Tony Crunk,
Living in the Resurrection
(Yale University Press, 1995)

Winner of the prestigious 1994 Yale Series of Younger Poets award, Living in the Resurrection placed Tony Crunk among the company of such previous winners as Adrienne Rich, James Agee, Muriel Rukeyser, W.S. Merwin and James Tate. James Dickey, judge of the contest, notes in the foreword that "here is that rare phenomenon, a writer of instinctive formal vision." These twenty-eight poems move from narrative reminiscences of the poet's childhood and lyrical meditations on ordinary objects through to fractured, dream-like remnants and longer prose poems. The result, although varied in its individual parts, creates a whole that collectively illustrates one man's journey through life, a sort of homespun Cain walking the earth, even if that earth is only the dusty soil of the past.

Crunk's poems are divided into sections -- "Earthly Garments," "Discursions," "Lost Music," "Redemption" and "Benediction" -- which create for the reader signposts, markings that delineate the poet's journey from his childhood home in western Kentucky to the wilds of Montana. That this journey is also internal only serves to reinforce the numerous levels that are uncovered along the way. In many of Crunk's poems, everyday objects, such as tattered shirts, a clay jug or a tin box of foreign coins, take on a stark mystic symbolism. In "Blues for Home," where the poet decides that "the erasure of my fingerprints" is "all that remains for my perfection," he focuses on images like a "wooden chair / setting in the shade of an elm" and "a few bricks / scattered among the thistle;" in "The Mirror," he writes of "the man looking out of it / bag of breath / geometry of twigs / blue shirt."

The repeated appearances of these objects, as well as numerous references to the landscape of Kentucky -- coal plants, corn fields and Kentucky Lake -- anchor Crunk's poems in a setting that is both familiar and strange. The familiarity comes from Crunk's presentation of the land as the place that harbors his childhood, his roots, yet his examination of them in light of his southern Baptist upbringing and the homelessness he feels in that dying culture create an eerie landscape. Crunk's use of religion as a vehicle for memory and reflection on what is being sought and left behind often widens to take on mythic resonances. In the foreword, Dickey compares Crunk to the Crow Indian figure of the earth-diver; many of Crunk's poems delve into the landscape and objects he is examining, as in "Reliquaria:" "If I am called above, the angel will help me on my way. / If I have to go below, I will grab my jug / and fill it with water somewhere on the road down."

Although Crunk's quest at times seems random, there is still an instinctiveness underlying the chosen images that reveals a longing for the way things were. Crunk, while examining a landscape unfamiliar to most readers (in its physical form, at least), honors both the traditions of western Kentucky life and the traditions of poetry. The poems "Three Hymns" and "3 drms." remind one of the lovely scraps of Sappho's lyrics. The same "snapshot" study also appears in poems like "February" and "August." Crunk's use of the line is controlled and even; there is an austere beauty to these poems, marked as they are by a starkness in language and deliberate movement. Even the choice of images, while surprising in their juxtapositions, is sure-handed. Crunk moves through these poems with the ease of one long-acquainted with the craft, never failing to offer up to the light the things he has discovered along the way.

In the foreword, James Dickey also writes that "the human being does not address or learn how to live with, to love and to use, by getting away from the immediate reality of the things of this world but by diving into them." By taking the mundane and bringing out its music, Tony Crunk has discovered a gift that is rare among many contemporary poets. The poems of Living in the Resurrection can withstand numerous readings while still offering up new meaning and hidden connections, never losing the simple music of their lines.

[ by Audrey M. Clark ]

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