Winner of the 2018 Elixir Press Antivenom Poetry Award and a master class on cadence, syntax, and high Romantic lyric poetry, Justin Wymer’s debut collection Deed is marvelous.
To begin, the collection’s title, Deed, is a word conflicted and duplicitous in its meaning: “An action that is performed intentionally or consciously,” and also containing within its scope, “a legal document acknowledging ownership or one’s legal rights.” Right from the onset, this collection sets the stage for a landscape of doublespeak. Examining the failure of language, ownership, and personal sovereignty, the poems in this book paint Wymer’s need to grasp onto something that can’t be taken away.
The word deed takes on even more weight in the context of Wymer’s native West Virginia, where the vast majority of the land is owned by absentee landowners, primarily for the use of resource extraction. These resources have helped to build the museums, colleges, infrastructure, and economies of its neighboring states, leaving the region’s landscape gutted and economically devastated. This neocolonial relationship has birthed another kind of resource extraction, forcing most of the brightest and most able-bodied to move elsewhere. In the absence of these people, another kind of gutting has happened.
I find myself coming back to the poem “Methods of Belonging.” I believe the heart of this collection is found in these lines: “Myths—those on which / the keenest beauty / blinds itself, and family / enters into / small-town rain / I should have exited / the flesh but / the woods didn’t / answer.” There is a sense that the speaker does not want to see themselves in the beauty of the place he was raised, knowing that the beauty that exists here is temporary and prone to being erased.
Paying homage to Richard Siken’s “Scheherazade,” the title poem leans on the repetition of tell me—to drive the point that Wymer wants an entity or muse that understands his existence, to confirm what he feels and sees, and to reassure him that he is not alone. It is the natural landscape, taking on the role of a reluctant mirror to the speaker of these poems, confirming this shared existence.
Wymer is grappling with survival, with the cost of the duplicity of identity. He writes: “The privileged hide when they can. You / can always see family in the eyes of young men at truck stops.” There seems to be an underlying question being navigated in these poems: Is it more difficult to be Appalachian outside of Appalachia, or to be queer in Appalachia? And at what cost is it, that I must sacrifice one of these selves to exist?
Wymer’s body and ideas are a currency akin to his mountains and timber: beautiful, temporary, made useless unless repurposed outside of the state. The tradeoff is then when existing outside of West Virginia, the presumed safety and self-worth granted is only allowed if he chooses to live through someone’s repurposed idea of himself.
In so many instances, one gets the sense that no matter where the speaker of these poems goes, his language, his tongue, what his eyes have seen, betray him and unravel the costume he tries to build. And then, when returning home, changed, he’s unable to see himself in his home because what’s left are merely the forces he’s worked so desperately to escape.
These poems seesaw between the music and meter of Romantic lyricism and the transcendental epiphany through the natural. One gets the sense that with Wymer’s knowledge of how temporary people, towns, forests, and mountains are, that it is his intention to document existence.
Utilizing the first person, Wymer writes of trauma and addiction, of Appalachia’s relationship to person, industry, and land. He writes of his brother and his hometown. Because these poems are born of Wymer’s own experiences, they feel more generous than others whose work on Appalachia has leaned on caricatures stemming from Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty campaign.
In the southern part of the state, some regions still do not have access to the internet or cell service. Here, roads were paved for resource extraction to neighboring states, not foremost as a route to get between towns. Thus, information has a unique way of traveling from towns and hollers, which can be precarious, gossipy, and sometimes lends itself to folklore. And yet, people in the region are hyperaware of each other. Wymer’s epistolary poems to E parrot this in the best ways.
Shining through a collection that can be restrained and heady, these gorgeous poems have Plath-like qualities to them. Which is not to say merely confessional but, more, exact in their knowing and movements. For example: “In certain extinguishing hours of the day I feel aggressively lovely—washed / in skin colored light strained through the curtain” or “Three thin friends were given spells to cast and I thought / again of you” and “Before this story began, some misshapen mannequin was /pulled into the opening of the curtain, left cataloging the way dawn/shines on the frivolous things that move beside me some / moments in the day.”
This suite is reminiscent of Josh Bell’s poems to Ramona, from the collection No Planet Strikes. They work as a kind of negative capability, pulling back from the high Romantic lyric moments, grounding the book in a more personal and intimate sphere, allowing the space for the tender, quiet, and subtle to bloom. The pacing of these poems throughout the collection allows for enough of an arc to sink your teeth into. Wymer’s poems to E appear to me his most confident. It is here that he directly says what he wants and shares his intentions and fears. We get a sense that he is no longer just the speaker but also part of the tapestry.
Whatever distance the poet has tried to create, to keep the reader and speaker at arm’s length, these poems work to unravel, flooding the collection with specificity, immediacy, and a different level of intimacy that I believe nourishes and gives context to the rest of the collection.
As I read through Deed, I was drawn to a quote by Silas House, an Appalachian writer, which I’ll paraphrase: I’m wary of Appalachian writing where place exists as either exclusively good or exclusively bad. Historically there has been a propensity for writing that dwells on Appalachia, using Appalachia itself as a character. Often this is packaged in tropes, either tragic hero marred by unavoidable fatalism, lacking accountability, or as the child to patronize, too inept to get itself out of whatever cycle of poverty or shame it finds itself. Wymer steers clear of both of these snares. Instead, he chooses to mirror himself to Appalachia, interrogating the complexity and temporary existence of beauty, as well as the active erasure of beauty.
While Wymer’s high lyric and high syntax are set against familiar Appalachian backdrops, including mountaintop removal, addiction, the woods as a venue for the spiritual, cleansing, and danger, and while he can probably name every flower and animal in Appalachia, what makes this work different from others is how he writes of beauty and epiphany as not a source leading to answers instead as a source leading toward more interrogation. Wymer is not getting what he needs to survive from the transcendental. Just as he knows all of the flora and fauna by name, he knows as well the names of the forces endangering them. Sometimes it’s an industry, other times a person he went to high school with.
As we read on, hypnotized by Wymer’s language, coaxed into becoming the landscape of these poems yourself, we get the sense that we are the next thing to be named. We come to realize that we are the wild, dangerous, thing, whose eyes are glowing through the trees, peering out at the poet.