Westphal, in his debut, reanimates the small Arkansas town of his youth in this new volume of poetry and prose.
In this rumination on a bygone place and time, the working-class German-American community of the poet’s childhood—and his father’s and his grandfather’s—is rendered through the naïve, hungry eyes of childhood: the baseball fields and factories, the parties and civic events, the majesty of Mass, and the warmth of community. It’s a perspective aware of the prevailing economic hardship and blue-collar angst as well as the minority communities that linger silently on the periphery. Adults in this world don’t often complain and certainly not in the presence of the younger generations; patience and grateful fatigue are the main characteristics. African-Americans in the community, for instance, “seemed to draw their breath / from a deep reservoir of ease, as a man might draw from a cigarette, / and to share in some silent low communion, / their voices like bassoons and flutes / in muted conversation.” And yet, at the edges, and with the hindsight of maturity, Westphal can see the places where these self-made myths began to fray. The collection is divided into sections composed of both poetry and prose flowing in and out of each other, rarely demarcated by titles, creating a sense of cohesion that pulls the reader through the work. Westphal’s voice drifts assuredly between the plainspoken and the lyrical in a buoyant, unpretentious style still able to achieve moments of brilliance. Occasionally he missteps—take, for example, a “prelapsarian Eden of innocence”—but for the most part he keeps his syllables short and guttural, finding the natural alliterations of common speech: “As the daylight ebbed, / the clouds left and right would light up inwardly / with electrical discharges, / signaling each other across the summer distances.” If the book drips a bit heavily with nostalgia, Westphal is hardly the first poet to fall into that trap. What is impressive is how he’s able to render a highly modest society in poetry that simultaneously elevates its struggles while staying true to its aesthetic sensibilities.
An accomplished, lyrical vision of a locality over several generations.