Book Review: More Daring Escapes, by Steven Huff

More Daring Escapes

More Daring Escapes

First off, Steven Huff is an excellent writer all around: his proficiency in poetry and fiction is just scratching the surface of his ability.  Anyway, his 2008 book of poetry, More Daring Escapes, is full of breathtaking verse and candid insight on a world from the eyes of someone who, in the dawn of middle age, is learning a whole new understanding of the world.

This collection of poems is broken into four sections: “Without Trumpets”, “Crazy”, “Travail”, and “Alabaster”.  Each section is a resonating chamber in which a theme compounds out of the sound and light of each poem (or in the case of “Travail”, each section of the long poem)’s presentation.  That statement may be a bit oblique, but the point I am driving at is that each section builds momentum into becoming a tangible experience for the reader in regards to the subject at hand.

From the very first poem, “Second Coming in Northern Pennsylvania”, the theme of “Without Trumpets” (taken from the closing line) seems to be about trying to return to where the narrator has come from so long ago – a land from which he has been long-estranged and which is cast in the disparate haze from the contrast between memory and present reality.  He is in a place “where people may still share my genes but look/at me suspiciously over their cups,” a prodigal son returning to a place where no one remains to wait for him.  The following poem, “Dream, No Dream”, continues the theme of yearning for echoes – he describes how dreams might be the body’s attempt to answer impossible questions, interspersing the story of his relationship with his lover, her dream, his dream of her being his wife (manifested as her embodying both of his past wives), and how their relationship “wasn’t to be.”  The ending lines: “And the hara [central abdomen] answers, Where is the heart?/The head answers, There is no heart.  Life is a dream, but there is no dream.”  This postulation resonates with the theme of the section in its presentation of life as a dumbfounding dream brought to reality.  After a point, all the uncertainty in life becomes obscured in the fog, and the bizarre world becomes so much like a dream that “you don’t even know it contains the answer” to questions you don’t know how to ask.

Continuing on, “All Those Houses I Built” is a poem I want to talk about, but do not want to spoil for anyone.  Suffice to say, please check it out if you get a chance.  It continues to expound on the difference between what is envisioned as a person’s place in the world and reality, and it is a beautiful poem.  Similarly, “Remembering Tony While Awaiting My Own Biopsy Results” presents the reader with the narrator’s awareness of mortality cutting through the illusory world like a solid beam of light (although death itself is given its traditional darkness).  During this poem, he envisions death as a stop on the long train ride of life, where the departing souls venture off into the darkness still clouded with their “own vapor” of their perceptions of the world they are leaving.  The poem is haunting and another must-read.

The last poem of the first section (there are many more I won’t address here) is “The First Time I Heard Elvis”, in which Huff recounts his childhood with his rapscallion brothers first hearing “Hound Dog”.  Stuffed in a truck cab behind their father’s tractor, the “truck radio suddenly played we were nothing but/hound dogs.  Meaning everybody, I guess.”  The poem marks the dawn in the narrator of his self-understanding.  He describes his hearing the song while his dad is too far away to hear it as well as “the first I knew Dad not to/hear something.”  This moment marks a point in his life where he becomes aware of himself independent of his father.  It is a stunning moment of realization in the midst of his young, troublemaking (nearly burning down his barn, being thought of as “dangerous as smallpox”) life.  Huff intersperses the lyrics to “Hound Dog” with expert ease and closes the section with: “Eventually Billy went to jail & little Linda to college,/ like you’d expect.  If you expect things.  Like, that a/hound-dog will come when he’s called, not guessing/he’s about to get run don.  Not high class.  No sir./A song like that makes you think.”

