Saints and Strangers

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1882

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.

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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 watches the evening settle over it, and declares that he works the garden for what it produces. In three references to his wife, however, it is easy to see that something must be rising between them. Picking a green tomato, he thinks of slicing it the next day, frying it in batter, and sharing it with his wife; then he remembers: “But tomorrow/ is not one of the days/ she spends with me.” Clearly, though, she is in the house—“Soon, I’ll walk to the house// and sleep beside my sleeping/ wife”—but he will rise early the next morning, and go to the garden:

I’ll be here whenshe leaves for work. Her barelegs will flash like scissorsin the sun. Or maybeI will stay in bed untilshe’s gone. I love to sleepand I refuse to be the heroor the villain of my life.

“Sentimental Dangers” recalls a time when the speaker and his wife were poor, he was out of a job, and his wife brought a stray dog home from near the office where she typed. The speaker, before he realizes he must take the dog to the pound, comes to have a deeply sympathetic relationship with him:

I’d sit outside all afternoon and talkto him, to the hard knowledge in his facethat she’d leave me when I was well enoughto be left.

Finally, “On Sentimentality” recounts a departure. It begins with a discussion of the film Limelight; a scene in which a woman screams when she sees that she has been left arouses in the speaker a feeling that this is “too much, sentimental.” Yet after he has been left, and does not scream, he sees the film again:

I felt his absence sinking into herand thought, Because she isn’t realshe’ll do everything I did and do it better.She finally understands he’s gone. She screams.We’re real, we cannot do it for ourselves.

Though these are personal poems, it has to be stressed that there is no way of knowing whether they are autobiographical, nor is there any need to know that. The world portrayed in the first section of this book is real enough, and Hudgins is so skillful with variations on the dramatic monologue and the soliloquy that the reader could easily believe all these poems to be fictional. In the second and third sections of Saints and Strangers, there are poems spoken by Holofernes, John James Audubon, Sidney Lanier, and Jonathan Edwards, as well as by fictional characters, such as one of Solomon’s concubines, based on historical or biblical situations; there are also third-person narratives of episodes in the lives of such figures as Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung and Saint Francis of Assisi, or the eunuch attendant of Daniel in Babylon.

Sometimes such poems may be rather slight, having the charm mostly of an oddity discovered and shared. “Audubon Examines a Bittern” is a prime example of this kind of poem; it recounts, in straightforward language, Audubon’s experiment with a bittern delivered to his studio alive. After standing still for ninety minutes while the artist sketches it, the bird walks, at Audubon’s urging, between two books on the table; Audubon gradually moves the books closer and closer together, and the bird continues to pass between them, even when the books are only an inch apart. Afterward, Audubon reports that upon killing and dissecting the bird, he found the breast to be two and one-quarter inches wide. “Bedamned if I know what to make of that,” he says, and the poem ends.

Such resonance as poems like these may have is small, perhaps, but this whole collection reminds the reader that the world is full of welcome (and unwelcome) oddities. A more usual effect of the dramatic monologue is to give distance to emotional conclusions the poet may have reached; it is a way of treating one’s own experience without writing confessional poetry. Hudgins’s explorations of the power of love and physical attraction are extraordinarily convincing; his compassion for his characters and the assurance of his language are remarkably steady.

In “Saints and Strangers,” the sequence of eight poems which concludes the collection, compassion and assurance are incredibly secure. In a few of the poems which appear earlier in the book, one might occasionally feel jarred by an unexpectedly short line, or by a strained rhyme; such moments are rare, and they seem not to occur at all in this final section. It is spoken by a woman named Elizabeth Marie, the daughter of an itinerant revivalist preacher; in the first poem, she recalls an episode that occurred when she was barely twelve; as she was playing the piano, two drunks interrupted the service and beat up her father. The last several lines of this poem demonstrate the astonishing ease with which Hudgins can let his speaker vacillate between emotions; in this case, extended quotation is necessary:

Can you imagine what it means to bejust barely twelve, a Christian and a girl,and see your father beaten to a pulp?Neither can I, God knows, and I was therein the hot tent, beneath the mildewed cloth,breathing the August, Alabama air,and I don’t know what happened there, to me.I told this to my second husband, Jim.We were just dating then. I cried a lot.He said, Hush, dear, at least your father gota chance to turn all four of his cheeks.I laughed. I knew, right then, I was in love.But still I see that image of my father,his weight humped on his shoulders as he triedto stand, and I kept plunging through the songso I could watch my hands and not his face,which was rouged crimson with red clay and blood.

The sequence captures a few more episodes from early youth: the father’s touchingly right corrective when he finds Elizabeth Marie and her friends skinny-dipping in a baptismal font; her first menstrual period; her theft of change from the offering plate to tip waitresses in truck stops. As she grows up, she marries twice, first to a handsome young man who could sing “Amazing Grace” like Donald Duck, and then to the man referred to above. The final two poems, “Glossolalia” and “Saints and Strangers,” bring the reader to the present; the father suffers a stroke and must live with his daughter’s family. These poems, and thus the sequence as a whole, balance love, resignation to duty, and gentle humor with astonishing delicacy; the final few lines of “Saints and Strangers,” in which Elizabeth Marie explains how she must sometimes bring her father’s table graces to an end, is both heartbreaking and uplifting. It is hard to believe that so much happens in the relatively short space of three hundred lines; this sequence is one of the richest poetic narratives to have appeared in several years. Andrew Hudgins is a gifted poet, and his first book is a superb achievement.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5

Publishers Weekly. CCXXVIII, October 11, 1985, p. 62.

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