Ecstatic in the Poison

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

The opening poem of Andrew Hudgins’s Ecstatic In the Poison: New Poems, “In,” pictures a neighborhood’s children in some innocent past, racing outdoors to play ecstatically in the fog left by a truck spraying poison for mosquitoes. Their joy at playing in the mist is as real as the danger they do not recognize. “Out,” the last poem of the collection, moves in a different direction. Here the speaker recalls being lowered into a well, dropped through the frightening tunnel to retrieve the source of the well’s rot, a dead dog, which he grasps as his father raises him back into light and pure air.

In between these two, the collection crackles, sometimes with Hudgins’s comic vision—“A Joke Walks into a Bar,” or the torrid narrative of “Southern Literature” or “Day Job and Night Job” in which a student tries to reconcile his factory work with his life as an English major. Other poems in the volume look at what hurts in human life—our futile attempts to address the suffering of children, a writer’s awareness of how metaphor can fail and the writer’s painful awareness of a desire to manipulate the experiences even of those he loves. Some are essentially lyric. In “The Lake Sings to the Sleepless Child,” the lake’s song is beautiful and seductive, as it draws the child into the watery depths.

Hudgins’s poems are highly accessible, which is not to say that they are simple; indeed, like images of the ecstatic children dancing in the poison mist, they often wrestle with life’s ambiguities and conclude with tensions still, as in life, unresolved.

Review Sources

Booklist 99, no. 21 (July 1, 2003): 1858.

Library Journal 128, no. 12 (July, 2003): 86.

The New York Times Book Review 153, no. 52711 (December 28, 2003): 13.

Publishers Weekly 250, no. 29 (July 21, 2003): 189.

Ecstatic in the Poison

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 20)

In this sixth book of poetry by Andrew Hudgins, the opening and concluding poems, “In” and “Out,” serve nicely to suggest some of the volume’s motifs. “In” offers a picture of children in a past world (the 1950’s or 1960’s, perhaps) who hurry out to play in the mist laid down by the truck that rumbles through town to spray mosquitoes. In their delight at the artificial fog (a fog made beautiful by Hudgins’s language) they are oblivious to the dangers of the poisonous spray, the perils lodged in the beauty and joy of the moment. In “Out,” the speaker recalls an occasion when, as a child, he was lowered into a well to remove something which was poisoning the water—the decaying body of a neighbor’s dog, which he had to clasp to him as his father slowly cranked him out of the well’s foul cylinder and into the wholesome air. In the poems of this volume, Hudgins returns many times to an awareness of the smell of mortality which informs much of human life. At the same time, he explores characters and events from the Bible and mythology, looks at the implications of being a writer in the modern United States, develops some other voices as speakers of his poems, and now and then indulges in humor.

Hudgins’s commentaries on biblical characters and events are varied and often surprising, as when he takes on the voice of the threatening mob of townsmen of Sodom shouting their demands that Lot give them the strangers whom they have seen in his house. In “Two Strangers Enter Sodom,” they are maddened by the strangers’ ethereal beauty and, when the angels strike them blind, disgusted by their own coarseness.

In “In the Cool of the Evening,” Hudgins recalls the story of God’s pleasure in walking in Eden before Adam and Eve’s fall, just as Hudgins, or the speaker who represents him, now enjoys walking in his own garden, exercising his godlike powers to clip off the heads of dead blossoms and to trim and bind plants to suit his own tastes. In other parts of his life he may be a mere student, but here he is all-powerful, almost a Christ in his power to heal by removing sick leaves. Unlike God, of course, he is marked by his own limitations—sometimes he cannot heal; sometimes he knows his own mortality—but still he feels powerful, and as he views God in the garden he can say that he is “almost not afraid.”

In a similar mode, in “Behemoth and Leviathan,” Hudgins recalls how God, at the end of Job’s questioning about the reason for his suffering, asks Job such unanswerable questions as whether he has measured these gigantic creatures of earth and water. God’s point seems to be that God alone can measure them. Today many seem to claim a power to pen them, capture them, impale them on sophisticated fishhooks, drive them near extinction. Nevertheless, Hudgins says, they linger still at the edges of human consciousness, “chaos at the margin.”

Some of this volume’s poems make more oblique use of their biblical orientation. In “Beatitudes,” for example, Hudgins uses the familiar “blessed are . . . ” construction to invoke what at first seems to be a blessing on the destitute of the earth, such as “the Eritrean child,/ flies rooting at his eyes for moisture.” Then, shockingly, the next beatitude blesses the remote control that changes the channel and removes the disturbing image from sight. In rapid succession then, the speaker blesses the flies and their fulfillment, the newsman whose authoritative voice insists on popular attention to the outrage, the reassuring indulgences of privileged lives—food, sitcoms, beds, and jobs, the puny gesture of writing a small check, and finally he says, “Blessed is our horror.”

Another group of poems in the volume concerns the relationship of the writer to his work and to the world he lives in. “Mango” begins with a description of the experience of eating a mango. The fruit offers its pleasures and nutrition only after the skin has been broken. The poem’s second section, however, introduces a conflict between the speaker and his girlfriend, who has written a poem about making a bed. The speaker has worked and reworked the “mango” lines for months: “eleven/ to forty lines, then down to eight/ in free verse,/ blank,/ and rhymed tetrameter.” Although he has never actually seen a mango, he uses it as a metaphor for art, and from the exalted...

(The entire section is 1797 words.)