Ecstatic in the Poison

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 298

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.

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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

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1797

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 position of all his work, he now feels free to criticize the triviality of his girlfriend’s poem. Much later, having abandoned the mango poem, the speaker rereads the woman’s “splendid poem.” It is full of crisp sheets, not metaphors; “It loves its subject and itself,” says the speaker, who now sees the artificiality inherent in metaphor—even while he uses the mango and bed as emblems for two levels of poetic expression.

Always the writer may be conscious of the paradox of celebrating experience which he intends to reduce to words on a page. “Cattails” opens with the poet competing with a friend for the right to make poetry of a group of cattails they have seen while on a walk. In actuality he knows he has no power to command what another writes, although he has tried. The woman never wrote about the cattails; instead she wrote about his jumping into an open grave as a joke. In her poem she has called him Death, and now he sees in such naming that he is also Christ and Lazarus in his leaving the grave and even Adam in this powerful naming, while at the same time he is none of these.

Some of the poems have a strongly autobiographical feeling. “Day Job and Night Job” depicts a student who is trying to explain to his parents why he insists on studying literature instead of something potentially more profitable. He considers his dilemma as he drives from class to his job pushing a broom. He realizes that the answer to his parents’ question is simply that he is doing what he wants to do, but at the same time he knows that he is merely “another slack romantic/ chasing his heart like an unleashed dog/ chasing a pickup truck.” He knows that his literary life, like his janitorial life, is going to be filled with work.

In “Asleep with the Dog,” the speaker recognizes every writer’s desire to understand the feelings of others in his belief that he is sharing the dog’s dreams. “Grandma’s Toenails” pictures the speaker fascinated by the old woman’s ridged and misshapen toenails on feet that have been scarred, bent, and calloused by work. In his eagerness to stare at those feet, the speaker recognizes first that the nails suggest a purging of “old weaknesses” and his own desire “to violate/ my bloodline’s bartered blood-clenched soul.”

“Beneath the Apple” joins biblical reference with what seems to be personal experience as the speaker, slightly drunk, leaves a party going on inside his house to step outdoors into his garden, where he stands beneath an old apple tree and gazes back into the house at the lively activity within. He knows all the guests so well that he can imagine what they are saying to one another. Comically, both he and his dog relieve themselves against the tree and then, beneath the “unplucked fruit” he first names his faults to himself and then recognizes the uselessness of imagining that any part of the experience is his to hold. The freedom of that recognition gives him a special sense of joy as he returns to the house.

Hudgins’s previous work has been characterized by poems with a strongly narrative strain, but this volume includes several poems in an essentially lyric mode. One such is “The Lake Sings to the Sleepless Child.” The lake’s song is seductive and beautiful as it offers the child an underwater world in which, it promises, she can fly like a swallow or “hover like the dragonfly.” There the light will be green as “an emerald sun”; it will have a “plush black glow.” The lake’s song urges the child to “lean your light/ foot/ on the lily, and rise forever.” Similarly, “Snake” makes a lyric statement while incorporating imagery from the Garden of Eden. Now, however, people become the garden for the snake: “We are his tree/ of the knowledge of/ good and evil,/ which is desire,/ which is good and evil—/ desire, which/ is appetite,/ which is the snake.”

Although most of this volume’s poems are serious, several are distinctly comic. “Southern Literature” portrays the poet driving across the American South with a woman who insists on talking only about the literary success of her friend Bill, who seems to have won all possible triumphs, including the Nobel Prize (like William Faulkner, perhaps the Bill of the woman’s praise). In “The Children” the speaker imagines every poet’s children—the poems—as victims of outrageous abuse in a writer’s workshop. In “The Cadillac in the Attic” Hudgins tells the story of a landlord who discovers that his late tenant has constructed a Cadillac, bit by bit, and then died, leaving it for the landlord to wonder why he did it. The answer is clear to the poet; he did it for the sound of the words, the juxtaposition of “Cadillac” and “attic.”

As usual, Hudgins’s diction in these poems is the colloquial language of the everyday world; the Cadillac is complete with “rocker panels”; a mother refuses to use the good silver on the grounds that to do so would be too “hoity-toity.” Even the language of the more lyrical poems is essentially the middle diction of speech. At the same time, many of these poems use forms, most particularly the quatrain rhyming abcb, somewhat like ballad stanza although without its distinctive meter. That is the form of “Out,” the volume’s last poem. In it, each stanza’s last line is enjambed into the first line of the next as the speaker records how his father lowered him into the well, the smell of rot and fear, the fur of the dead dog. This steady linking through four stanzas gives particular weight to the speaker’s safe return to open air at the last line: “Then light. Then hands. Then breath.” It is the breath of clean air but, like the air of many of these poems, it is scented with mortality.

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.

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