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Jul/Aug 2010 Reviews & Interviews

An Eddy in the Flow of Time

The Lover's Guide to Trapping
Wyatt Prunty.
Johns Hopkins University Press. 2009. 72 pp.
ISBN 978-0-8018-9279-0.

Review by Gilbert Wesley Purdy


Buy now from Amazon! Wyatt Prunty's father, Merle, a highly regarded geographer, taught at the University of Georgia, at Athens, Georgia. Wyatt grew up in the small southern town, and, during his father's Christmas and summer vacations, on a farm in Tennessee. In an interview, given to William Baer, in 2001, Prunty explains that; "My grandmother in Newbern, Tennessee, was quite literary, as were her two sisters... So pretty early on, my grandmother got me interested in a couple of poetsóJonson, and especially Sir Thomas Wyatt."

It was probably Tennessee that Wyatt watched whizzing by as he sat on the bed of a truck, just being a three year old, as recounted in the poem "1950", from The Lover's Guide to Trapping:

But where were we going?
I never remember, only
The cattle and barns, the loosely planked bridges
That rattled like drums, limbs flicking the sky,
And gravel busy under the musical wheels...

It was assuredly Athens that he wrote about in the poem "A Child's Christmas in Georgia, 1953", from the earlier volume Unarmed and Dangerous (1999):

There was one thing he knew by heart by now:
Rubella cooked, cleaned, and scolded her way
Through the house tuning the news and talking back,
Though she didn't vote, and said her baby
Died because he wouldn't come out in Georgia.

"I wrote the poem consciously," Prunty would tell Baer, "...as a rejoinder to Dylan Thomas's 'A Child's Christmas in Wales' which seemed to me a bit too wholesome and pleasant for a man who'd eventually drink himself to death... [M]y own childhood memories were much more mixed, both pleasant and not so pleasant."

Mixed as his memories may be, poetry wound through them from an early age, and those memories have wound through his poetry ever since. To Jonson, Wyatt, and his grandmother's beloved "Tennusin," was added the darling of the Southern Agrarians, John Crowe Ransom, with his frequent sighs of "alas," outdated poetic inversions, and deep genuine empathy with all the life of the region. By the time he entered the University of the South, in Sewanee, Tennessee, and studied under Allen Tate, the process of combining Ransom's empathy with the folksy rhythms of Robert Frost and the eye for character of Edwin Arlington Robinson was probably already underway.

It would be some time still before rhyme and poetic feet were thoroughly mastered and generally became irregular when present at all. In a less distracted world, Wyatt Prunty had time to learn his craft. In a world less overwhelmed by rapid social change, he had time to savor the details of his life and the antediluvian culture in which he was largely living it.

After receiving a baccalaureate in English from the University of the South, and publishing his first poems in the Sewanee Review, Prunty did a stint in the Navy, took his master's degree at Johns Hopkins and his Ph.D. at Louisiana State. This was followed by a nomadic period, not uncommon for a new Ph.D., teaching in various locations, generally small southern college towns, like Blacksburg, Virginia, where, it seems, he taught his daughter to ride a bike.

Whatever precisely his pleasant and not so pleasant fortunes amounted to before arriving back at the University of the South, in 1989, upon his arrival Wyatt Prunty was arguably a lucky man. The University and Harvard were just then coming to an amicable agreement over the details of Tennessee Williams' estate, the playwright having bequeathed the proceeds from it to the University in the body of his will and control of it to Harvard in a confused later codicil. As the new Ogden D. Carlton Chair, in the English Department, Prunty was asked to present a proposal for new programs to be funded out of the expected endowment. His main proposal became the prestigious Sewanee Writers' Conference and he became its founder and director.

Prunty had already had two volumes of poetry published by Johns Hopkins University Press, the only press to publish his poetry (with the exception of a first chapbook). They had been well received. Another, Balance as Belief, was about to appear shortly before the fall semester and would begin with the poem "Learning the Bicycle":

The older children pedal past
Stable as little gyros, spinning hard
To supper, bath, and bed, until at last
We also quit, silent and tired
Beside the darkening yard where trees
Now shadow up instead of down.

Like the vast majority of his poems, the poems in the collection would come from daily personal experience, the stories of family and neighbors. The language would be colloquial and grown more patient as has been the case with each succeeding volume.

