Monday, April 28, 2008

Poet du Jour: Joe Bolton

Joe Bolton was born in Kentucky in 1961 and died by suicide in 1990 at the age of 28. I recently read The Last Nostalgia: Poems 1982-1990, and found much to admire. Prior to his death, Bolton had published one collection and had a second scheduled for publication. Selections from both appear along with newer work in this posthumous collection, edited by Donald Justice and published in 1999 by The University of Arkansas Press.

In his brief Introduction, Justice informs us that Bolton won a scholarship to the University of Mississippi but left after his freshman year. He transferred to Western Kentucky University where he earned his BA. He then migrated from one creative writing program to another, eventually earning his MFA from the University of Arizona. Although he had a book coming out soon, he apparently felt that his best work was behind him and he had no prospect of a job. He turned in his thesis, a collection of poems entitled "The Last Nostalgia," then took his own life, leaving no note.

The Acknowledgments page of The Last Nostalgia lists an impressive number of publications in respectable journals, such as Agni, Black Warrior Review, Crazy Horse, the now defunct Cumberland Poetry Review, The Formalist, The New Republic, North American Review, Poetry, and Wind.

The poems reveal a poet who might be called a Romantic with his persistent fascination with suicide, death, and nature. Bolton might also be regarded as a Southern poet with his attraction to decadence and darkness and his attention to Southern settings and local color. And he might be regarded as a quintessential American poet whose work often deals with cities and small towns, waterways and boats, well-known American figures such as Sherwood Anderson and Hank Williams, and Americana such as diners.

Bolton was comfortable working with both free verse and forms. He was a poet of much achievement and even greater promise.

Here's one of my favorite Bolton poems.

Black Water
It happens like this
Over and over:
A light breaks on the shore
Of a black water
Hemmed in by cliffs of red
Stone with faces
Carved into the faces, and you
See another face
–The face of the remembered–
Rising from the water,
Descending from the sourceless light,
And cannot call it out,
Because now you are the light breaking
Over the black water,
And you are the black water, and you
Are the face they make.

And then you wake up, and light
A cigarette,
And you are in time again, the world
Of time and outside
It is Tuesday, and early June,
And 1985.
And it would be your wedding day,
Were it three years ago;
And it would be your anniversary
Had she not left you . . .
But it is simply a Tuesday, in June,
In 1985,
And you have woken up alone to the life
You live alone,
And the workmen down the block are hammering
The last of the dream from you.

And what work will there be
For you today,
Dreamer whose dream the world
Of time has torn away?
—What task to occupy your hands
That tremble?
Only this resurrection of the grief
That sweats the drink
Out of you and makes you thirst
For more—
Makes you dress up to go out and drink,
Then undress to lie down.
And you will lie down, and you will be
The light breaking
Over the black water, and you will be
The black water.

I like the use of repetition, the format, the slow slide into memory, the sharp jolt back into the present. I like the tone of sorrow and regret, ie, the nostalgia. The language is simple, even perhaps flat, but for me that makes the emotion more poignant.

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