Adam Houle’s first book of poetry, Stray, is a collection of personal insights set in rural North America, poetic insights that attempt to make sense of loss and solitude. In “The One Where the Girl Died in Woods Close to Home,” Houle successfully employs the image of a filament in the headlight of a snowmobile as a method of coming to grips with the death of a neighbor. Houle almost manages to use the image of light to structure the poem delicately, so as not to overwhelm it with allegorical implications.
The blizzard, my mother
says, buried her
back-trail and without
a light she could not find
her trace. That filament,
the fine hair finely split,
brought on a deeper night,
and with it the wind conspired.
The wind banked great drifts.
It rearranged the known world’s face.
A stronger poem with this sense of nameless loss is “North is Looking Up.” Here, the poet speaks of growing up near Wetmore Landing, on the shores of Lake Superior, close to Marquette, Michigan. Particularly powerful is the poet’s meditation on Superior’s dead.
I think of all the tankers sunk
in those waters so cold the bodies of sailors
fail to decompose. Down there they soak,
floating in boiler rooms, sleeping quarters.
Taconite heavy in the hulls undelivered.
One is reminded of Ariel’s song, “Full Fathom Five” in The Tempest.
The loss represented by death plays into the larger theme of solitude in Stray. It dominates the emotive success of these poems, but it also limits their capacity to appeal to a larger audience. In Stray’s opening poem, we learn how his father designed the narrator to be alone:
Once, he crafted a man,
a clown hobo I now see he fashioned
from my face, a willow pole shouldered,
nameless fish hanging from the clenched
heart of his hand. My father, solitude’s
best apprentice, mastering the world’s
first craft, apprenticed me in turn.
This sense of being alone repeats itself throughout the volume. In “Begging Home a Stray,” a poem that obviously echoes the book’s title, the speaker grows frustrated as he tries to coax a stray dog into his car to save it from the elements:
Oh, shovel-head, oh bull terrier
of our interminable nights, try
to believe there’s home yet to come
home to, a vast and verdant yard.
[. . .] Look around, damn you. I’m it.
We’re out here. I’m what you found.
The echo of home suggests that the lack of permanence belongs not just to the stray dog but to the speaker, who recounts his experiences in a book entitled Stray.
There is a way in which the solitude of these poems can become limiting. In “Confessio Inimicus,” the narrator confesses to killing a bug:
Fairy-winged brightly green thing,
I’m sorry it’s come to a thumb
rolled over you, crushing
your armor-clad organs
beneath my one-offed ridges [. . .]
One can appreciate the inner-line rhyme of “come” and “thumb” and yet recognize that lacking Donne’s wit in “The Flea,” writing about the killing of an insect can be a challenging subject. The speaker remembers rolling his digit over an inkblot upon being arrested, but he makes little of it. Instead, he imagines that having felt the imprint of his thumb: “now you know me too / you careless insect.” So the poem’s insect is left with an insight before it perishes, but its reader is not so fortunate. It is almost as if the narrator’s solitude has prevented him from reaching out to a larger audience. It is not simply the speaker who is alone; the poem itself is isolated.
Metaphors and images can add layers of meaning to poems and increase an audience’s ability to enter into the poetic discourse. One thinks of Laura Kasischke’s poem “Time” in Space in Chains, in which the speaker, suffering the loss of her dying mother, thinks about soldiers perishing during the world war, so that one person’s loss becomes loss on a much greater scale. Houle, however, seldom employs metaphor in this fashion. In “The Slow Promenade of Armadillos,” the narrator compares a group of armored animals to monks:
How ordained it starts to feel,
those mission-driven mendicants
who forage and grunt at garbage dumps.
It is an interesting metaphor, but not one that opens the poem up very far for its audience. The poem ends nicely enough:
Witness as one stretches
to climb a fence: an accordion
in the Lord’s wind, a hardback hymnal
opening, taut and self-explained.
Only the fence, not the reader, witnesses what is inside this “hardback hymnal.” The poem’s vision depends on solitude, and it remains, somehow, alone.
DOUG RUTLEDGE is the editor of Ceremony and Text in the Renaissance and the author of The Somali Diaspora: A Journey Away. His essay “Visibile Parlare: Ekphrastic Images in the Poetry of Angie Estes” was published in Ekphrasis in American Poetry: The Colonial Period to the 21st Century. His poetry and reviews have appeared in Chautauqua, River Teeth, Rattle, Asheville Poetry Review, The Journal, Third Coast, Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review, Southern Humanities Review, and Harvard Review Online.