The second section of Huff’s book is entitled “Crazy”, and it is about the state of mind someone can fall into through grief, desire, disaster, and/or simply life itself – half-blind with delusion or stunned by the harshness of reality.  In the heart-breaking poem “Pennies”, the narrator tries to finds some sense in the aftermath of losing his daughter, tracking down trails of pennies he thinks are the product of her trying to send him a message.  He asserts, “Hell, I knew crazy people make up half the earth,/and that I’d probably wandered to their side of the woods”, acknowledging that, in the face of loss, denial can send a person into delirium.  His poem “One Thing’s for Sure” captures the voice of a person who grew up alongside the television and watched as it transformed from something magical to commonplace, even obsolete, and how this perspective casts his self-image in a similar light.  “Deliverance” describes a boy crazy with desire, expanding to portray how, even after the madness settles, it has the profound ability to redirect the course of a person’s life.  “Mirrors” continues the exploration of self-image and the way our perceptions are shaped (or warped) by things we view as reflective of ourselves, even going so far as to imply that human life is dependent (in some ways) on our ability to comprehend ourselves through some sort of mirror.  The bookends of this section envelop the Huff’s theme perfectly.  “A Woman You Saw at Mt. Vernon, in 1962” is described as walking in a daze, pushing “an empty baby buggy” around as if it were a commonplace activity.  She experiences the same basic world as the tourists around her: hunger, thirst, the river, “the great father’s house”, but something is clearly off about her as well.  Huff, as he so often does, closes the poem with astonishing power: “And for a long time,//even years, you forgot about her./Until you were about her age.”  This sentiment fits in perfectly with its companion piece, “For My 19,723rd Day (My 54th Birthday)”:  Huff shatters the illusion of the birthday as a day different from any others and likens the “roaring fall of sadness” as a consequence of excessive celebration to Humphry Bogart “in his boat,/his gin bottles floating behind in the river.”  And while he’s on the subject of movies, he addresses his mortality, coming to the realization that his life is “probably on the last reel.”  It dawns on him that, even though his ambitions remain as vital as always, he is reaching an age where these “more daring escapes” will prove fruitless: “you won’t get the girl. It’s one of those movies.”  What I take from this section is that life is part sanity, part craziness, and sometimes being crazy is the only way to survive the maddening harshness of existence that can occasionally rise up and dominate a person’s world.

“Travail” is a ten-piece section building up on the theme of work – the rigors of labor, the chain that connects one job to the next, the chain of command, the chain that wraps around people stuck in a cycle of working “like a dog” for little to nothing in return.  In “My Father, Rowing” e looks back at the legacy of labor inherited from his father who eventually developed “shorted-out wires… like a phone that rings but won’t talk sense” and wonders whether he too will become a man who has worked “ten thousand nights” moving toward inescapable confusion, and whether it is all worth it.  Throughout these ten pieces, the vision of work transforms from a childhood view of awe at the mechanisms of work and machinery (“1: What’s the most wonderful machine”) to the nightmare of imprisoning repetition with the impossibility of escape, which leads to an inherent questioning of the point of such work (“10: Businessman Without a Cause”).  The chain (I’m continually using this word on purpose, as it’s a recurring theme in this section) continues, but for what?  It’s never made clear, and I think that’s the most enduring, overarching point in this section.

Transformation
Transformation

The last section is “Alabaster”, and it resounds with the theme of illusion and transformation.  These poems also carry the sound and momentum of the previous three sections, so ultimately, the theme is far broader, but regardless, each poem in this section is crafted with such a deft hand that I hardly want to give anything away.  I’ll simply discuss “A Likely Story, Actaeon” and hope fervently that you will read the rest.  In this poem, the narrator addresses Actaeon, a man who, in mythology, was turned into a stag by Artemis (often as punishment for seeing her naked) was subsequently devoured by his own hunting dogs.  Here, skeptical Steve describes Actaeon’s stag form as simply himself turned inside out, “perhaps because/you want too much”.  Huff proceeds to describe “a barber turned monkey,/and a professor of law gone muskrat.”  He states that “without warning your inner//beast asserts” itself, comically postulating that the president could transform into an anteater mid-speech.  In reality, his point is that everyone has animalistic tendencies that simply wait to rise to the surface – “throw a party and men//will be pigs.” – when humans let their guard down.  His take on the myth of Actaeon is clever, entertaining, and simultaneously poignant, as the ultimate revelation is: “It doesn’t take/a goddess to ruin you. That’s all I’m saying.”  This section seamlessly weaves together Steve’s humor and insight about his world, and the reader is transformed in the fascinating process of exploring his perspective.

In his closing poem “Bless”, Steve thanks all the people and tricks of fate that have helped him get to where he is in the world, and, after the transcendent experience of poring over his verse, the reader is inclined to chime in as well.  This book is an amazing collection of work, and is highly suggested for anyone looking for a great read.

Book: More Daring Escapes, By Steven Huff, 2008.

Steven Huff
Steven Huff

Clarity: 9
Message: 10
Thematic Cohesion: 10
Experience: 10
Poetic Balance: 10

The Verd: 9.75 Lines/10 (Must Read!)

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