"Joe Wilkins has a big, true, highway-running American voice. When you see a new book of his, you should celebrate. Just buy it, put down the window, and let the music blow back your hair. It's nothing but alive." – Luis Alberto Urrea
It has been my luck to have in my life a great wealth of teachers, mentors, and friends who press books into hands and say, You have to read this.
From Sometimes a Great Notion to Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, from The Book of Nightmares to Beloved, many of my favorite books—those life-changing books, from which you look up and the world has irrevocably shifted—have come to me this way, and so, in gratitude, I begin here on the blog an irregular series—maybe once or twice a month, in among my writing news—titled Read This. Some of the recommendations will be original, some will come from the reviews I have written and continue to write for Orion Magazine.
“Go light and soft / with this pittance,” Chris Dombrowski whispers to a hatchling mayfly in the remarkable opening poem of Earth Again, “straight to the lord / whose commandments are writ in water.” And, stunned nearly dumb as I am by the book entire, Dombrowski’s second full-length collection, I can think of no better place to begin and so will as well invoke his small-l lord—his lord of a boy with “a king’s courage” asking “What means die?” and “Is the moon / a shining thing?”; of a “trout’s eye,” a woman’s “ornate hip-bone / tattoo,” and “the one mind of the woods”; his “one who sent us,” his “light the sculptor,” his lord of a “blue sky no one / built.” For—and there is no other way to say it—this is a holy book.
These last feverish weeks of the semester, as I read and re-read these urgent, burning poems—early in the morning with a cup of coffee; late in the evening, after my children are tucked into bed and dreaming; or in stolen moments between classes and faculty meetings, trying to force myself to feel and know and hold the day more fully—I found myself underlining and starring and scribbling down not only knee-buckling images and turns of phrase, but commandments and questions to live by. I wept reading this book. I was wrecked reading this book. I sat back and stared out the window, my heart hammering in the suddenly fragile feeling bone-house of my chest.
Consider “Comes to Worse” and “Trimmings,” two of the three long poems that anchor the unsectioned book. Both poems scrawl their way across the width of the page, numerous dropped lines and radical enjambment wrenching the reader through and into the various narratives and moments of meditation. Both poems also employ multiple perspectives: in “Comes to Worse” three different voices speak to and question, in turn, the same event, and in “Trimmings” the single speaker cannot let the situation rest, no matter if he is in his backyard listening to the thudding of windfall fruit or staring at a backwards clock in the barber’s mirror. And both of these risky, courageous poems wrestle with that most nonsensical, most horrifying, most God abandoning of events—the death of a child. In “Comes to Worse” the mother has nothing to do but pray for her son, the rebellious snowboarder and suicide: “I can only wish him / more earth, in the bluntest of terms: another stolen swig of whiskey / brief as July snow, another hard tumble on his board, another / fuck, another hummingbird.” And in “Trimmings” Dombrowski insistently interrogates his own need to wonder at and write about the sudden death of his son’s preschool playmate: “You were talking about the light? / I am. / In the blood of which—of whom?—we are washed.”
And then, as if he knows what our souls need, Dombrowski follows each of these long poems with shorter, lyrical pieces that reckon intimately with the physical world and work to purify and consecrate the sadness we have so recently passed through. For example, here, in its entirety, is “A Toast,” which follows “Trimmings”:
gone to seed
cups of shadow—
“[P]erhaps good John Keats / was wrong,” Dombrowski concludes, in one of the final poems in the book: “the world isn’t the vale / of soul-making so much as it is the river / running through the vale in which souls / can drown.” Though there are moments of levity and irony throughout Earth Again, moments when the poet simply must look away to ready himself to turn back again, to further true his gaze, Dombrowski’s ultimate vision is sepulchral and harrowing. Yet in this good, honest, knife-edge light, you will—I promise—find ways you might “bore your heels into the / earth” and “feel light / strike the bones,” ways you might let “the river / [enter your] body,” its only “route out through [your] eyes.”