January 20, 2010

Review by Sean Patrick ConlonA Guest in All Your Houses by Peter Ludwin

A GUEST IN ALL YOUR HOUSES
by Peter Ludwin

Word Walker Press
1125 1/2 E. California Ave.
Glendale, California 91206
ISBN 0578003902
2009, 102 pp., $13.95
www.wordwalkerpress.com

A Guest in All Your Houses is the first full-length book of poems from Peter Ludwin, and, like many first releases, contains promising work but is troubled by inconsistency. When I started to read, I was happily taken in by the first few poems, specifically “Notes from a Sodbuster’s Wife, Kansas, 1868.” In just the first stanza, Ludwin exhibits a stark empathy with his subject:

What really got us in the end—
we women who didn’t make it,
who withered and blew away in the open—
was the wind. Space, yes, and distance,
too, from neighbors, a piano back in Boston.
But above all, the wind.

Free from pretension and extraneous phrase, the first lines exhibit the aspect of Ludwin’s muse that I find most compelling. The poem in its entirety contains a lot of visual elements we will see again and again in the book: the stark desert landscapes of America, a struggle against and admiration for nature, and a kind of wistful approach to the old west. The next poem, “Bluestem,” a naturalist piece loosely centered on prairie grass in Kansas, continues with with tight and focused verse, this time mixing in a refreshing hilarity, as in this piece from the third stanza:

like lives caught up in a twister.
Shaken, you stumble over debris
brushing pigs and Protestants
from your hair

If the book were to continue to operate at the first few pages’ level of excellence, this collection would have been staggering in its scope. Unfortunately, the poetry lapses into weaker material for much of the book. While most poetry suffers in the absence of personal immediacy, Ludwin appears at his weakest when he is most clearly emotionally involved with the narrative. When writing pieces which he dedicates to his living friends, specifically “At the Grubstake Saloon…,” “Sounds,” and “Incoming,” Ludwin’s narrative feels guarded somehow, perhaps because he is certain it will be read by his subjects. Unable to confront these figures with complete honesty, the poems skim the surface and fail to depict them realistically; they lack the intelligent emotional resonance of poems like “Among the Fundamentalists at Short Creek.”

Similarly, Ludwin’s love of the Southwest and Native American history often takes the form of what is best referred to as “poems that sound like poems.” The weakest points in the book are riddled with exoticism; leaden totemic animals stride across a starry desert evening where sage and juniper abound, saying little about the landscape and much about the author, who in these poems registers a hint of the privilege he clearly despises (see the clichéd send-up “Fry Bread”).

Were this a fourth or fifth collection, I would be writing a very different review, but bearing in mind that this is his first collection, there is nothing fatal about the flaws in Ludwin’s book. They do not speak of an author with nothing to say so much as an author who is hesitant to say, or not used to saying. At his finest, Ludwin clearly possesses “the eye”—that is to say, he sees what makes good poetry and understands how to relay it gracefully. The tendency to display a sort of lame sentimentality when he is aware of his audience is something that will fade, given time and support. In short, I recommend the author more than I do the book. Though this collection does not drown under the weight of its weaker poems, it does sink a little. If we can expect that Ludwin will continue in his work, I would suggest picking up his next volume. I imagine, like a young actor, that the author will come to feel more comfortable in his poetic skin with continued exposure to praise and critique.