Everywhere Becomes Home: Rick Mulkey’s

Ravenous:  New & Selected Poems

 

Review by William Wright

 

Ravenous: New & Selected Poems

Rick Mulkey

Serving House Books, 2014

Poetry

104 pages


More than a decade has passed since I was first introduced to Rick Mulkey’s work via my

undergraduate mentor, Stephen Gardner, who, when he loved a poem he read aloud in class,

became serious, passionate, and, afterward, almost delirious with joy. Each syllable was

savored; each pause of white space after the last word hit his tympanic membrane induced

in Stephen an ecstasy that made most of the class uncomfortable, even vexed: not

surprisingly, even the most dedicated of us were too self-conscious to absorb the poems

with such vulnerability, such permeability, and many tried to decipher a code embedded in

the syntax that unlocked such fever. Stephen was always ok with that. He would smile and

say, “Don’t worry about it. It’ll come.”

 

I recall that Stephen paired Mulkey’s work with Roethke’s “Moss-Gathering,” and that both

works were among the first poems the class “got,” the first that taught us the sensuousness

of language and how words matter more than themes or motifs or symbolism, how careful

manipulation of the senses catalyzed immediate empathy with the writer. Stephen believed

wholly in the suspension of meaning until the language itself was appreciated, a deep lover

of poets whose words were the poems as much as the denotations they constructed or the

resonances of their connotative qualities.

 

Years later I would include Mulkey’s work in several anthologies and am pleased that I’ve

re-encountered him with his new book, Ravenous: New & Selected Poems. These poems are

genuinely beautiful, rich with evocative imagery, and balanced delicately between sound

and sense.

 

Filled with formal experimentation, as well as established forms such as ghazals, sonnets,

and other traditional formulas, Mulkey’s Ravenous never opts for form over function.

Indeed, the diction, syntax, and lineation are inextricably woven into the meaning. Take, for

instance, the poem “Wolf Creek Lullaby,” a poem brief enough to quote in its entirety:


Summer creek and autumn creek, frozen creek with sunlight chasing

            minnows, silver shards of moon rocks in the shallows,

            creek for toad and hawk, sleeping creek and laurel rasping creek,

            boyhood waters of mist and midges, of tires and rotted rope,

 

            creek of drowning sinners and newborn saints

            apostolic creek cleansed in bone and semen, menstruating creek,

            creek of birth, of pine cone and dogwood blossom, creek of lust

            and summer storm, the lightning and north wind, creek of altars

            and carved sanctuary stone, creek of the blackened loam of home.

 

The word “creek” is repeated twelve times, but the repetition never falls to verbigeration

when read aloud; indeed, the image charges with an incantatory power and emblazons the

motif with a universality that helps create more than a lyrical notation of place; indeed,

here is a transcendence that enfolds all creeks, their myriad beauty—their uniformity

because of their multitudinous nature, conduits that inspire mystery and familiarity,

subjective memory and experiential immediacy.

 

“Bluefield Breakdown” is another favorite. In this poem, Mulkey’s narrator summons his

muses, at least those that inspire in him the music of southern Appalachia, the landscape

much of Ravenous celebrates and perhaps the medium from which Mulkey has garnered

much of his giftedness: “Where are you Clyde Moody, and you Elmer Bird, / ‘Banjo Man

from Turkey Creek,’ and you Ed Haley,/ and Dixie Lee singing in that high lonesome way?”

The poem goes on to evoke the sadness, the lonesomeness that so many of those songs

convey.

 

However, Mulkey evades the provincial: his poems transport readers through other times

and places: the Inquisition, contemporary Poland, the cliff-hedged Italian city of

Vitorchiano, and elsewhere. Nonetheless, Mulkey elucidates these places via the right words

and never flaunts cosmopolitanism or the flat and eroded language of been-there-done-that

ennui. These poems instead revel in how the world’s beauty can be witnessed outside of the

geographical boundaries we know as home. Indeed, in Ravenous, everywhere becomes home:

these poems are painstakingly crafted, effulgent, and (it warrants repeating) genuinely

beautiful. Thus, the poems become not unlike open doors through which we are invited into

new slants of light, new landscapes and circumstances some hidden part of us knows and

that these poems unlock and provide completely, as the best poems do.

 

Mulkey has a powerful gift for the elegiac, as in the beautiful “Feral,” a piece that

recognizes the immutability of change, when time moves so fast that the seasons blur into

suggestions of the pulses of our lives. Mulkey’s speaker acknowledges how “things grow too

quickly here,” how florid azaleas are as much effrontery, “grief’s wild and surprising

abundance,” as they are striking symbols of growth.

 

Too, these poems are deeply honest—many confessional and personal, and in “American

Love: Archaeological Style,” in which the narrator acknowledges the complex layers of

marriage via a beautiful conceit that imagines the present as prehistoric: all the ephemera

of our contemporary moment, the “tires, tents, candies, and chips” are categorized for what

they are—but also their transience is made tragic without farce: the speaker hopes that

someday something will come of him and those he loves that say something more than

indications of habits.

 

The conclusion of “Insomnia” reflects Mulkey’s radiant intelligence, the hunger and satiety

his poems induce, and his ability to balance words to create delicacy and heft, rush and

pause:

 

                                    The night is a lie whispered

                        in our ears, the breath perfumed

                                    with the scent of fresh peaches

                        and only a hint of hurt in the hard, bitter pit,

                                    a dark bruise rooted in light.

 

Like the dichotomies compressed into the harmony of this stanza, Ravenous is a book of

full-eyed, unflinching truths, but these poems are obviously whetted with passion, not

merely pretty transcriptions or records of segmented experience.

 


William Wright is author of four full-length collections of poems, including Tree

Heresies (Mercer University Press, 2015) and Night Field Anecdote (Louisiana Literature,

2011). Editor of the multi-volume The Southern Poetry Anthology, Wright serves as

assistant editor for Shenandoah as well as founding editor for Town Creek Poetry. Wright is

currently co-editing a poetry anthology and a group of academic essays that explore the

influence of Gerard Manley Hopkins on contemporary writers. His essays and creative

writing have recently appeared in Oxford American, Southern Poetry Review, AGNI, The

Kenyon Review, and many other journals.

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