Hick Poetics, Shelly Taylor & Abraham Smith, ed.
Publisher: Lost Roads Press
2015, 390 pages, paperback, $25

A TITLE LIKE Hick Poetics is sure to catch attention. Whether it is a hobby reader browsing the shelves at Barnes & Noble or someone interested in pastoral American poetry shopping for Frank Stanford books online, who notices the anthology in a recommended list—the title will evoke the same allured intrigue in both readers. The title works similarly to Camille T. Dungy’s anthology Black Nature, which compiled historically overlooked nature poetry by African-American poets, announcing a collection of literature mostly ignored by academia, to get readers and scholars to reconsider the manner in which poetry is thought about and studied.

Readers expecting cowboy poems full of G-dropped gerunds and Jeff Foxworthy colloquialisms will be disappointed as the anthology re-imagines the conventional understanding of the term hick and brings it proudly into a poetic consciousness. While there are two or three poems mentioning ranches and rodeos, that’s about as close to a conventional conception of hick as it gets. Instead of featuring work by horse breakers and NASCAR fans, Hick Poetics is actually comprised of a richly diverse assemblage of contemporary American poets. Among its forty poets, notably included is work by Pulitzer winner Yusef Komunyakaa and current Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera. While this will probably baffle readers, as Komunyakaa and Herrera are writers we wouldn’t traditionally call hicks, that’s exactly the point.

In her introduction, Shelly Taylor, co-editor of the anthology with Abraham Smith, states that they intended the word hick as “a powerful rib-jab reclamation of power…taking back this idea of the pastoral.” Hick Poetics is subtitled An Anthology of Contemporary Rural American Poetry. Evident by the use of the words hick and rural is an insistence not to label or limit the anthology as just nature poetry. Rather, choosing to emphasize the people who inhabit a pastoral America and their intimate relationship with the sprawling rustic landscapes. Because of this, essentially, Hick Poetics is an anthology of ecopoetics, which is a burgeoning field that manifested from nature poetry and continues to expand understandings into the more sophisticated realms of environmental and ecological poetry. Although the anthology doesn’t self-identify as ecopoetical because it lacks an ecologically-biased motive, Hick Poetics is still a generous new offering into ecopoetics’ blossoming canon as it presents further language and ideas for us to think not only about nature poetry, but about poetry itself.

While featuring a number of recognizable and acclaimed poets, Hick Poetics also introduces readers to a group of overlooked and emerging poets they otherwise may never have encountered. Among this group of new poets is Greg Alan Brownderville. The author of two collections, Gust and Deep Down in the Delta, Brownderville was born and raised in Pumpkin Bend, Arkansas, which he jokingly describes as “a real place in the Mississippi Delta… with some people living in it.”

His poem “Walkin’ in Memphis” takes an ecopoetical stance with its natural vs. unnatural theme. After wandering into a gallery which sold metal bottle-trees, Brownderville, who may or may not be the speaker, follows:

I walked out
and stopped below a disfigured
real tree

Brownderville creates the distinction between artifice, the metal bottle-trees, and the natural, the “disfigured real tree,” with the adjective “real.” Though this distinction is narratively necessary, as a poetic move, it’s redundant. Yet Brownderville takes advantage of this redundancy. Emphasizing the realness of a tree carries heavy ecological sentiment, lambasting the artificiality of a world where the authenticity of a tree has to be clarified. The line break following “disfigured” calls attention to the imperfection of nature, but Brownderville doesn’t bemoan this disfigurement; rather, because the speaker has found solace under the tree, he indicates our need for the natural world.

“Walkin’ in Memphis,” as the title indicates, is sort of an ekphrastic poem, which seeks to define personal identity by reimagining elements from Marc Cohn’s 1991 smash-hit song “Walking in Memphis.” Cohn’s song begins by framing the singer’s identity within the context of music history: “Put on my blue suede shoes and I boarded the plane. Touched down in the land of the Delta Blues.” Brownderville begins without any context, other than location, to frame his identity:

Woke up this morning
in Memphis, no memories to my name
of my name or how I got here.

Where Cohn gives us “pouring rain,” Brownderville gives us “shushing rain.” Where Cohn said, “I was walking with my feet ten feet off Beale,” Brownderville describes Beale Street as “a silver river you could drown in.” Cohn’s song discusses the lore of music history, then, because of the commercial success of the song, gives Cohn a place within that history; Brownderville never arrives at such a place, concluding “And nobody / on this earth knows who I am.”

Ashley Capps is a graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop currently working as an animal rights advocate. Her debut collection, Mistaking the Sea for Green Fields, which was selected by Gerald Stern for the Akron Poetry Prize, is full of captivatingly shocking and beautiful poems. Her work is composed of a hauntingly visceral urgency, mixing several themes at once, and predominantly features animal imagery. Included in Hick Poetics is her sequential poem “Kindly,” which attacks the reader relentlessly with a blend of both unsettling and poignant moments. The second section begins with a bold, matter-of-fact statement, then leaps into an objective correlative depicting tangible vulnerability, rapidly expanding into an abstract and spiritual vulnerability:

Love is an emergency
that slips like a deer
from the wound of Christ
to land on the water
without bitterness
in a glister of accident

Capps has an envious knack for the simile and for surprise. She closes the second section with an unexpected and unnerving revelation, describing love, with another objective correlative, as:

the kind of suicide mission
where you’re not even free
after you’ve died

like how

when you hang yourself
in prison
they cuff you
before they cut you

Ultimately, Hick Poetics is an opening experience. Selecting well-established and successful poets along with emerging and relatively unknown poets is an inclusive gesture. Many of the poets are new, some have not yet published their second collection, while others are well into their poetry careers with multiple titles to their name, but their work has gone largely overlooked. Hick Poetics brings their names and their work into the same conversation as their more recognizable counterparts. Brownderville and Capps are just two of the many poets readers will likely encounter for the first time in Hick Poetics. Other poets are Nathan Hauke, Adrian Kien, Lisa D. Chavez, Danielle Pafunda, and T.C. Tolbert, to name a few. This is Hick Poetics’ greatest charm: sharing new poets, new poetry, and new ideas. The goal of any anthology should be to give readers what Hick Poetics gives its readers—discovery.

—Zach Groesbeck