, Hudgins’ mature voice falters very rarely; upon reading the title section of the book, which is placed at the end, the reader knows that he is in the presence of something genuine and scarce.
The collection is divided into four sections; the divisions between them, in terms of the differences among poems, are unusually sharp for a collection whose unifying voice and style are as strong as Hudgins’. The first section consists of fifteen poems, most of them personal, in the sense that the reader does not much consider whether the speaker and the poet are separate; the second section includes among its ten poems at least seven which are spoken by characters easily distinguished from the poet; the third section blurs the distinction; and the final section consists of eight poems, all spoken by a woman remembering how it was to grow up as the daughter of a revivalist preacher, to marry twice, to come at last to being her father’s guardian. In conviction, scope of time, immediacy, and power, this sequence rivals many novels. As John Frederick Nims says in his introduction to the collection, “Here, even more than in the other poems, readers are likely to find something as close to nobility as we can hope to know amid the paradoxical strangeness of our lives.”
The tension in the first section of the book seems to arise from the conflict between the solidity and assurance of the poems, and the precarious life they seem to reveal. The speaker is often being surprised by some odd or threatening intrusion, as when he wakes up one night to hear the sound of someone sawing. “Not wood. It’s too soft for wood.” What he sees through his bedroom window is a pair of poachers butchering a doe which they have hung from the speaker’s swing set. He mentions his ignorance of how to stop them or turn them in, but it seems strange, nevertheless. In “The Choice the Driver Makes,” the speaker walks along a highway at night, aware that rain makes him nearly invisible, and that “the drunks are out.” Then:
Two lights veer off the road and aim at me.For a long moment I stand judging themalmost convinced they’ll swerve away, then leapfull-length into wet grass, wholeheartedly,and cannot tell what choice the driver makes.
Three other poems—“In the Night Garden,” “Sentimental Dangers,” and “On Sentimentality”—make direct or glancing reference to a fragile domestic situation. “In the Night Garden” seems at first to be concerned primarily with the speaker’s relationship with his garden, as he...
(The entire section is 1882 words.)