by Kevin Goodan
64 pages, Red Hen Press, April 2016
Review by Sean Thomas Dougherty
There is a chorus that resides in the natural world, and in the brutal edges of rural life, that Kevin Goodan has been narrating since his first book, In the Ghost-House Acquainted. Goodan’s three previous books all have a stark rural beauty in them, as well as a voice that closely examines the living, and offers an earnest respect for the dead, who often are mentioned as if written down in the book for days, and kept holy and forgiven in memory.
And memory again is what drives his new collection, this gathering from the past of the missing and the maimed. In Let the Voices—the incomplete fragment of the title pleads an unstated affirmation for those who would not be given voice. Let them speak, he says, and speak they do these people (and here I want to say they are people, not simply characters, those who lived and struggled with the author in his youth). And here we find them, the lost ones and the survivors: Doug Bell who drowned, “Bobby Irving who drank himself to death in the eighth grade” and Tommy Houle who mouthed off and was beaten with a board. This is a brutal book, brutal and often hauntingly beautiful, as it negotiates the space between memory and loss, living and dying, earth and the huge western sky stretching over the poverty of the plains.
At its core, Let the Voices is perhaps a book of elegies. The dead haunt almost every page. The suicides, the slow suicides by drinking and drugs, the boy who drowned, the brutal behavior of boys and men. But in between the violence and anger, these poems find the natural world: the sun a certain shade, the far-off silos, the fallowed fields. The poems rise and are set in Goodan’s childhood home, a trailer park on the Flathead Indian Reservation in western Montana. The book is full of lost men, women, and so many children, searching for a kind of salvation, and asking themselves what is their role if they survive, for “those of us just shy of good, who /do we speak for now?” (“Warbler at any window”) Goodan crafts a vocabulary steeped in, as Williams says, “the things of the world.” Dead, cleft, feral, whiskey-stained, smiles are gap-toothed, lemons are crushed. This is a language of mostly small Anglo Saxon based words, hard words of things and the physical, and if there is more, a kind of implied—dare we say, holiness—it is hidden in the world of touch, smell, sweat, work, blood, light. His language is unflinchingly spare, full of monosyllabic nouns in the manner of Philip Levine. But whereas Levine was decidedly urban, Goodan is in so many ways a poet of the natural world and the often violent and beautiful landscape of the high plains: starlings, snow, rabbits, voles in tunnels, brittle weeds, all populate these poems as much for themselves as well as for a kind of deep organic symbiology. The small and fragile living things, like the people who populate these poems, surviving despite the evidence.
And that is what really drives this book. There is a grief woven throughout these poems, but there is also a sense of religiosity and the holy, and in this, as well as in the compressed narrative form, Gooden reminds me also of Jack Gilbert. While reading Let the Voices, I was often pulled back to read Gilbert’s The Great Fires, for the similar tone of holy survival, grief, and at times, a hard earned and completely unsentimental sense of joy. Often this sense of loss and joy occurs in the same poem, the same small scene. But more often it is the sense of a shared survival among the named ones who live on the reservation that truly brings a sense of collective-going-on. And if it is not joy, it is a knowing that joy might be possible somewhere down the road, season, the next horizon. And sometimes it is just the hope that one will be there to wake the next day. Take, for example, this small scene in the poem “The first green blades of grass appeared”:
The morning Karen Pokachar cried out
for her mother dead the Friday before—
Pokachar, who ran faster than any boy,
who wore a folding knife on her hip,
who knew times tables before anyone else,
who sang the highest notes in Honor Choir—
each of us awkwardly bowed our heads,
even Oliverson who laughed everything
through his cleft palate,
praying for our own mothers to never leave
as Pokachar was led quietly
by Mrs. McAllister, out of the fourth grade,
down the hall, out of youth,
into this small memory
And out of these small memories, these poems, there rises something great and holy. A kind of martyrology emerges, one that Goodan cannot let go of despite the decades that follow; despite his leaving, his many jobs, they are always there, with him, the dead. And perhaps this is what and for whom and why he writes this way. To make a space for the dead in the voice of the living. He writes, “I think of graves.” He writes,
I think of how much they’ve moved
with me in migration from town to farm
across the Atlantic and back,
the bleary headstones, the grudgingly
manicured grass, steadily accumulating
until every direction I look
is graveyard, where even the unknown appear
and take up residence:
the dead of others who no longer have
anyone to remember
This is Goodan’s job, he says. Perhaps this is every poet’s job who has survived—which is to say, every human who has survived. To remember and map the wreckage, these lists of those who were left behind. And if there are many levels of hell and salvation, joy and fear in this book, perhaps the greatest sense of loss is for those who no longer have anyone to speak for them. Goodan speaks for “Joe Grady, not dead, but small,” for Bobby, for “Bucky McCallister shitting himself,” for the “heave and freeze of February’s land.” He holds them in the breath of his words and keeps them living, despite the evidence.
Sean Thomas Dougherty is the author of 15 books including the forthcoming The Second O of Sorrow (2018 BOA Editions), On the One Tongue of the Wind the Orishas Rise (2016 GTK Press) and All You Ask for is Longing: Poems 1994-2014 (Boa Editions). His awards include the 2015 Betsy Colquitt Poetry Prize from Texas Christian University’s Descant Magazine, and an appearance in Best American Poetry 2014. He lives in Erie Pennsylvania, works at Gold Crown Billiards, tours, hustles, and writes poems about stuff that happens in his city between the lake and our wrecked and gloriously ruined and beautiful American lives.