Hudgins’s reputation as a poet has been built in part on his concern with religion, especially the kind of fundamentalist Protestant Christianity that has a strong hold in the southern United States, where Hudgins spent much of his adolescence and early adulthood. Many of his most admired poems contain what Clay Reynolds describes in Dictionary of Literary Biography as a “sense of the grotesque,” in which the reader is often shocked by horrific, morbid, or bizarre images intended to point attention to “the relationship between real behavior and religious conviction.”
In many of Hudgins’s poems, the poet steps outside accepted attitudes to biblical characters or objects of religious veneration (the figure of Christ as depicted in art, for example) and presents these objects in a fresh light. Often this is done through the eyes of a child who is contemplating them for the first time, without long years of religious training or indoctrination. In such poems, the poet stands outside the faith that he is examining. He sees it differently from its more enthusiastic and less reflective believers.
It is in this respect that “Elegy for My Father, Who Is Not Dead” reflects Hudgins’s characteristic concerns. In many other respects, the poem is not typical of his work: the imagery is neither disturbing nor violent, and the poem does not shock or make the reader reflect with a sudden twist of thought at the end. The simplicity and apparent artlessness of the poem’s language, scarcely distinguishable from prose, also mark it as different from much of Hudgins’s other work. But the poem is clearly linked to Hudgins’s favorite themes in that it presents widely different, irreconcilable points of view on matters of religion, especially relating to issues of life and death. The poem can be understood as a poem of gaps, of distances, of chasms, at a number of different levels, between different interpretations of life. There is the gap between father and son (although the speaker could also be the father’s daughter), the gap between the generations, and the wide gulf that separates faith from doubt, belief from agnosticism or atheism.
This sense of distance is established in the first two lines: “One day I’ll lift the telephone / and be told my father’s dead.” The speaker assumes that he will not be present at his father’s death; he will receive the news from someone else, perhaps a relative or hospital official, and even then not in person but via the telephone. The hint of estrangement, of separation, is clear, although the poet offers no explanation of why he is so certain that this is the way events will unfold. Nor does he offer any information about whether his father is already ill and dying; the poet may simply be imagining what will happen at some undetermined point in the future. Certainly, the speaker does not sound concerned or distressed about the prospect; the matter-of-fact, informal, somewhat detached conversational tone sets the mood of the poem as a whole. (The tone is quite different from the emotional intensity of another poem in which a son contemplates the death of his father, Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night.”)
The poem is notable as much for what it does not say as for what it does say. The nature of the father’s religious faith is approached obliquely, in terms of his basic, unquestioned assumptions, which are clearly those of the fundamentalist Christian. The father believes in the Christian doctrine of an afterlife: that those who have kept the faith in this life will be rewarded by admission to the community of the righteous in heaven, a paradise ruled by Christ, in which all pain and suffering have been banished and...
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