According to the 2000 census, the town of Sewanee has just over 2,300 residents. In 1989, there could hardly have been more. Perched atop a heavily wooded mountain, the place was idyllic, largely free of the anxieties of the world around it, a wonderful place to bring up children. It is not difficult to understand why Wyatt Prunty has, to this day, rarely felt the desire to leave its environs.

The university continues (as it did in 1989) to be owned by the Southern Diocese of the Episcopal Church. Its vice chancellor and president continue to serve as mayor and city manager. The town and the university are essentially one and the same.

Upon the arrival of Mary Maples Dunn, in 1997, to consult on improving the university's flagging national image, Ms. Dunn found "few courses here in gender studies or human sexuality; the words gay and lesbian don't appear... There is no major or minor in women's studies, or in African American Studies, there is relatively (to other top-notch liberal arts institutions) little non-western material (the near absence of the mid-east is rather striking), but I would argue that these are all on the way, and that Sewanee is on the verge of considerable change in the curriculum."

At the cusp of the 21st century, the university committed itself to follow the rest of higher education, and the country, into the 1970s within 20 years. As part of Dunn's modernization of the school, the name "University of the South" was changed to "Sewanee: The University of the South" and, in order to shake off the reactionary implications of its name altogether, was referred to simply as "Sewanee University".

Ms. Dunn's commentary might also serve as a description of the environment in which Wyatt Prunty had lived most of his life. Little Sewanee had largely kept up with the technologies of the late 20th century, it had begun admitting women as fulltime students in 1969, and, presumably, it had at least set aside all overt manifestations of Jim Crow, but, in most ways, it remained a microcosm of the world that Merle Prunty probably pictured for his newborn son in 1947ó a world with continuity, free from rapid social change and the consternation that accompanies it. For all but three years in the Navy, and a few years in the big city of Baltimore, the poet has lived that life: the life of a Southern Agrarian, paced, fond of a good story and the exotic characters in the neighborhood, well educated and unlikely to make a show of the fact.

It is not a world without its "not so pleasant" memories. In the poem "Memory", from The Lover's Guide to Trapping, twelve year old Wyatt sits next to a campfire listening to a veteran of the Korean War recall a young man, "maybe twenty," trapped behind the steering wheel of a truck hit by a mortar shell. The truck catches fire:

And what they see, I hear him say,
is silhouette and pantomime,
a dance around a wheel until the gun goes off,
the young man’s sergeant walking back.

The generations tend to be punctuated by wars; the days passing in stoical reserve as communities wait for their sons to return from places they barely knew existed.

In 2006, the poet would tell the audience of the PBS News Hour that "My wife and I have watched the News Hour since its beginning, which means we've had a good long marriage." Since the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars they'd been watching the News Hour's daily honor role of fatalities whose names had been released by the military. The ritual precipitated, as he worked at the manuscript of The Lover's Guide to Trapping, as the poem "The Returning Dead":

Each night I make a drink and wait for them.
They have become the day's concluding news,
Installments from a world without anthems
Or children—unfocused eyes

A question that repeatedly rejects
My easy terms.

For all the idyllic campus of little Sewanee now hosts gender and sexuality courses, African-American and Middle Eastern studies, the wars keep coming.

With the exception of a few poems and a handful of words which would seem to reflect Prunty's month-long residency at the Rockefeller Foundation Villa, at Bellagio, Italy, in 2002, this is where the plain-style, luxuriously paced, small town poems of The Lover's Guide to Trapping come from. It is a place where the patience remains available to accommodate a house wren for an entire season:

Last year an opened window then a nest
Behind the desk so that two worked together,
Both comfortable and letting the other be—
Window raised whatever the weather,...

It is a place not so far in terms of time or geography, as might be expected, from his youth in Athens, Georgia, or from the memory of his grandmother and great aunts, in a poem like "Spencerian Hand":

But what has got them upstairs in the heat today,
Topping the landing of steep steps
That scale their rambling nineteenth-century house,
Is a book by boys going to war, sonnets,
Signed in 1861 and addressed
To Miss Parina Victoria Parks,
A girl almost sixteen, so a child really.

It is a place where a poet might hone his or her craft in relative peace—a craft delightfully preserved in these poems (as are all the Parks, the Pruntys, Wyatts, Pritchetts and Taylors, and their neighbors) by an eddy in the flow of time.

 

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