Review by Arthur McMaster

by Rick Mulkey

Word Press, P.O. Box 541106, Cincinnati, OH 45254-1106
ISBN# 978-1-933456-73-7, 2007
80 pp., $17.00, paper

Few places in America lend themselves more readily to literature than Appalachia--her many stories, her many poems. Few poets give the reader a sense of place as clearly as does Rick Mulkey, who offers something to echo James Wright and his mother lode of woe leaching from Martin's Ferry, Ohio. Mulkey's Toward Any Darkness is surely more visceral than Wright's esteemed lyrical journey, The Bough Will Not Break. In his fourth volume of poetry, Mulkey returns to his ancestral home in Buchanon County, Virginia, where fathers teach a love their sons call loneliness, something the boys want none of. Or do they?

Consider "Lessons in Discarding," where sons:

stand off kicking stones down dirt roads,
eyes dark as veins of coal their fathers load
in Buchanon County mines. Always the entering
into the earth, and only sometimes rising out.

Besides abandoned factories, benign rat snakes and corn snakes, along with several fattened squirrels to periodically populate Mulkey's poems, we find simple people living lives that are uncomplicated only on the surface. Going deeper, we are given to move with the poet into the darkness. Even when blackberry-picking, something foreboding awaits, their "camouflaged bodies coiled into throbbing knots." If ever a sense of doom lay upon a pastoral setting, "[t]he wind hissing in the thicket's leafy undertow," this is that place. James Wright left the blast furnaces along the Ohio River where ennui is defeated only by "suicidally beautiful" violence. Rick Mulkey left something achingly similar in Apps Valley, though we learn from his rich voice that most young men native to the land never really get off US 460, the Coalfields Expressway. What does he see when he looks back?

[t]he town's only factory
stands abandoned. Its weathered smokestack spires
toward the sun; while below, the tractor meant to mow
thistle idles, cast off
to the side of the road. Children
who played hide-n-seek in the hedges, vanished
years ago.
Front yard deer caught grazing
have turned to stone.

The poet's irony is palpable in this very poem, titled, "Homecoming." He has a keen sense of how little the man will find when he returns, where "even the jays and cardinals are snapshots..." Later, road signs " 'Dangerous Curve,' 'Dead End,' 'Keep Out.'"
Returning briefly to the idea of sons, what men do not want a "re do" when it comes to pleasing their fathers, to understanding them and being understood, to holding on to them? One of Mulkey's most engaging poems is "The Observable Universe," which begs the question, by inference, what is out there that we don't see? Plenty, of course, along with promises we make to one another. He says, "we shared a simple language then." But personal history is never simple, and it takes more than language to keep a promise.
Near the end of this superb little volume Rick Mulkey becomes the father. His young son will be the next to follow another path, just as Mulkey did when he left the weary, worn out Appalachian communities he knew in his youth. The boy, making his father proud, does not so much refuse to connect the inevitable dots as to find new ways they might fit together.



Arthur McMaster teaches creative writing and literature courses at USC Upstate, in South Carolina.  His forthcoming volume is entitled Musical Muse (Orchard Park Press). A graduate of the MFA  program at the University of Florida, he had one poem nominated in 2006 for the Pushcart Prize. 



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