by John Poch.
(WordFarm, 2019. 89 pp. $18.00)
In an era of malfeasance and corruption, it’s no surprise that poets revel in apocalyptic apprehensions or seek solace in satirical verse. Poems in these modes are more than necessary balm; they join an esteemed and lasting literary tradition of literary witness. But poems that turn toward landscape and local habitation hold equal heft, as John Poch’s fifth collection, Texases, powerfully attests. A poet of spiritual questing and canny craftsmanship, Poch is consistently recognized for his virtuosity. Two of his books were singled out for outstanding formal achievement: Two Men Fighting with a Knife (2008) won the Donald Justice Award, and Fix Quiet (2015) received the New Criterion Poetry Prize. With Texases, the poet turns his full attention to the geography and inhabitants of his home state, offering readers a lyrically rich and formally varied travelogue that seeks to capture what he described in an interview with Lone Star Literary Life as the “complexity, beauty, and difficulty” of the place.
As a resident of the state for over two decades, Poch isn’t quite the quintessential “stranger in a strange land.” On every page, Texases shows evidence of a finely tuned naturalist’s eye. Settings are captured with the stunning precision that only comes from deep immersion in outdoor space—the majestic rivers and vistas, flora and fauna—all evidence of a life deeply rooted in the landscape. Despite it all, Poch retains something of the outsider’s gaze, capturing the strangeness he observes with dense music and skeptical wit. “Imagine something lifeless as a road / even makes meat for the crooked crow,” he writes in “God in the Shape of Texas,” a tribute to the harsh beauty of the land and the riveting vernacular of biblically inflected speech: “Verily, who can resist the tiller we call sand fighter as wide / as the Second Baptist Church?” Yet Poch’s syntax does more than replicate the unique registers of a shared language; it summons an unforgettable climate: the social atmosphere of fierce independence (“the triumph of the cowboy boot is up there / with a bullet”) as well as the very real force of weather (“the purblinding aluminum desolation of the football bleachers”) that characterizes this larger-than-life state.
A powerful strand of the book brings to life the vision of Texas as viewed through the lens of media exposure and popular mythology: the Dallas Cowboy cheerleader whose eroticism is value capital, the barbeques where “a beer can cracks things back to bragging” (“Sugarland Barbecue”), or patron saint Buddy Holly, Lubbock’s contribution to the “birth of rock and roll” (“Lubbock, 1955”). Here, Poch’s approach marries wry bemusement to a documentary impulse. Though Poch’s work is deeply affectionate, grounded in genuine empathy, Texases also leaves room for civic quarrels. “Off the Grid,” for instance, acknowledges political differences, pitting a poet who likes “the outdoors for the meadowlark on the barbed wire” against a governor who “jogs just down the road / with a pistol for coyotes.” Ours is not a world where good fences make good neighbors, but one where the speaker sees “the thorn of money / obstructing nearly every ordinary path like mesquite / shoots waiting for a snag of feather, fur or flesh.” In the current moment, deep-seated divisions have a deleterious effect, disrupting the empathy on which communities thrive:
Our governor, he must think of me
what deer think of cows, compatriots of the pasture,
one group swifter, perhaps, though not a little daft below
the corn feeder, or what anyone ponders driving by
the Boston Terrier Museum, Florydada, TX.
The speaker further contemplates his vexed position as citizen and man of faith: “Yet what can I do when God votes for me? / I must love the governor, my enemy of education.” It is challenging to take the long view and resist invective—“The opposite of war is eating,” the speaker notes, “so I will now cook / my dinner on a fire, while he awaits his pricey dinner”—finding unsettling consolation in the knowledge that “both of us suffer, one perversely, / the frail imaginings of a country king.”
“Invasive Species” deftly examines hunting culture and challenged ecosystems. “Some days are better than others,” his speaker announces, narrating a recent hunting expedition, where “from a helicopter, I slaughtered / with an AR-15 a couple dozen wild pigs / for miles along a desiccated river.” To non-natives (Poch was born in Erie, Pennsylvania), this state-sanctioned practice may seem alarming, whatever havoc wild herds have wreaked on crops, homesteads, and community spaces; for the poet, it raises questions about man’s dominion over creation and the way religious belief is used to countenance cruelty:
I admit we paid a lot to get those kicks
and free beer at the cabin after, watching
the sun set. Later, someone by the fire asked
a question: What is the glory of God?
