Sunday, December 30, 2007

What I'm Reading: Fire Baton

Several months ago, Davis McCombs recommended the book Fire Baton by Elizabeth Hadaway. Finally, I've had the time to sit with it for several days and soak it in.

The poems in this first book by Hadaway reach out and latch on to the reader's ear. They are formal in the best sense...a rhyme scheme and meter that are so flawless as to melt on the tongue and in the ear. At first I hardly noticed more than the ringing true rhymes that end many of the poems with an echo of Shakespeare's sonnets. The more I read, the more I paid attention, the more I saw the underlying craft and admired it.

A brief digression on paying seems to me that poetry requires a certain dedication from the reader that other types of reading might not. Again, these are mere speculations, and I certainly don't claim to be "right" in any argumentative sense. However, I do think that poetry calls for an alert and diligent reader, someone willing to read and re-read the same poem until all the subtle flavors breach the palate. It reminds me of my attempts to read philosophy in college. In any case, I find that from time to time I am not in the best frame of mind for reading poetry, and I might dismiss a book or a poem as not my taste only to return to it in a quieter frame of mind and wonder how I could have missed what it had to offer the first time.

But back to Hadaway. I was immediately drawn to her poems because she writes out of a rural, working-class background, albeit one of Appalachia rather than my more familiar Midwest. One of the first poems is in defense of the proper pronunciation of Appalachia: "All Short-a Appalachia." It opens already on the attack:

You want to ratchet this world's fury down?
Then learn to say it right. Not Appa-lay-
cha, Appa-latch-a. This means you,
you NPR announcers earnestly
enunciating all the accent marks
in Spanish or Sanskrit...

Throughout the poem, Hadaway uses as many short-a words as she can pack into the lines and reinforces her stance through a crescendo of word lists, ending with "It's short a: acid, ash, scab, smack, / catastrophe, Cassandra, slag, last, wrath." She has a way of zinging those last lines in her poems that make me pause and then re-read the whole thing to see how she got to where she ended.

A list of titles of some of the poems:
The Black Dog of the Blue Ridge
A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Car, of Dale Earnhardt at Daytona
Faculty Parking Apocalypse
Disney Ride Song of the South
Fearing the Loss of My Hounds
Magic City Mortgage Co., 1951
Fancy Gap
Richmond Breastworks

Throughout the book, we see the speakers of the poems conflicted and attempting to reconcile the knowledge gained by leading an intellectual life with what they were brought up to believe. There are issues of class, gender, and religion, all themes that resonate with me. It was definitely worth a second and third read in the right frame of mind, and I will look forward to Hadaway's future poems.

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