A poisonous wit

Today’s poet you need to know about–though if you’re reading this, you probably do already–is Andrew Hudgins. I’ve been a big fan for a long time. I recall how I devoured The Glass Hammer when it first came out, won over by Hudgins’ wry wit in recounting his Southern childhood. I have here on my desk Ecstatic in the Poison, which is sort of his most recent full-length collection. I say “sort of” because he has also published a book of what might be called “children’s poems for adults” and a volume of new and selected works. The children’s book sort of channeled Dr. Seuss and Lemony Snickett (does anyone remember him?), and really didn’t work for me, but even that book exhibited his characteristic thumb-in-the-eye approach to the righteous and self-satisfied.

Hudgins’ style in Ecstatic is conversational, at times breezy, in a way that belies the underlying formalism. His preferred mode is the abcb quatrain, and his poems often fall somewhere between the lyric and the narrative. What’s remarkable about Hudgins is his ability and tendency to laugh not just at the world but at himself laughing at the world. “Beneath the Apple,” for example, recounts an episode when the speaker (well, OK, it’s usually pretty clear that the speaker is indeed Hudgins, as it is most of the time) slips out of a party. He is, in many senses of the phrase, quite full of himself, a sensation that ebbs as he literally empties himself (or his bladder) against the titular apple tree. He sees himself momentarily as a “woodland god,” but drops the conceit with an audible guffaw. The language seems easy, but in fact displays a deft attention to compression, rhyme, and imagery. The speaker tells how he “leaned into the teeming tree, / fumbled, and emptied myself / onto its peeling bark.” I love how the one word “fumbled” conveys so much, being, as it is, shorthand for “fumbled with my zipper,” an image that expands both spatially and temporally (I do believe the right word is worth a thousand pictures). And note, too, how he manages to suggest the word “peeing” without ever actually using it, but by including the words “teeming” and “peeling.” And of course, the rhyming of “god” with “guffawed” is a pairing that any formal poet has to appreciate.

There’s even more laughter in “Come to Harm,” (which probably is not an allusion to Sir Patrick Spens, though it’s hard to hear those words and not think of the old ballad). The speaker here remembers his reaction to his mother’s assertion that she knew, felt, the moment when her father had died. Was her conviction spooky, or funny? Or, put another way, was it tragedy, or comedy? The answer, of course, is both. The poem, too, stretches from one extreme to another, from the irreverent depiction of “Death’s hootchie-cootchie girl” to the compact “We sang. We laughed. She died. I wept.” The poem ends with the flat statement, “There will be laughter,” and here, the ambivalence depends on how one understands that laughter–is death mocking us, or is life belittling death?

Any mention of Ecstatic would be remiss without a mention of “Piss Christ,” which certainly ranks among the best ekphrastic poems I’ve ever encountered. Still, a whole essay could be devoted to that poem. So let me conclude instead where Hudgins does, with “Out” (the two poems, “In” and “Out” serve as bookends to this collection). This piece recounts an incident in which the speaker, as a boy, is lowered into a well (presumably) to retrieve a dead dog. It is classic Hudgins–the rhyming quatrains, the recollection of youth and quizzical innocence, the mixture of Southern baptist and prechristian mythology. He descends through darkness and fear, encounters the water, embraces death, and returns to the light, reborn. It is, thus, an Orpheus tale, a Lazarus tale, a Gilgamesh tale. It’s also a descent from the present into the unfathomable past, a journey that’s supported by the language: the “father” of the first line becomes “Daddy” at the point of resurrection, the point where the speaker has fully embodied his childhood self. The ending rise into luminescence (“I … rose up to my father. / Then light. Then hands. Then breath”) rivals and echoes the ending of “Piss Christ,” which is not surprising, as both poems refer to a mythology of rebirth. Is it an optimistic ending? Perhaps, though I suspect that Hudgins would ultimately laugh at himself for allowing himself to be optimistic at all.