Here, as in other poems, Poch addresses ecological concerns and the coping mechanisms Americans adopt to sustain familiar lifestyles. Elsewhere, he juxtaposes the corporate language that characterizes university life with the lyric descriptions of a child who “takes her time here on the oak floor after breakfast” and “calls herself the candlelight maker,” drawing out a game to stall her father’s departure. “Playing Hello Kitty Bingo Before the Merit Committee Meeting” is one of several strong poems about fatherhood in which the poet’s tenderness toward family is a striking feature. The poet notes the way that worlds collide: “She doesn’t understand the symbolism / of a door of light minutely moving on the floor. / She doesn’t care for incentivizing service / and doesn’t grasp, like us, the sad term, research.” Playfully satirical in its intent, the poem expands beyond its ostensible subject, musing on the gift of imagination (the artist’s stock-in-trade) that the wider culture often aims to crush. Other poems in a similar vein, such as “Pegasus” and “Punctuation on the Devils River,” offer bemused reflections on the poetic vocation that add a welcome note of levity to the collection.
In the two-part “Horses and Sawhorses,” Poch opens with the twelve-line vision of an Andalusian horse, the Spanish breed whose historical utility in diplomacy and war is widely known: “Morning lifts the mist while Andalusians / whinny furiously afar their controlled / and hysterical cries.” Poch foregrounds the breed’s strength (as well as the odd contrasts of equine evolution), noting “the neck rippling… / …in a famous, furious arc,/the polished neck as formidable / as the flashing shins are fragile.” The section’s last lines underscore the horse’s martial qualities: she has eyes of lightning, her breath thunders, she “lords it over” beach or mountain, even “knocking down the stars with her hooves.” From this mare (or nightmare?), Poch turns in part two to the “rickety [plywood] sawhorses” supporting a plywood plank where a poet spreads out the pages of a book under way—both deflating reference and amusing wordplay on types of “horses.” In examining his own vocation as a maker, he recalls God’s scolding of Job, which the King James version gives as follows: “Hast thou given the horse strength? has thou clothed his neck with thunder?” If we know (or look up) the reference, the Old Testament thunder that joins Andalusian horse to God’s reproach is apparent; in humility, Poch offers, “I hold my head lightly like the reins. / How can I magnify the Ancient of Days?” (The latter phrase is the name for God used in the book of Daniel.) Here, then, the poet acknowledges the connection between the practice of his art and the practice of his faith: “My lines lie trampled like grass where / deer lie down by day. And it is night.” The Andalusian horse that Poch glimpsed on a trip to Spain becomes, finally, a means by which to acknowledge the beauty and power of Creation and of his duty as an artist of faith to place his creative work in perspective.
Throughout Texases, Poch weaves seamlessly between formal verse and free; his affection for the bonds of family and community run deep. His gratitude for the natural world’s abundant beauty is powerfully evident, particularly in the many poems that pay tribute to rivers—time’s passage, flowing and flown—suggesting the promise of further fine ecological poems. Though deeply rooted in the temporal, Texases also aspires to the transcendent, exploring love in its many forms—filial, familial, erotic. In “Crush, Texas,” one of the book’s outstanding sonnets, a nineteenth century publicity stunt engineered by railway agent William George Crush forms a metaphorical counterpoint to eros. “Why don’t you put on that antique swallow necklace / before you dress and come downstairs for breakfast?” the speaker proposes, confessing that the “thought of that pendant makes my hands nearly reckless / for balance, to become the ambidextrous / beloved who loves to lose at Os and Xs” (the poems lines appear as wings). With children asleep, there’s no better time:
………………………………………… Come down. Come here. Perplex us
with swallows, voracious with your reflexes,
…..with the crush of you in the terrible state of Texas
…..…..that like a staged train wreck (in a good way) wrecks us.
Poch’s work embodies a powerful range of moods that make him a companionable tour guide; his verse shines with clear-sightedness, beauty, charity, and grace. Ultimately, Texases showcases the work of a gifted poet whose vision is connected to the place he’s made his home, a place whose past and present offers potent insights for our time and times to come.