Book Review

Doug Van Gundy on
poetry by Lucien Darjeun Meadows
Hub City Press, 2022


Every once in a while, a book comes along that, for whatever reason, takes me a long time to wrap my head around. Whether for its oddness or its innovation or its intensity, the book defies both easy categorization and easy entry. In the Hands of the River, by Lucien Darjeun Meadows is just such a book — a dark, dark collection of poems that somehow manages to celebrate the beauty and wonder of the natural world while exploring a craving for nothingness and an almost romantic embracing of darkness.

In the Hands of the River chronicles the deeply human experiences of loneliness, isolation, and otherness in a deeply Appalachian voice that is at once familiar and not-enough-heard. A West Virginian of mixed European and Cherokee descent, Meadows utilizes the recognizable Appalachian tropes of coal, labor, environmental degradation, poverty, rural life, etc., in ways that are often surprising, even confessional. But it’s through his writing about subjects which aren’t frequently discussed openly — mental illness, sex, death — that Meadows illuminates unseen things about his home region through his dark imagery. 

Even in the poems focused on more “traditional” mountain tropes, like “Monongalia County, West Virginia,” Meadows finds a fresh way to consider history, family and poverty: “. . . that Appalachian frugality—/ Making something out of nothing because / Our fathers took these mountains and turned into / Nothing.” I particularly admire the way Meadows plays with the language of Appalachian literature that has become mired in its own cliché, for example, the word “holler.” Throughout the collection, Meadows puts this familiar word through its paces, wringing out as many meanings as possible — a place, a greeting, a cry — and in doing so, asks his readers to reconsider the purely received connotations of this familiar regional shibboleth. The poem “Holler,” for instance, opens “Growing up, we lived down in a holler… ,” locating us in both time and space.  In the next stanza, we meet the neighbor, Johnson, who “spoke / Low to father, You got a gun? Here you are your own police. / Only trees will hear you holler,” reminding us the holler of home can easily elicit an unheard holler for help. By the end of the poem, the holler is no longer a place of refuge, but one of danger, where “only rain comes running / Down here: flashriver, summerflood, wash our holler out.” Just a few poems later, the fear of destruction at the hands of a possible natural disaster soon becomes a desire for self-erasure.  

Each of the four sections of In the Hands of the River opens with a poem that chronicles a suicide attempt, or suicidal ideation. The first three (“First Time,” “Second Time,” and “Third Time”) also include a diminishing weight as a subtitle. There is something of Kafka’s Hunger Artist in this gesture, in the dissonance between a desire to be noticed and an almost unfathomable attempt at disappearing, of self-erasure by a person born into a culture that sees
“ . . .death as the ultimate baptism.” In these poems, the desire isn’t for death, but for escape and freedom. In “First Time” (102 pounds) the poet is “Not looking for oblivion, just silence…” hoping to pass “Into sky and air, the perfect nothing.” In “Second Time” (85 pounds), the dream is that “everybody gets to fly home.” 

The final poem in the sequence, "After," acknowledges the wisdom to be gained in abandoning self-annihilation:

What if the last pound possible to lose
Falls away not as hollowed cheeks, but as
A flourish of fur on the backs of your
Arms. Not as black hair but as sharpened teeth
Like the wolf of your father. Not as the black
Crow beating wings into a pulp of blood
And cartilage, but like the crow shocked blue
You were last month in the hospital. . . . 

These are poems of wonderful music and subtle virtuosity.

Throughout this journey through the emotional darkness of an Appalachian adolescence, Meadows flexes his substantial lyrical muscle. These are poems of wonderful music and subtle virtuosity. In “Visiting My Sister in the Adolescent Ward,” a poem from one sibling who has spent time in a psychiatric hospital to another who is currently residing in one, Meadows employs the remarkable technique of having all of the lines leading up to a central hinge-line then appear in the opposite order after that line so the first and last lines of the poem are identical, as are the second and penultimate, and so on.  The central lines of the poem are:

Here, I watch snow fall:
There is no mountain, no
Mother, no father. Brother
Sounding ever more like
Sunder. I am waiting for you, night
Sounding ever more like
Mother, no father, brother.
There is no mountain, no
Here. I watch snow fall . . .

The effect of this arrangement is that the reader has a sense of walking into an uncomfortable situation and then the equally uncomfortable feeling of walking backwards out of that situation while being utterly aware of what’s going on there. It is both masterful and unnerving.

Even more unnerving is the pair of poems addressing the sister that closes the second section of the book. These poems reveal the siblings preferred forms of self-harm: razors sunk into the wrist in “Prelude,” “snapping the vein / Like harpstring” and duller blades drawn across the skin in “Pond”: “Your stash, steak knives, would not stop shouting / Until you showed your thighs, pink serrated / Lines evenly spaced, fading to grey” Despite the horror of these destructive actions, there is a tenderness between the children that carries into the third section and its opening poem, “Third Time” (70 pounds): “You said it would be as easy as slipping. / Into a warm bath. As falling asleep.”

The poems in In the Hands of the River are certainly weighty, and appropriately so: they are poems born of alienation, and pain, and a quest for release. But these poems don’t evoke the total darkness of the closed room or even the coal mine; these poems are legible within the deep green of the rhododendron thicket, a place where occasionally, at certain hours, a shaft of sunlight might penetrate all the way to the ground. In the final poem in the collection, “Winter Solstice,” the red of spilled blood becomes the vibrantly alive cardinal, flitting from tree to tree, and the desire for some kind of ending pivots to the recognition of the possibility of a fresh beginning:

and the cardinal tilts head flutter and wing
yew branch waves a beacon
a flame I follow the bright limbs of you
spiral through cloud and snow out from our center
our horizon beginning even now
to remember the thrill of light

In the Hands of the River is an impressive debut from a poet who, I suspect, has much more to say. It isn’t an easy book; it isn’t a cheery book, but it is an important one.  

Doug Van Gundy directs the low-residency MFA program in creative writing at West Virginia Wesleyan College. His poems, essays, and reviews have appeared in many journals, including Poets & Writers, Poetry, Oxford American, and Guernica. He is the author of a book of poems, A Life Above Water, and coeditor of the anthology Eyes Glowing at the Edge of the Woods: Fiction and Poetry from West Virginia. His second book of poems is forthcoming from the University Press of Kentucky in 2024. 

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