Perhaps one of a poet’s greatest challenges is how to stop being a fool. In Tennessee Landscape with Blighted Pine, his debut released by Texas Review Press, even if Jesse Graves can’t dish out bonafide wisdom for the small price of a poetry book, he does reveal a setting for wisdom in Sharps Chapel, Tennessee, where his ancestors settled in the 1780s. To avoid a fool’s shenanigans is to figure out the first quatrain of the first poem, a pantoum: “At dawn, drifting snow gave the sky back/ to itself, brighter than its first falling,/ inviting some fool out to stand slack,/ watch the slow light come crawling” (“For the Frozen Wood”). What does the speaker need to get himself back, like the snow gives the sky back? What is a poet to do but go deeper: “The field reveals no human history…Subsoil remembers, but topsoil forgets” (“Firing Order”). Graves emphasizes how the landscape is a seeable, touchable expanse.
Mostly, the speaker of these poems watches, like boys whose childhoods are mapped by fearlessness, comfortable silences, and outdoor adventures. Odes to muscle cars, motorcycles, and stomping on the devil’s dirt clods are replaced by nights in cities recounting failures and responsibilities. College is only a little better, with each discipline named and separated from the other, as if life’s mysteries were already figured out. What, then, names and has lasting power? Only the land: “our family name/ Stamped on the place that takes us back in” (“Firing Order”). He learns to listen to those stories under his feet in Johnson’s ground, his family’s cemetery: “… telling his story into our other ears,/ into the soles of our shoes” (“Johnson’s Ground”).
When he examines the world, he inevitably uses what is most familiar. His people have always made do with their hands. These hands must work to make meaning and to make a life. Influenced by Philip Levine, Graves’ poems center on his father and uncle, respecting their deftness and ease above all else: “I watched my uncle’s fingers/ through the late brink of light working over the rough cedar stick/ with a black-handled Barlow, / the blade no wider than his thumb” (“Field Portrait”). The hands may be able to write, but they can’t hold enough or do enough for Graves. He doubts the adequacy of his language and how his hands render life. For this poet, the hands do not offer revival or religion. Instead, he sends them out for family and home: “I send them ahead as scouts for survey/ emissaries…” (“Emissaries”). His hands are lines. Lines written, family lines, fishing lines cast as a boy, the perimeter lines of private property, the lines between days and nights. Maybe his “line never went far enough,” but it’s not from lack of effort or love; it is “the casting that mattered” (“The Road into the Lake”). The inadequacy of that never-enough feeling may wrack his brain, but there is also more acceptance: “Read these lines against the years, the unexpected fear—I woke you to call you back,/ we let go too soon,/ High tide surges in, but we have all this—/ A day identical to night, wet darkness to begin again” (“The Pier at 5 A.M.”).
In Tennessee Landscape with Blighted Pine, water is a character. In a rare expository stanza, Graves writes, “I learned in Tennessee History class that two hundred million/ years ago our whole valley lay at the bottom of a great ocean,/ that all of the world I had seen sat underwater for an eternity” (“St. Paul”). Water unapologetically breaks years apart, resists prediction and control, and rushes unknown beneath us. Water seeps, gasps, sputters, and slants into us. Water begs the eternal questions, yet reveals nothing. It is relentless with its questioning of the poet’s relevance and his eyes. What do you think you are seeing, anyway? Water represents the future for the boy and the past for the man, as time and memory are as a river which “folds back, watching, breaking, unknowing yet swaying.” They are found in seeping, murk, and the currents of song, albeit the wind between the trees or Coltrane’s reeds. They are another expanse, another landscape like “…a vision of time suspended,// words that do not answer the questions I cannot form: some mix of whereness and now, thisness and then,// never wherever I am, and not part of the record” (“Understory”).
There are plenty of funny moments lest you be worried about too much blight. In “Elegy for a Hay Rake,” he nods to the English elegiac tradition with his use of “farewell,” and simultaneously jokes that the rake is lucky not to be found in some kitschy highway country store. He assures the rake “that no one will/paint you red, white, and blue and plant you in a garden.”
What strikes me is how well this book works together. Too often debut books are like poems on shuffle. When I find a book like Tennessee Landscape with Blighted Pine, I bang on the nearest table and call out, See this unified whole, everybody? See what we’ve been missing? While his work is deeply thematic, and his book carefully structured, I also want to point out what a fine image-maker he is, just like his influences, James Wright and Adam Zagajewski. This is an excerpt from “The Upper Ridge,” the closure of the third section:
My father twisted the wire
barehanded: tiny curls of skin gathered
around the barbs into papery wings.
Stemless florets, ray flower, kin of the dogwood.
What startles about December snow is how it quiets.
Ice is opposite, each step we took
cracked sharp as out mallet ringing the spikes
as they reached deep into the split cedar posts…
We each held silent and still, the sky lowered,
taste of rusted nailheads sour on my teeth…
I was on my knees beside the crusted water,
searching the frosted eyes for a glimpse
into another world, my cheek drawn down…
I disagree with the poet when he writes, “…and he [father] knows that I stood off to the side too often to learn what he was born knowing” (“Digging the Pond”). It is the hesitation, the thinking man’s watchfulness that truly distinguishes him and distinguishes Tennessee Landscape with Blighted Pine. None of us are lucky enough to be born knowing anything, and that’s the wisdom. Whether learning about family and work, wood and rust, or silence and music—the poet, quiet, searches and is humbled by the water, ever looking into wiser eyes than his own.