Oct/Nov 2003 Book Reviews

Ecstatic in the Poison: New Poems

Andrew Hudgins
Overlook (2003) 91 pages

reviewed by Kevin McGowin

After first reading the present volume, I paused to ask myself, "How am I to really review collections of poetry?" This one in particular—I'd read many of the 42 poems in Ecstatic in the Poison in various literary journals over the last few years since Hudgins's last collection, Babylon in a Jar (which I reviewed in Oyster Boy Review #10) appeared. Like most major contemporary poets, Hudgins publishes in the larger journals first—39 of the 42 poems in this volume appeared previously—and when I see that one of the poets whose work I really enjoy or admire is in the new Atlantic Monthly, Georgia Review, Hudson Review, New England Review, Paris Review or Southern Review (and others, but these are the ones at my library that regularly publish quality poems), I'll usually pick it up and read it, maybe several times, or buy the magazine or journal if it's in a store and I've got the money. Hudgins is certainly one of the ten or so poets I look for in journals and whose new work I read on a regular basis.

Usually, then, when after four or five years, one of these poets brings out the collection, I'm not especially surprised with the work itself. I review it as a whole, often noting to myself any revisions made for the volume, and the particular arrangement of the poems within the book. Which is why, with Ecstatic, I was taken aback. The selection of the poems juxtaposed in the way they are left me with a different impression, indeed. I speak only for myself, and as such use first-person here, but books of poems that themselves become a different poem beyond the proverbial sum of their parts are special successes.

And most of Andrew Hudgins's collections are. Ecstatic in the Poison, however, marks a bit of a departure, or an overall shift in focus for him. There are more rhymes, refrains, and more experiments with form in the use of line breaks. While familiar themes and devices are here—narratives, memories of childhood or the past, biblical allusions—there is also a strong sense in which the poet constantly undercuts the hypothetical reader's expectations of what an Andrew Hudgins poem is. There is, overall, less reliance on the "I", and less on the haunting and lyrical spine-tingling closures of the earlier Hudgins—by choice, as those are still here, from the very first poem in the volume ("In") from which the book derives its title. And in "Southern Literature," "Come to Harm," "Two Strangers Enter Sodom," "Beatitudes," and the vintage-Hudgins "Piss Christ," inspired by Andres Serrano's famously controversial 1987 art installation—this, for me, a true "masterpiece" of the collection, if you need one. But to return to my opening question: How to really review collections of poetry?

Be staightforward and honest. Reviewers hide behind an artifice of persona, as do of course poets, and Hudgins has always been aware of this, and often handled it ironically, as midway through "The White Horse":

Stop. I'm sorry. I was afraid.
Restart the vision.

His topical metaphors run from secular myth to history (the same thing somehow?), among the aforementioned tropes. On re-readings, the line-breaks of certain poems ("A Flag of Honeysuckle") begin to feel apt and precise in their emotive meanings, and the rhymes, while often seeming initially slightly parodic of form itself and humorous, begin to have a darker feel—I'm left shaken. As Mark Strand has said, "Dark moments seem charged with an eerie luminosity." Ray Olson, in Booklist, writes of the poems' "luminous joy" and "singing" and I see what he means, for one way in which Hudgins is so good is that he achieves these things in a less than joyous context—his themes, here more than ever before, are morality ("Wasps in August"), the question of the possibility of joy and happiness, or even serenity ("Blur"); aging ("Out"); memory and its fallibility ("Children"); and even the poet's (we'll call him Andrew Hudgins) own legacy, from the Mercurial allusions in "Arcadia" to "Cattails"to "The Poet Asserteth Nothing" to, perhaps especially, "The Aiming Mark." Though each of these poems works on many other levels than this slightly reductive litany suggests.

Ecstasy in the Poison is Andrew Hudgins as a wise, mature poet, writing with an understated power, which far exceeds his still substantial accomplishments in Babylon in a Jar and the less (for me) cohesive The Glass Hammer. It is brilliant in all both senses of the word, and also unsettling—and while many of the poems in his earlier collections, such as Saints and Strangers and The Never-Ending (which hold special places in my soul) give me shivers, the substance of the present volume, the DDT-infested beauty in these poems' shifting lurid lights, makes it, for me, Hudgins's single finest volume to date.

One more rule about reviewing books of poetry—keep it brief, succinct, unlike, maybe, my review, which ends with the reviewer admitting his own hesitation, for as the poet says in the riveting, truly great poem "Silver",

Understand, and you'll destroy
memory with meaning, even
your undreamed memory...

...Understanding is

Reading over this out-of-context quotation from the text I remember why it is I've come to so dislike reviewers' quoting from books of poetry, unlike essays, which this is not. It's still too long, when what I'm really trying to say all along is simply, This book filled me with wonder, and then with anger at my own mortality and inept denseness. And damn it, I cried—though not with sadness.

Not with sadness. This book itself is an act of absolution for the very shortcomings of the Humanity whose frailties it illustrates.


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