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Michael Chitwood's poetry of Southern realism and universal mortality

Heat and dust

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From Whence: Poems
Michael Chitwood
Louisiana State University Press, 62 pp.

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Tar Heel poet Michael Chitwood's subjects are sown in the South, but we can find these people and places anywhere in small-town America. In his world, the men gather in barbershops and labor in construction and the women instruct as teachers and heal as nurses. Chitwood channels their voices with humor and compassion in his fifth volume of poems, From Whence.

Chitwood's gifts as a poet include making associations between everyday objects such as coins and hair talc and the big stuff: love and death. The institutions of church and school figure large in the Virginia-born Chitwood's poems, as do nature and medicine. His poems hook you from their first lines and then plunge you into surprising metaphors using everyday language.

This is the case with "The Round Turning World," a poem set in an urgent care clinic where the young speaker is sitting with his mother watching as the patients disappear behind a "glass brick" when they're called back by the nurse. Then a man appears with his crushed hand dripping blood and the mud from his boots marking up the floor. A nurse springs to his aid and takes him away. Chitwood writes, "the swish of her white/ hose, made the room/ lurch sideways,/ I felt it move/ and wanted to pick up/ one of the mud cookies/ and eat it."

In "Threshold" and "After Ice and Snow," Chitwood makes us ponder how easy it is for nature to sweep away the evidence of life. Chitwood also sprinkles in measured drops of humor, as when his subjects are waiting in the examining room in "Check Up." Chitwood seems to chuckle at this cancer patient who wears "those green —/ God, what shade is that? —/ green, green, green slacks.../ only such a man/ should be allowed to wear such green pants." The poem's speaker wonders why this man chose to wear such God-awful pants: Does he do it because he can or because he doesn't know any better? We're left with the answer that this man could have fished them out of a bargain bin like any other no-fashion guy, but he's different because "today he walks away in them," as if the green pants could scare the cancer into hiding.

Throughout Chitwood's poems, we notice that dust, chalk, pollen and ash are his obsession, which makes sense considering that many of his subjects address religion and nature. In one poem, "The Seasons Come and the Seasons Keep Coming," pollen is "sexual dust." In another, "sweet dust" is a main character: In the prose poem "Easy Street, Continental Homes, Luck, the Destination of Southern Conversation, and Dust," he writes:

No matter how much you use the air hoses and brush off, fine dust, fine as flour, fine as lilac talc, collects in your pockets, in the wrinkles around your eyes, in the scollops of your ears. A sweet dust from the lives of trees, it's your destination, if you're lucky.

Many of his poems stem from his childhood, but he also describes more recent experiences. Obviously, he's not afraid of facing his shadow, what Robert Bly calls "the long bag we drag behind us." No better does Chitwood do this than in the longest poem in his book, "The Inheritance: A Lamentation" (which I heard him read—movingly—at last fall's North Carolina Writers Conference). The poem deals with his wife's miscarriage and how her family grieves: "all strangely quiet in calamity." But this poem also recalls his uncle who worked construction and who used to say, "'Wish in one hand/ and shit in the other./ See which one fills up faster,'/ Flukie would say when I wanted what wasn't/ or what was to be wasn't." The speaker feels this vulgar yet genuine attitude as he squeezes his wife's hand and sees the technician take off her glove and toss it into the trash can.

In reading Chitwood's poems, there were times when I'd like him to ask more questions about what he doesn't reveal, such as his politics and beliefs. In "Lamentation," we see a stronger side of him as he allows the reader in, as opposed to many of his other poems where he keeps his distance as a passive observer.

Throughout From Whence, Chitwood invites his readers to really absorb and appreciate what's going on outside our front door. The stories he tells through these poems feel as true as Eckerd parking lots and trucks hauling homes on the highway.

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