book Babylon in a Jar

reviewed by Wendy Dorsel Fisher

Published in Issue No. 21 ~ February, 1999

In “Stump,” the final poem of Babylon in a Jar, New Poems by Andrew Hudgins, the poet imagines cutting off his own head on the chopping block of a stump and running around his yard like the proverbial chicken, an act he renders so vividly we can almost smell the blood, see him flapping his arms and finally hear him cackle as he returns the decapitated chump to his neck.

The approachable, earthy and personal voice for which Hudgins is best known has taken over and taken off in this collection and what you hear is what you get – a sounding more painfully honest and sadly more bitter than anything that’s preceded it, but which risks more in its revelations. The poet is loosening his former grip on precision in search of something more dangerously visceral – to witness the “better, shorter life” he’s about halfway through now.

The stump is one of his strongest metaphoric tools in a number of poems here, appearing enough to beg the question, “What’s been cut off?” He tries to answer it over and over, gaining our sympathy and mirroring perfectly for us that awful truncation, the mind/body split that has dogged us since Descartes and critically undermined our humanity and stance toward this earth as our home. Hudgins seems to sense that metaphor, faith and a Dionysian return are elemental in the healing glue (as in “Goat God” – a rogue-and-randy counterpoint to Mary Oliver’s poem of the same title). But he won’t fully get behind them, yet. In all of his works, Hudgins has had an uneasy relationship to faith, the “offices” of which he fundamentally mistrusts. And here he routinely minimizes the divine gift of, and his inspired gift for, metaphor. “My flights / are merely metaphor…–lily, ice– / I cannot let them be just blue/or purple. I make them / royalty / or sorrow,” he apologizes in “Purple,” a lush poem that opens with his failure to achieve a literal ascension he’s wanted since boyhood. And though he can sniff out the benefits in a sensuous reacquaintance with the bacchanalian, he too often trusts the rational and book-learned (“Book, Book, / the goddamn book”), a choice that pisses him off and leaves him and the reader with a sense of something missing as he sips “the meticulously measured good bourbon of my middle age.”

We soar then wince as we watch him continually bump up against true miracles but then retreat from them into denial/dismissal/fear of their power. This approach/retreat is evident in such lines as “The magic / leached away, the awe / withdrew” in “Ashes” or “I couldn’t bear it. I left / …excusing myself” in a poem titled “In the Red Seats” (a poem you’ll remember when you’re sitting in the cheap seats at the next double-header at Riverfront Stadium). When Hudgins feels compelled to explain and sidestep as in the volume’s opening poem, “The Chinaberry,” we long to holler out, “But we believe you; your gifts have utterly persuaded us.” On the extraordinary day of this poem he is blessed with a vision. He sees the soul/shadow of the chinaberry in the grackles who’ve covered it, who mirror its shape as they hover in a body above it before flight. The miracle here is metaphor manifested, something you don’t see every day, something most poets would kill for, and something this poet can hardly believe has visited him after what appears to have been a long dry spell in which his attempts to force the moment have come to nothing. Yet he jarringly downplays the significance of it all in the line, “Oh, it / was just a chinaberry tree, / the birds were simply grackles,” as if to make himself and us comfortable with what he is going to tell us next, that it was

                            A miracle
made from this world and where I stood in it.
But you can’t know how long
                            I stood there watching. 
And you can’t know how desperate I’d become
           each step on the feet of my
advancing shadow,
                  how bitter and afraid I was
matching step after step with the underworld,
my ominous, indistinct and mirror image
darkening with
              extreme and antic nothings

And yet we’re apt to forgive him ego and rejections of the godhead before him because we have to admit we know exactly what he’s talking about. We, too, feel cut off and are afraid of growing bitter and antic. That upwardly mobile life in which he is a slave to order, chronicled in the prosaic title poem, is ours as well.

my life was already so ordered and driven by work
that all leisure, from rough drunk to country club swell,
looked romantic to me, romantic because it was impossible.

He hates and envies “the drunks passed out / beside their cars” near “the beer joints on Airport Boulevard” and longs to “lie down with them / on pea gravel and crushed oystershell,” to “dream their dreams—and wake to whatever you wake to / after such different sleep.”

When he wants to remove a yew in “After Muscling Through Sharp Greenery,” he struggles mightily to chop it back and oust the tenacious stump, coming face to face with his faithlessness in the process.

                            And now I own
what I desire:
             a hole,
a nothing I can fill with anything. 
But for a long
             time I will leave it empty
before I make it something and diminish it
with paper-whites,
                 the redbud’s gnarled
azaleas red as every word that Jesus uttered.

Oh, yes…there’s where we are also, standing with him over the hole he’s made, worshipping it, hesitating to fill it with any of those heralds of spring and future promise for fear of diminishing it. He hesitates out of an unconscious knowledge as deeply rooted as the yew he’s reduced to another stump – a knowing that a sacred tree, symbol of death and the underworld, has been uprooted, a deed the ancients believed brought bad luck to the doer. Under these circumstances, just about anything he chooses to fill the hole will have a rough time of it. But fill it he must. And he will eventually. For this is metaphor, this is meaning. And this is also our plight, the tough work of the spirit. His choices absolutely reflect the angst of his poetic and personal life in their symbolism – the paper-whites or narcissus with their common name’s literal connotation and their genus name’s warning against vanity, too much self-contemplation, numbness; the redbud or Judas tree, so named for Christ’s apostle who was believed to have hanged himself on it in bitter despair over his betrayal; and the azalea, symbol of ephemeral passion and fatal gifts. Hudgins knows his Bible, ancient history, mythology and symbols. He makes “hard use” of them throughout this volume, as he did in his four earlier works Saints and Strangers, After the Lost War: A Narrative, The Never-Ending: New Poems and The Glass Hammer: A Southern Childhood.

In the title poem’s final lines lie the eloquent clues to what dominates his work and gives rise to his anger at the evanescence of the meaning he treasures, to which he’s dedicated by profession.

when I think of those sleeping drunks, that distant city,
I remember how Sennacherib quieted the heart of Ashur, his bitter Assyrian god:
he obliterated Babylon. He burned it–Babylon, that great city– razed the charred buildings,
slaughtered the few remaining people, young and old,
but before he flooded the rubble, he swept up the dust of Babylon to give as presents, and he stored it in a jar.

On the mantelpiece somewhere inside him Hudgins has a jar filled with the dust of Babylon to give as gifts. In every book he’s added to it more water/blood until he has a slurry now, one that will help him eventually dispense with doubt altogether. He’s reconstituting that great city for us to re-vision it as a place we can fully live in, a place that won’t be destroyed for embracing the whore who is its symbol in Revelation, that woman dressed in scarlet and purple who holds a golden goblet of filth in her hand.

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Wendy Dorsel Fisher is a poet who lives in southern Vermont and cybercommutes for the television studios in Hollywood from a cabin high atop Turkey Mountain.