In Places I Was Dreaming, Loren Graham’s speaker goes back home: to Oklahoma, to his family’s tumbledown tenant farm—cow paths, grade school, trips into town. From the stories and sayings of his relatives to denigrations on the school bus, to a consciousness of his own “heavy twang,” he’s saddled with words’ “eccentric gravity / [he] could feel but not account for." This collection, Graham’s third, is a kind of “account.”
This “gravity” deepens meaning but is also, of course, a curse. To measure it, Graham makes impressive use not only of narrative but also of “country grammar” (to quote the rapper Nelly) and form. Thus, in the first poem, “The House,” the speaker’s “two-story wreck set back from the road” is a “crookedy tower.” More than kid-speak, “crookedy” is country, how his people said “crooked.” Graham manages to capture some of the aptness and beauty of these expressions without apologizing for them or being hokey.
Maybe the book’s most crushing note of country grammar comes in the form of dialogue at the end of the masterful poem “Commodities.” In the food handout line at the courthouse, everyone is “rigid and silent.”
Form is subtly evident from the first poem. Free verse triplets in "The House" narrow to a point:
One of my only complaints about the book is that not all the poems end as strongly as this one does, honing the disparagement and decay to the point of “home,” “homing” in on acceptance of where Graham’s speaker came from.
Along with sneaky rhyme schemes and blank verse, a salient formal technique found here is polyvocalization. Strophe and antistrophe alternate between columns, indented lines, and/or italics. Though they don’t always do it for me, these poems simulate the throng of family voices the speaker grew up crowded among. From "The First Thing I Remember":
Here, the dominant triple meter and hemistichic echo creepily complement a dark beginning. There is not a longing to return to this home infested with rats. The book is not nostalgic. It was enough for the speaker to be the oddball among relatives, at once mocked and freighted with expectations for his book-learnin’. From "The Time I Didn't Drown":
But off the farm, there were bigger forces at work. From "Country Boy":
As an outsider and other, Graham’s speaker, ever measuring, could never doubt the “heft” of speech nor take for granted that “equal” was “equal” when some “counted” and some didn’t (“Don’t Three Halves Make One-and-a-Half, Ma’am?”).
The shame of his “treacherous mouth” before teachers culminates in the cutting poem “Third Grade, Two Licks, First Day.” As in “Commodities,” we see what seems like an indelibly graven memory rendered as a spare narrative, this one, amazingly, in rhyme royal:
Still, the speaker harmonizes deeply with his people and place—they are, after all, to whom and where the poet was born. The Romantic result is, of course, insight. In harvesting the “purpley stalks” of wild pokeweed to substitute for spinach ("Picking Poke"), he loosely rhymes, in couplets, with the land, becoming
In "Small Child Walking on Great Aunts and Uncles," even the laps of relatives become a native landscape he “trod on” as a small boy:
But why return? Why take us back there? The beauty of the book is that the speaker’s doing this for himself and not for us, that the writing of these poems brings its own reward, a self-redemption quite apart from our approval—as if he were gathering honey from the bees that infested the little farmhouse’s walls. In “The Day of the Swarm,” the bee man
At his best, Graham, too, finds “the measure of a life,” homing in. And the result is sweet. Not sentimental, saccharine sweet, but sweet like they said it back in Old England: a dearness, good because the speaker’s life was good, his parents were good, “despite” being stuck, despite what they suffered and didn’t have.
But contained, too, in this “sweet despite,” in the archaic sense of the noun, is the outrage and injury of being “despised,” looked down upon. As Dickinson knew, “To comprehend a nectar / Requires sorest need.”
Places I Was Dreaming. By Loren Graham. CavanKerry Press, 2015.