Revew by John Gardner
AND GOD SAID: LET THERE BE EVOLUTION!
by Steve Henn
P.O. Box 2015
Old Chelsea Station
New York, NY 10113
2012, 75 pages, $14.95
After I received the book And God Said: Let There Be Evolution! by Steve Henn in the mail, I told my friend Tara I was excited to read it. She replied, “Oh, Steve’s a good guy. I think you two would get along.” Turns out that Mr. Henn is from the same small Indiana town that I am, and several of my friends and relatives know him. I was of two minds with this news: one part of me was amused at the journey these poems took: from Indiana to New York, New York to California, then back home again in Indiana. That the title of their collection was enough to draw me to this man’s work with such a small degree of separation between us was funny to me. The other part of me was saddened that a book of poetry could come out of my home town to very little fanfare. How had I not heard of this book before now?
But isn’t that really the way of poetry? Wallace Stevens’ coworkers had no idea he was a poet, so it shouldn’t have surprised me too much that a guy from Warsaw, Indiana, wouldn’t receive enough attention to set off my radar. Henn’s work shows a poet who isn’t surprised either. In “Acrobats at the Laundromat and Incidents Less Noteworthy,” he writes,
That’s all right. I read poetry in bars
to satisfy an urge to feel like the rock star
I’m not on the drums, and try not to think
of how rarely the experience measures up
to the anticipation.
This book goes by fast, coming in at 75 pages, with most of the poems being less than the full length of the page. Additionally, the poems in this book are wonderfully light-hearted and unpretentious. Henn is a poet who seems to understand that using one good word is more powerful than thirty long ones. But these are not shallow poems; on the contrary they contain depth that is easily overlooked. These poems tackle big issues with an eye for small details. For example, in “The Guy Who Heard the Call,” Henn writes about a man standing in the cold screaming at cars from a street corner because “God told him to.”
Listen, you don’t have to preach
to convince me God’s ways are not Man’s ways,
His/Her/Its Will a mystery wrapped in a conundrum
topped with Tabasco chased with Pepto—but
if this is God’s marketing plan
He really oughta hire a p.r. firm!
This is not a mocking poem, however. It pokes fun at the concept that God would command someone to preach from the street corner, but never judges the man as to whether he is crazy or not. In fact, the poem ends questioning our own perceptions of the man, asking us to assume “the voice the man heard was actually The Voice . . . would you respond, / ‘Here I am, Lord. I have heard You calling.” Or would it be, / ‘I’m not the one, Lord, I’d rather burn in Hell than suffer out in this cold.” When the story is looked at from that point of view, it becomes a very different one than the one we started with. Henn takes a look at the bigger issue of faith through the microcosm of the man on the street corner.
And this is the line that the book walks. It is far from blasphemous, unless one goes in looking for blasphemy. It is far from a denouncement of religion, unless you are looking for it to be. It satirizes the dogma of religion without denying the mysteries of the human experience that lead some to the path of faith. The humor is not snark for snark’s sake, but rather it is there to highlight the absurdities of our political and religious choices. Perhaps the book’s loudest cry, amidst the masturbation jokes, pop culture references, and political satire is “think, for the love of God.”
This is also a book about identity: the speaker identifies as a poet, a Catholic, a Hoosier, a father, and a teacher, among other things. One of the highlights for me is the poem “I’m from Indiana.” For a small town Hoosier like myself, there is something exciting about seeing “the hicks/ from Silver Lake who rent the house across the backyard/ and who we think are cooking up and/or selling meth” mentioned in a book of poetry (Silver Lake is a small town not far from where I live, approximately the size of a book of stamps.). However, the speaker also expresses the idea that we are more complex than just our geographical location.
I’m from Indiana and I believe in equal rights for
gays. I don’t hate atheists. I don’t hate Christians.
One of my best friends is Mormon. I dislike hippies
because they’re usually using the “kind brother” routine
to get into somebody’s pants. I try not to be an asshole.
Sometimes I am anyway.
The speaker not only plays against the images that come to mind when Indiana is mentioned (conservative, Christian, homophobic), he plays against the idea that one has to be the opposite. The poem is a deconstruction of the labels we put upon ourselves and others. And while Henn is unapologetic about where he is from (which seems to be, in my experience, a rare thing for anyone from Indiana), his identity is also unapologetically more complex than that.
This is a very entertaining read with some great ideas. If you are a reader who dislikes cursing or adult content in their poetry, then you should probably avoid this book. I personally feel it is used purposefully, and is not gratuitously, but different people have different standards, and it would be a disservice to ignore that. If those things don’t bother you and you enjoy really good satirical poetry, then this collection is a well worth your time.
John Gardner lives and writes in Indiana. It is much more bearable now that smartphones exist. (firstname.lastname@example.org)