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Living in the Resurrection, by T. Crunk (Yale Younger Poets, 1995)

Reviewed by Steve Harris


Tony Crunk's collection “Living in the Resurrection” is about the poet's very personal Odyssey: an Odyssey that is intellectual, physical, and ultimately spiritual. The poems are set largely in rural west Kentucky -- not far from the sadly lamented “Paradise” of John Prine's famous song. Coupled to this journey is the poet's own fundamentalist Baptist background, which makes for rich tensions (Christian, Mythological) and profound reconciliations. In the collection's opening poem, two brothers are burning trash in an oil barrel on Christmas morning. The scene could easily be mythic - two Greeks on a cold shore, or biblical (Jacob and Esau):
The cold reveals everything
between thick sky and the raw furrows
of last years gardens up and down the alley-
houses drawn and closed,
two dogs to a fencepost sleeping
on bare dirt, brown smoke and ash
rising from the rusted oil barrel
where my brother and I are burning the wrapping paper
behind my grandmother's shed.

However, one brother is growing older, preparing for a departure, but not without the backward glance:

And every year I look closer
into his clear unhindered face
and think we are finally growing older-
one of us
still saved by the blood of the lamb,
one still waiting for the dumb to speak.

(Christmas Morning)
        Family is important to Crunk. His identity is wrapped in a nostalgia that is not sentimental but endures because it is true in its core -- authentic in what it has to say about him and those he loves. In the poem “Souvenirs,” the reader is presented with a poignant portrait of the poet's father. In spare, stark language, Crunk captures the essence of the man, as remembered through a child's eyes:
Souvenirs
(for my father)

Through the mirror
I can see you reading
your new testament before bed,
putting it away in the dresser drawer
where you keep

the tin box of foreign coins
and the hand-tinted postcards
of Italy
you brought home from the Navy
in 1954.

We lie awake
my brother and I
listening to you on the back steps
singing
only half to yourself
a snatch of an old miner's song
that goes:

up every day
in the dawn's early light

to go down in a hole
where it's already night

to go down in a hole
where it's already night

it's already night
boys it's already night,

and through the window
I watch the fireflies
among the trees,
which,
you told us once,
were dead people lighting cigarettes.
Crunk later expands on his family portraits in a series of prose poems (“Visiting a Lost Aunt at the Jefferson Hotel, Elkton”; “Visiting the Site of One of the First Churches My Grandfather Pastored”; “Visiting My Grandmother at Oak Lawn”) that have family love at their core. He also touches on a culture assaulted by change. In the prose-poem “Prison Train,” another, now largely vanished, Appalachia is described -- one of “Coca-Cola” signs and wagons, and families waiting by their cars with radios on. It is like a sad picnic. The poet looks back at his mother, who finds the scene “pitiful”:
...So she waits in the car. Walking
up to where the crowd is gathering , I look back and
see the thin line of blue smoke rising from a cigarette she has tossed
out onto the gravel.
The train, and its last run with prisoners, signals change for a people who in many ways can only watch with the well worn fatalism of the Appalachian native:
After we find a place on the platform, everything is over fast:
The ground rumbling, getting louder. The horn blatting and the
headlight swinging around from behind the lumberyard. The giant
engine pulling the curve, wheels squalling, my father's grip
tightening on my shoulders. The passenger car stopping right in
front of us, my brother reading the old-timey lettering to me-
Kentucky State Penitentiary System. People talking loud over the
noise. Whole families standing on the platform counting the faces
in the lighted windows...

(Prison Train)
Primarily, Crunk's journey is personal, and not a cultural observation, though the details of Appalachian culture are authentic and naturally presented. His coming departure from Kentucky to Montana (another wilderness - but one without family and memory) evokes the image of both a bird and crucifixion:
I walk among them
now, in the dusting snow and moonlight
my arms stretched out-

my shadow
the cross
that will one day bare me away.

(February)
This tearing at his soul is pronounced, palpable, in “Earthly Garments”:
From here I can still make out the peafowls
stepping across the driveway-
like little death witches

- and the slow fire of rust
scorching the tin roofs of the houses of the barns
the cribs and the empty oil tanks and the silos,

returning to air
all that would endure
all that I would leave behind.

The darkness tightens.
A cricket counting
zero to one million.

A breeze lifts slightly
the bit of rag
caught on a talon of barbed wire.
Later in the poem, Crunk underscores departure with “I am leaving I / / am leaving / under the wing of night.” What awaits is a world of experience, education, speculation. Crunk sums up his journey - and return -- in “Two Reflections”:
2. Post Metaphysical Man at Home

We are what remains
sparks and shards of a lost music,

mathematical points whose only qualities
are their relations to each other.

He looks up from having written this
and sees, outside, outside, a bat

like a thin black hand
sailing above the trees

above the tears of yellow light
hung in the windows of the houses.

(Two Reflections)
The poet abandons abstractions and embraces the particular of home, not as an object or a static place, but in the more dynamic “relations.” He is home. And the following poem, “Objects of Belief,” emphasizes this, closing the circle that was begun in “Souvenirs”:
Lying awake, watching the moon heal over,
counting all that is mine, but not my own -
breath, and the shapes of my pale hands
turn in the air, and the things of my father
I still carry with me: tin box
of foreign coins, a leather hunting coat...
Crunk now seems willing to invest the local with transcendent qualities. But perhaps, even in his flight, he never felt otherwise:
White mist rising from the pond,
cows bawling in the distance
like angels moving slowly across the fields,
fireflies tapping out around them
the five laws of darkness
: desire...atomistic...return...

(Objects of Belief)
Returning from his journey, the poet is changed. He understands now that “what once was flight, was only the long struggle to surface.” In the poem “Redemption,” the various threads of Crunk's journey are pulled together. Remorse and longing join on a familiar landscape -- the landscape of family and, however blighted, community:

1.
Driving through the mining counties
Green River to Central City
light of dawn like water
shadows rising to the surface

going back for my grandmother's funeral:
in Muhlenburg
a raised welt of railroad tracks
bitter porches emptying to morning

and beneath the skewed abandoned
cross of a telephone pole
a woman with a tin scuttle

gathering coal that had fallen from the trains
dried clots of earth's blood.

(Redemption)
Crunk moves into a more heightened biblical language, recalling his grandfather's sermons on the fate of souls:
I imagine them rising above the blistering corn
above the dust of dry rows the chaff settling

and all they can see from the air
is the smallest thing: a piece of straw
caught in the planks of the barn door
a black wasp clinging to the kitchen screen.

(Redemption)
By poem's end, questions of destination, Heaven, and home are given the hopeful language of Isaiah, the probing of Job, and the furnace of Daniel:
when our souls lie waiting in their beds
our bodies
awaiting the end of baptism by earth

and we picture somewhere above us
the house we were born in
can see the hydrangeas and impatiens by the steps
a crown of gnats hovering above the four o'clocks
a red bee bowing into one of the yellow blossoms
and through an open window a lamp
curtains reaching up into the room

what peace will lift us
whispering what hope
who want only to rise to the surface
as through water

what peace when we want to return
not set out
when we want only to step up onto the windy porch
to step back through the fiery door?

(Redemption)
The poet's return to his home is chance-filled, for it is a landscape devastated by poverty and despair -- the kind of despair that would end the life of the great short story writer Breece D'J Pancake, who wrote on similar themes. However, one senses that Crunk has achieved new understandings about himself -- understandings that will hopefully aid him as he breaks the surface of a grim but loved landscape with the language of his economical, beautiful words.