This, the fourth volume of Robert Huff’s poetry, selected as the finest collection received by the Virginia Commonwealth University Series for Contemporary Poetry in the 1977 competition, is a generally strong and noteworthy contribution to American verse. In The Ventriloquist, Huff is, for the most part, searching for those persons who are or once were shapers and movers of his life: Vernon Watkins, the man who drove a Model “A” Ford with such elan; Cynthia Brookings, his black lover and godsend; sad Buster Keaton; Delmore Schwartz and his hovering, ever-present “bear”; but especially those whose lives forever touch his own—his mother and father. Other beings are here. There is, for instance, the ugly and magnificent porcupine shot by the author that drags its poor spilled entrails toward a private death, giving the poet, in the process, an eloquent, never-to-be-forgotten lesson in dignity, courage, and forbearance. There is the brahma bull, “That empty, humpbacked creature” who loves rodeos and spectators. With Sir Rod, a wizened old dog, the poet gives us an evocative animal correlative for his dying father who, like his canine friend, sleeps, “Twisting the same old painful parable.”
Huff’s verse is most strong and supple when it speaks of the wounded, the dying, and especially the dead, in poems like “The Ventriloquist,” “My Father’s Words,” “Porcupines,” and “An Old High Walk,” wherein his spirits, like those of the aged ventriloquist’s lark-resembling soul, take flight, allowing death and wounds, doubts and tears no dominion. His best writing is neither sullen nor melancholy, but rather, peacefully aware that, although life is long and troubled, there is meaning in it that a poet or a child or a dying porcupine can detect and hold dear.
The poet finds his stride when he addresses those people he really cares for, confessing past ignorance, asking for their sympathy, love, attention, and understanding. The voice he uses is an insistent, compelling one, asking the reader to take it seriously. But compelling though it may be, this voice is accessible because it is conversational—even at times colloquial (“Still it’s a job. I mean I think that old gorilla knows / why I’m high-wired and who’s leading whom”). Even an angel is addressed casually, as if it were an old friend that could help the poet sift wisdom from death’s ashes. Confessing weaknesses, the poet apparently is hard-driven to know if life has importance, and the self any permanence. So from one looming figure to another he goes in these poems, hoping to confess and gain absolution for unnamed sins, to seek and find wisdom and self-knowledge from those who, in the past or present, are best able to give the answers.
From Vernon Watkins (who “kept us all from harm”), to Cynthia Brookings who manages to make him feel “cinnamon in morning light”; to Ellwood Johnson, who shares his own world-transforming abilities; to the “J.P.” of “The Ventriloquist,” a canny magician, Huff acknowledges his spiritual mentor whose incandescent lives and wisdom help him make his hard way with less perplexity.
Fellow artists, most of whom have gone, serve as sounding boards for the poet’s musings and as silent advisers: Delmore Schwartz, William Carlos Williams, Theodore Roethke, Buster Keaton. Schwartz, whose own life turned out to be far sadder than he ever imagined, gave Huff the image of the bear; Williams bequeathed him respect for the common life: those “orchards of girls, plums, cherries, mice, / Nightcrawlers, owls, and otherwise fool cats. . . .” From Roethke, Huff learned to listen more closely to nature’s denizens and by Keaton, who called Charlie Chaplin and croaked one fateful word, “mortal,” he was tutored in the art of saying just enough and investing that “enough” with meaning. It is to these special people that the poet’s persona haltingly explains what he is, what he is up to, and what baffles him.
But the finest moments in The Ventriloquist come when Huff (as he so often does) approaches his deceased parents, addressing them cautiously with hopes that by so doing, he will be better equipped to live. In these poems about his parents, Huff is alternately a child desiring parental guidance and a mature man able to gauge what his parents did with their lives and what they left him. When portraying his mother, Huff creates a mythic figure—one who has shuffled off mere mortality and become a kind of goddess. In “Saint Patrick’s Day 1974,” for instance, the poet celebrates a mother who has become an airy presence, a “sweet ghost” hovering around the “strait water” and fouled air of Detroit and offering “an Irish mumbler” a kiss on the forehead, followed by advice: “Now take care.” He imagines she is going to him, baby bottle in hand, while he lies “swaddled in a fog banked / Little town up Puget Sound.” Because his mother aspired to float out of the hospital where she spent her last days, praying for “one pure lift,” the poet, waving his wand, gives her that “lift” and the...
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