Follow Harriet on Twitter
I was thrilled to see Jeffrey McDaniel throw some love at Diane Seuss. Here’s a link to an interview I conducted with her last fall over at Critical Mass. I found out about her book visiting Poetry Daily–don’t forget to toss a few bucks in that direction, by the way, during their National Poetry Month fund drive! I do, year after year. They’re a reliable source of information about recent titles, featuring poems that have moved me to purchase a number of books.
Every once in a while though, word of mouth also works. That’s how I found out about William Billiter’s poetry debut, a National Poetry Series title (selected by Hilda Raz) just out from the University of Georgia Press. And that’s how I will bid adieu to my beloved Harriet, with a few positive words about the exceptional Stutter.
The spacing within the lines is the characteristic that gives this book both definition and texture. Though the book jacket claims the poems are “spaced to stutter” I argue that the poems are spaced to sustain the reader’s attention over subject matter, places and language that the eye would otherwise gloss over, not because they are not interesting but because we read poetry (despite the caesura, despite the line or stanza break) too quickly. I attempted to read the poems by ignoring the spaces but the spaces could not be ignored–it’s impossible to erase them mentally and the lines sometimes came across syntactically clunky without them. That’s how I determined that these spaces are not gimmick but necessity. Therefore, I surrendered to them and took my time reading in ways I had not since José García Villa’s unique comma poems.
Billiter’s canvas is a landscape with porch swings, grackles, rural roads too familiar with car accidents, and citizens with names like Uncle Ersel and Gethsemane. The town mentioned prominently is Shinbone (with a reference to taking the mail-train to Mobile, Alabama), though the imagination and knowledge of the young speaker (who spends much of his time dreaming and exploring with pals Willy, Stinky and Soup) takes him as far as Tierra del Fuego, the Red Sea, to the image of a Persian girl lifting her veil. Formative moments do happen here, significant to a young man who accesses emotion and understanding through the objects of his everyday:
I got dizzy when the sirens come,
had to sit a spell. They were bleeding pretty
badly. A finger twitched in the ditch. A man
come along and put it in a little
brown bag like it was lunch or something.
They pulled a sheet over the kid’s
head. He wasn’t moving no
more. Sunlight twinkled glass
in the road. It hurt my eyes.
The kid’s mother kept on wailing
and bleeding. Somebody shouted for something.
Wild canaries lit on the barbed wire.
They didn’t sing. I tried
to think about nothing and leaned back
in the dry weeds. A couple ants tugged at
the corpse of a June bug, drug it away.
The heartbreaking scenes are many in Stutter: poems like “D,” in which a young man makes a troubling admission to a young woman in her casket; in “Maybe Stink,” a young man, Cassandra-like, makes enigmatic pronouncements (“Widows will pin black lace into their hair,/ caesuras disguised as prayer hidden in their blouses.”); and in “Lucinda’s Hands,” about a pair of lovers suffering the strain of their labors, stuns when one says to the other:
If I unfasten your hands
from mine, Lucinda, our fingers
dried piles of pine needles, will you
rub your wrists together like two dead
sticks? Will you breathe a little light
into this bonfire begging to ignite?
Won’t you blow away the dark
ash that surrounds us?
There is no pretense in Billiter’s affinity for the working-class experience. Additionally, what’s refreshing is that his sensibility is not channeled through romantic or nostalgic notions for a rural past. This small town is inhabited by big lives and are thusly acknowledged (repeatedly) when Billiter reconstructs the marvelous shapes of this world in his poetry. From the poem “First Adultery”:
Afterwards, they lay listening to the bullfrogs
the low moan of owl near the edge of the field,
leaves of corn whispering secrets among the furrows.