Erin Coughlin Hollowell reviews Let the Voices, poems by Kevin Goodan
Red Hen Press | 2017 | ISBN: 978-1597093095 | 64 pages
Crop-dusters, knife blades, glowering skies, dark birds, and dusty cowboy boots. Haunting and haunted, the poems of Kevin Goodan’s Let The Voices conjure violence and beauty. The collection is an unfolding description of a world that shifts and mutates, images morphing so that the mist from a dream in one poem becomes the fog of herbicide in the next. And though the speaker of these poems gives voice to the companions of his childhood, there is no sentiment; these are poems of grieving.
The collection begins with a poem that summons a place from memory, a place with both voices and silence, detail and deletion, God and the endless search for God:
Here, I find an absence of presence,
an opening out
made manifest by storm,
we who want so much
for each moment to live,
we who must enter them alone.
The we of the opening poem refers to the denizens of a trailer-court butted against fields and woods. A place on the margins. A place of swamp-coolers, dust, concrete plants, .357s. The poems that follow are often elegies for the forgotten, the violent, the damaged of that interstitial zone. The speaker of the poems names those who were left behind, like Tommy Houle who is caught with chew in his lip in third grade by the baseball coach. Like the speaker of the poem, we can barely stand to watch as the coach “ripped a plank from the backstop, / pushed Tommy to the mound / told him to grab his ankles…”
The speaker does not separate himself from these children; instead he braids himself into the narrative. He does not see himself as outside of the happenings; we see him sifting through the memories, trying to make sense of himself along with these children he ran with. One poem begins:
Who were we then
if not ill-formed hopes
of desperate parents,
dressed best we could…
… the falling away of many,
the burdens of the few
who carry on
until we too vanish,
we who were not invited
into this world.
Even so, the speaker in these poems is outside, displaced by time to return only in memory. That pull of memory weighs heavily on the speaker in these poems, a desire to accurately give voice to those left behind: “though I know there are no truths / and no returns to a field in which / memory is happening.”
In emptying “the pockets of what sustains,” the speaker finds “sharp rock, splinter, ember, twine, / fifteen-year-old photo of Jimmy / before he hung himself in his woodshed.” And though he tries to make sense of these memories, of Jimmy, of Lisa Payne, Tommy Houle, Bobby Irvine, all named and precious to him, he must in the end walk onward into the future in which he now exists:
Maybe memory is a soul’s plan to linger as it rises molecule
on molecule into the forgotten, and we, out of whom memories seep,
are finally the remnants of autumn, hollow reeds that grow matted in rain,
as I turn to tell you this, you, dead fifteen years.
The grace and lyricism of Goodan’s poetry create the space in which difficult subjects can be approached without the reader turning away. “A summer gust cuffing the poplar behind you,” or “road dust / hanging in trees, on thimbled heads of timothy rasping / before the burst” draw the reader into the bodily experience of a place where children die in house fires or are beaten by violent adults.
It is in these beautiful evocations of the natural world that the speaker finally comes to rest. The final poem in the collection begins with an eloquent description of early autumn:
In the hour of adoration
when everything is slough–
in air chalked with harvest,
alder changing color…
The speaker held in this reverie can find some peace:
as I praise the quests
and praise the bindings,
the muted endings
and let the voices,
and let the voices.
And so Goodan closes the collection in which he has not only brought forth those stories but for awhile has allowed the reader to live within them, to experience “here willow, here sudden rain” that washes away the grit and blear of time’s dust.
Header photo of autumn road by Pexels, courtesy Pixabay.