A Northwest Based Literary Journal

TLR Recommends: New Poetry Reviews

The Book of Hulga
Rita Mae Reese
The University of Wisconsin Press
ISBN-13: 978-0299308148

When I bought this volume, I told the bookseller, “I need this desperately.” He laughed, but I meant it. I have what most Flannery O’Connor fans have–a fierce devotion to all things O’Connor, and the sense that the legendary writer died not only too soon, but also with her greatest work ahead of her. If this rich collection of poems on O’Connor’s life, family, work, and religious philosophy is any indication, the wildly talented Rita Mae Reese is part of that die-hard fan club, too.

It would be challenge enough for most poets to write a compelling sequence on any great artist, but Reese doesn’t just succeed in creating moving, original poems on O’Connor—she also inhabits the rhythms, tones, and voices O’Connor used in her own work. Take this passage from “The Misfit’s Sonnet”:

“Listen, nobody came along
to raise my daddy after he passed.
I sat up and watched & he ain’t never moved
all that night. I put my hands on him & said rise!
Rise rise rise, you sonofabitch.”

That’s as much Misfit (from “A Good Man is Hard to Find”) as it is Hazel Motes (Wise Blood), but characters conflate, merge, and shape-shift throughout this collection. The O’Connor persona sometimes merges with that of Joy/Hulga (“Good Country People”), and many of the character-speakers borrow lines from Simone Weil in three technically exquisite crowns of sonnets.

In addition to the poems in this collection, the volume benefits from a number of illustrations by Julie Franki, whose work has both a softness and whimsy as well as the sardonic humor O’Connor used in her own cartoons.

But that’s not to say that the book succeeds only because its literary and visual style mirror O’Connor’s; there are moments of Reese’s pure—often heartbreaking—invention, such as this passage in which Regina (Flannery’s mother) cleans house after her daughter’s death:

“the house is on fire & Joy beside her bed
the house is on fire & fire is Joy & Joy is fire burning the house”

This collection is a must-read, must-own for all O’Connor enthusiasts. Will non-Flannery fans enjoy the book as well? It’s hard to say (having never been one). Play it safe and pick up a copy of O’Connor’s short stories at the bookstore while you’re buying The Book of Hulga. Thank me later. –KD




Raising Lilly Ledbetter: Women Poets Occupy the Workspace 
Ed. Carolyne Wright, M.L. Lyons, and Eugenia Toledo
Lost Horse Press
ISBN: 978-0991146598

From Lost Horse Press and Carolyne Wright—a repeat TLR contributor who has written powerfully about wage inequality here on the TLR blog—comes a substantial new anthology about women and work.

With contributors including former US Poets Laureate Rita Dove and Natasha Trethewey, alongside Northwest greats Carolyn Kizer and Madeline DeFrees (not to mention a foreword from Lilly Ledbetter—for whom the Fair Pay Act of 2009 is named) this anthology features an all-star lineup of women writers. But don’t let the stature of the contributors or editors mislead you; this isn’t an anthology about prestige, but about women honoring their labor and the labor of those who’ve gone before us. Field work, factory work, service work, office work, religious work, sex work, medical work, academic work, creative work, laboratory work, domestic work—this feminist anthology finds places for all women’s labor (paid, unpaid, and unequally paid though it might be).

Raising Lilly Ledbetter doesn’t shy away from messy work, from scrubbing the grit of manual labor from the hands with Brillo pads (in TLR contributor Karen J. Weyant’s “Beauty Tips from the Girls on 3rd Street”) or separating the joints of a freshly killed deer (in Lois Red Elk’s “The Knife Wearer”) or from work that feels absurd (see Lytton Bell’s “Another Day in the Dildo Factory”) or even work denied (see Denise Duhamel’s “Unemployment”).

There are poems of office drudgery, but they’re enlivened with humor, as in Sandra Beasley’s “Vocation”:

“I type ninety-one words per minute, all of them

Once I asked a serial killer what made him
get up in the morning, and he said “The people.”

And there are the moments that mark transformation, as in Kathleen Flenniken’s “Siren Recognition,” in which the speaker, at work in Hanford’s nuclear facility, hears a demonstration of a meltdown siren:

“Hear the siren once and it will change
your life. That night I’ll wake transformed
into a cockroach, scaling the inside

of a reactor dome.”

It’s an anthology impressive in scope, diversity, and range, and one that I hope leaves you, as it left me, all the more determined to see equal pay for equal work in our lifetimes. –KD

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Categorised in: Book Reviews, Poetry, TLR News

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