Review: The Wright Stuff

Blood Ties & Brown Liquor
Sean Hill
University of Georgia Press, 82 pages

I don’t follow poetry.  In fact, I read so little of it that I hesitate to publish this review of Sean Hill’s marvelous Blood Ties & Brown Liquor.  I am not qualified to offer up a critique of structure, cadence, or any of poetry’s numerous other essentials.  But I can say that in the ten days since I have obtained my copy of Hill’s book, I have dog-eared more pages than not. (Full disclosure: after attending Hill’s public reading as part of the Sustainable Literature Series in Rice Lake, I had the privilege of tagging along with a small group who joined him for a drink.)

The 41 poems of Blood Ties & Brown Liquor are tied together by the fictional Wright family tree.  Silas Wright (1907-1976) plays the principal role, though his prominence is brought forth so subtly that a reader could find oneself well into the book before understanding that the poems and the family are patterned around him.

Hill’s care in historical research adds richness throughout the work, as when Silas’s progenitors meet and part in the hours between dusk and dawn, each a slave on separate farms.  The narrator in “Milledgeville Aubade 1831” tells us how her parting lover’s “tin badge shines on his homespun shirt in this early light/precious as silver, his freedom, his travel pass/his way back to me.”  Tin badges—issued to indicate a slave was away from home on lawful business, such as being on loan to another farmer—remind us of the bureaucratic methods by which oppression is maintained, but also opens the possibility that love can harness bureaucracy for its own ends.

Four generations later, Silas is raised in that same Milledgeville. His brother Benny “handsome, red-brown like rust on a hoe” leaves the farm for the Great War and returns with empty pockets and “Empty promises from a brother, emptied simply/without volition.” Surely we have all emptied promises in the same fashion, and felt the sting when on the receiving end.  From Benny’s frustrated dreams to Silas’s frustrated love affair so heartbreakingly if cryptically described in “A Draft 1927,” one can easily find the points of connection between the Wright family and one’s own.

Not all lines intersect, however.  The Wright family history presents many points for which my own experience has no connection.  In 1946, one of my grandfathers was building up a farm with his 10 children in a community of other recent European immigrants. My other grandfather was living the rowdy life of an oil rig worker, leaving his wife to raise three children while he followed the latest boom.  But on July 25, 1946, one lynching in Monroe, Georgia, claimed the lives of four African Americans.  Hill forces us to consider not just the emotional impact of the crimes, but the practical implications, which I certainly never had to consider. An insurance salesman explains:

Silas, you might not be here come April.

Being alive is enough to get you killed.
Did you hear about them folks up in Monroe?
If they hang you from a tree, you’ll need a will.

Throughout Blood Ties & Brown Liquor, Hill’s language is so tightly controlled and artfully crafted that I suspect I will be puzzling out meanings for years to come.  One image only sounds an off note to me.  Aunt Flo comes to visit, and this doesn’t appear to be a metaphor for what women reading this blog will think it is.  Is it possible Hill doesn’t know that a visit from Aunt Flo is a euphemism for menstruation? Elements of “Aunt Flo and Uncle Phineas” do suggest a pre-coming-of-age, but the narrator appears to be too young to be on the verge of the physicality of womanhood.  I will probably eventually figure out that Hill does, in fact, know just what he’s doing with this metaphor.  (Any readers out there, feel free to enlighten me.)

Hill now resides in Bemidji, Minnesota.  I can only hope that this means he will return to the area for additional readings.

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3 Responses to “Review: The Wright Stuff”

  1. jessica Says:

    this is a great review. keep ’em coming. that way, i can sound smart without ever having to pick up a book again.

  2. April Says:

    Way to write an intelligent blog, G, and make the rest of us lame-os look like amateurs. (Okay, so maybe we *are* amateurs.)

    I think Anthony Bukoski is part of that Rice Lake series. Can’t wait to find out what you think of his writing!

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