This is a test. What is the first noun that comes to mind when you hear or read the words “New Jersey?” Corruption? Pollution? Chris Christie? Bruce Springsteen? Tacky accent jokes? If you care about poetry you probably think William Carlos Williams, Robert Pinsky, Walt Whitman, Allen Ginsberg, and, one can hope, August Kleinzahler. Anyone who spent formative years in New Jersey, as I did, might also think of the Meadowland, an underreported, under-appreciated, spongy spread of tricky-to-describe land west of Manhattan.
Pamela Hughes, the editor of Narrative Northeast, grew up at the edge of the Meadowland, and in Meadowland Take My Hand, her first volume of poetry, she aims to redress the automobile version of flyover by avoiding the rich repository of New Jersey clichés. She mercifully says nothing about Springsteen, who is (to state the obvious) an acknowledged master of story, while Hughes herself is often a master of vignette. Her poems are controlled burns—immensely effective, with a well-calibrated, honest look at where her speaker is, on “Meadow Road,” for example, with her son, and on every page:
Beauty translates into ugliness
just ten steps along the meadow road.
I grip the panoramic camera
and panoramic memory.
We carry all earth on our sneakers,
from mud scraped and shaped
into alligator scale tails by our tires.
As she continues, she reminds him of his place and ours in a way that gracefully evokes Helen MacDonald’s long, prose poem of a book, H Is for Hawk.
Rotting is like growing,
only you grow into the bellies of birds
and field mice,
the eyes of a red-winged hawk.
It’s old news that there’s poetry in decomposition, but welcome news that Jersey has such an astutely musical young voice. Here she sings again, of a related process that becomes an unflinching look at the working class quotidian:
Host to both the factory and the olfactory,
like a beer-drinking boyfriend,
occasionally the meadowlands burps
and methane deep in the landfill rises up
like a half-digested ale or a gassy bean dip;
an intimation of ocean,
a spoiled seafood quesadilla
and wafts around the surrounding towns:
Lyndhurst, Rutherford, Kearney, North Arlington,
to name a few, then across the Hudson to Manhattan.
Sometimes it explodes.
“[F]actory and olfactory” is one of dozens of playful places in Hughes’s mind, and her wordplay keeps things from getting dull or self-righteous, as does the verbal still life called “The Heron”:
the glass orbit
of silver rings
to swim by.
“The Cave,” a more spacious piece written for Hughes’s six siblings, mates domesticity with wildness.
We don’t say we’re crawling into an elemental mother,
through moist close walls going back to the beginning,
or that the cave is the planet’s punctuation mark,
an ink black period marking a sentence
earth wrote over eight thousand years ago
that needs no revision.
We don’t say we’re exploring the dank inside of adventure,
or that after order, odor was an answer.
We don’t call this an excavation,
an initiation, archeological dig or egress.
Streaked in rat or wild dog shit
or maybe the guano of small brown bats,
we just crawl laughing,
surprised by our own sharp stench,
rising like instinct-
by the sudden release from domesticity with our mother,
who was having her own wilderness on the maternity ward.
Kids, spelunking. And the note-taker misses little, and makes a clear, solid decision to include the fact of a nearby, inextricably connected event that is monumental to any child. The raw, grimy parts are so magnetically present, they suggest, by reverse example, frilly swoons by better known and less disciplined eco-poets.
We all anthropomorphize furry creatures, and in this we always court aesthetic danger unless we are alert. Mary Oliver once presumptuously described the love a mother bear feels as “perfect,” as opposed to, for example, “unknowable,” which is more accurate and no less wondrous. Hughes shows no signs of making such a mistake. Her details are new, honest, and crisp, as in “The Game:”
There is no action to soothe
my inclination to save small things.
inside the harsh flare of my headlights
(frozen in my own inefficiency)
freeze-frame baby rabbit and striped stray cat
play midnight’s lonely game
on the steep street up from the meadows.
Turning the unkind corner
I imagine the playful
pregnant with good-natured spite,
the slight swipe of a single paw
along the shallow way
to solid fear,
the inevitable bond of blood.
“The Meadowlands” is the last poem in this collection (and it has much in common with a piece unforgettably called “New Jersey’s Stiff Hairbrush,” in which the speaker’s parents purchases the ‘’pink aluminum rectangle’’ that became the family home). “The Meadowlands” rescues the trite with Biblical references and specifics:
Many things are buried there,
many mountains of things,
but only one I knew unearthed itself
and returned to town.
Two guys from my high school
took the third one out
to the edge of the Turnpike
across the mini bike trails
winding like whip wounds
through the grass
and beat him to death with a tree branch.
He rose up like Lazarus,
shouldered off his burden of earth
and decomposing leaves
and lurched in the blush of blood,
a broken skull and bald leg bone ,
dearth of death pressed like a tourniquet,
until the brackish water
and phragmites finally ended
and the cement took over,
just this once, like a savior.
Book reviewing should always be an act of love. In delineating the strengths of a first book, reviewing is also, of course, an act of expectation shaped and sized by what one has heard or not heard about the writer being discussed. Acts of love presume positive expectations, and mine have been more than met.
Over and over, The Rumpus’s readers, writers, editors and other engaged Americans are forced to deal with the body-blow of America’s current political/social moment. Hughes’s agile honesty is a welcome opening of hope at a fractured, wounded time.
Photograph of author © Bill Doran.