Wednesday, December 13, 2017
Books

Review: USF's Jay Hopler, up for National Book Award, stuns with poetry

When the National Book Awards are announced Nov. 16 at a gala ceremony in New York, poetry lovers in the Tampa Bay area can root for a local.

Jay Hopler, a creative writing professor at the University of South Florida in Tampa, is one of five finalists for the award for poetry for his new book, The Abridged History of Rainfall.

Whoever ends up the winner, the bay area can be proud: Hopler's book is a poignantly beautiful evocation of grief and its long echo, and of how we learn to live within it, expressed in sophisticated but accessible poetry.

The collection of 31 poems is dedicated to Hopler's father, who died in 2009, and the first of the book's three sections gathers poems that reflect the numbness and disorientation of new loss. In the first one, Winter Night Full of Stars, the speaker contemplates a recent death and wonders whether he himself is the night or the stars, a shadow or a shroud, a leaf-bare maple through whose branches smoke drifts or the smoke, then notes,

It is not smoke, but light burning

To a fine ash. And in that darkness, may you, like those dark

blooms shine.

Images of smoke and ash, suggesting perhaps cremation, certainly destruction, float through the poems in this section. Countering them are images of rain, both literal, like the thunder that "drops its load of stones into the rain barrel" in one poem, and figurative, like the book the speaker in another poem sees his widowed mother reading, its title translating from German to "Messages in the Rain."

The tone of some poems is angry; others glimmer with dry or even goofy humor, as in Not All Skeletons Are Museum Quality, where the speaker says of a citrus grove in a Roman garden, "When you're lost, you're gone forever, / Say the birds. Dreadful sorry, / Say the clementines ."

Birds — parakeets and ravens, swans and orioles — flutter and swoop through many of the poems. The second section of the book has one poem titled Birds Are How the Earth Makes Sense of Heaven; another, The Ranges of Birds, is a found poem shaped from the descriptions of bird calls in Roger Tory Peterson's A Field Guide to the Birds East of the Rockies.

Rain still "lays its gray weight on the grass," but those vital birds are persistently in motion, a force that begins to lift the speaker's vision toward life again. In Elegy for the Living, he says, "It's not that today was beautiful; it's that today was too beautiful. / It was a day so beautiful, it made you afraid God would notice it."

In the book's third section, the birds take over. The Rooster King is a group of 13 poems about an Ybor City rooster. If that makes you think of Wallace Stevens' great poem Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird, that's no accident. Many of the poems in this collection create a conversation with other poems of grief and ongoing life, by Rainer Maria Rilke, Elizabeth Bishop, John Berryman and others.

The second poem in The Rooster King, called A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning, borrows its title from John Donne's portrait of love that survives death. But its lines call out to Stevens' The Emperor of Ice-Cream, which places the quotidian nature of dying amid a mock-heroic view of the living, when Hopler writes of a rooster's demise:

Cue the bagpipes! Cue the drummers! Let upon the streets be Flung conniptions of chrysanthemums!

Roosters die here — some in cockfights — but they are also life forces, like the one in East of the Western Fence:

He is Fat Sam, the Feral Mariachi, the Ayatollah of Osceola,

The Phoenix of the Vinegar Works!

.... this bantam assassin, his death-red hackles flaring like a funeral pyre.

He's the Sacred Heart of Jesus

Wound round with barbed wire, the crucifixion

Tattooed on the back of a contract killer.

Death and life, all wrapped up in a bird. The final poems of The Rooster King bring the elements together, birds and rain and smoke, inescapable grief and yet "one cannot help but flattened be by the persistence of the beautiful thing."

The Abridged History of Rainfall is only Hopler's second collection of poems. His first, Green Squall, won the Yale Series of Younger Poets prize in 2005. The new book will be officially published by McSweeney's Poetry Series on Nov. 15 (awards judges get early copies) in a handsome hardcover edition.

Also on Nov. 15, awards finalists in all four categories — fiction, nonfiction, poetry and young people's literature — will give a reading at the New School in New York. The reading and the Nov. 16 awards ceremony will be livestreamed. (See details below.)

Hopler is just one of four finalists with Florida connections. Ibram X. Kendi, an assistant professor of African-American history at the University of Florida, is a finalist in nonfiction for Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. Beloved children's author Kate DiCamillo, who grew up in Clermont and earned her B.A. in English at UF, is a finalist in young people's literature for Raymie Nightingale. And Chris Bachelder, a fiction finalist for The Throwback Special, earned an MFA in UF's creative writing program.

Contact Colette Bancroft at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.

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