A Book Review of “Against the Woods’ Dark Trunks” by Jack B. Bedell reviewed by David L O’Nan

A review of Jack B. Bedell’s “Against the Woods’ Dark Trunks” from Mercer University Press (2022)

I rarely find a poet out there that is truly an original. I become envious as a poet myself, to the marvelous observational style poetry that Jack paints with his words. Jack takes everyday life (not just the mundane, but just observation of nature, of travels) and creates a masterful poem out of something you didn’t know was able to be observed in so thoroughly.

Jack’s work also makes me miss the traveling aspect of life. He is obviously well read and very educated when it comes to poetic forms.

He isn’t just rambling out sentences. He is a deep thinker. He is very cognizant of reactions. A listener, an observer. Jack will take you to the swamps of Louisiana into the caves of Tennessee. He will haunt you with some findings, he will make you smile with the next. His family is a deep influence on what he writes. And what else would you expect from a former poet laureate of Louisiana. A state I spent a little time in. He’ll take you through Louisiana even if you’ve never put a boot in muddy swamp marsh.

We begin with Another Night, Just, easing into Until the Rice BoilsSunlight would turn the kitchen-counters honey gold, and all clanks would make song” Yes, Yes We DoThe Metallic taste of snake’s blood must surely dance on his tongue like the sweet dervish of revenge” Bill Evans on Kind of Blue Reeds take flight any time his line flicks near their feet. And always the glow of the trumpet rains down on everything in warm bursts, sometimes a bath, sometimes a wave...”

Mil Mascaras growing up and still a wrestling fan some of these poems about wrestling feel like they were written for people like me in mind. “I am Mil Mascaras, a man with a thousand holds in my arsenal. I do not need a partner to face down their tag team, only a constant glide from suplex to boston crab…”Iapetus (for Robbie and Cathy Wallace) brilliant writing “She wants to dram of serpents’ coils rolling just under the water’s surface…Amano (for Frank Relle Gallery, NOLA) ” Even what’s left of this broken cypress tree hasn’t given up reaching for the sky” All Spirits Must Take a Name (Adams, Tennessee) this one resonates with me since this cave in Adams is haunted as hell. My mother broke her leg at home at the same time we were lingering this cave. “Even if you were not Kate alive, take that name to twist your scream into voice. Use it as an answer when they beg to know who’s poisoned John Bell”

Six More Weeks (Bonnet Carre Spillway, May 2019) “With such a death grip on our land, guarding it against the river, can we help but squeeze out ghosts?” Serpents and Insects, 1647 based from an oil on canvas, Otto Marseus van Schrieck, New Orleans Museum of Art. “White moths hover in spare light and snakes coil around mushrooms growing at the base of this tree” Gougou (Gulf of Saint Lawrence) “She pulls scales from her hips, frees them to float in the water like manta raysBurn, Hollywood, BurnHe snips out one side of the box for a picture window, lines the inside edges with gold satin for drapes, but he can’t find an image of a fiery field anywhere…Memory: Unsorted is a poem about his father and his intrigue with boxing growing up. WendigoWhen you speak his name a second time, do not grin. His spirit will slip past your teeth into the core. All light will wane from your eyes,…”DisparationNo more shuffle of slipper across wood, no smell of onions sweating in a skillet”

GrassmanHis smell still there, always, sticks thick to the grain like disease armadillos sprayOf Proxies and Moonshadow first of all genius title of a poem “The way a stab wound smiles when the skin around it shifts, how nineteen of those wounds sing like a choir when the girl bleeds herself across the forest’s floor...” P.V. O’Neill’s Grave (Oakland Cemetery Shreveport, LA) “No roots left from the falling, though, and even fewer signs it matters” Three Steps Off the Ropes another wrestling poem bringing up the legendary “Silver King”, Just Another Day in November (List Murder House, Antieau Gallery, NOLA)How ordinary would a house have to be to hold an entire family dead, zipped up in sleeping bags on the living room floor for a solid month before any of the neighbors, or teachers, or police thought to ask”

Window with Ladder-Too Late to Help (Leandro Erich, 2006 New Orleans Museum of Art) , The Pale Man’s Eyes Never Leave the Horizon -(Lake Champlain) “When a wave rolls up out of nowhere, do not look down, It is my body shifting under the surface” “I sharpen each night, waiting for the crunch of bones you are” Dusk, MeditationSometimes the truth hides in the wide open of a shorn cane field and no matter how you stare its lines will refuse to define themselvesAugury -Queen Bess Island “The cadence of their lives tells stories in flattened shore grass, single eggs in sand-movement and birth and loss”

New Beach, Elmer’s Island -Caminada Headlands 2018, Beached Whale, Terrabone Parish, 2016How golden it would be if the whale’s old kin walked past trees like ours into their first salt water” Marsh Horsesby marsh grass rising out of the lake, ghosts of a full coastline reaching out into the open pass” La LechuzaFrom the moment you hear her cry, only dead things will hold beauty for you. At some point during every conversation you have with a neighbor, or mailman, or lover, their flesh will melt away” Pecan Grove with Body Farm, The White Alligator – For Emma “What more could his slow smile want” City of Nature – Kotea Ezawa, 2011, Black RushMy father told us about a shadow in the marsh that could see inside anyone it came across” Memory: BatsThey held each other close, blinked their eyes against the harsh light as if the plague of morning had come upon them early”

Death Comes to the Banquet Table, ca 1630-40 from oil on canvas, Giovanni Martinelli, New Orleans Museum of Art “The last grain of sand drops to the bottom of the glass and it simply does not matter that desert has barely suffered touch” Goujon – after Mai Der Vang’s “Phantom Talker”The Old men will tell you, I am the dark thing with gaping mouth waiting deep in the silt under still waters” Rolled Over Into Waves -White River, 1915, Voucher “Like in 1933, at six, how he had to walk downtown one day with a voucher stuffed in his pocket that would get his family one cooked goose, or two liveTraiteuseAlways a fever the wild kicking of legs and tears to tend. Her soft prayers fill the room to overflowing Memory: Touch “and others I cannot touch but feel nonetheless, or would touch given the chance” St. Lucy Led to Her Martydom – Bernadino Fungai, circa 1490, LittoralIn the space between water’s edge and forest, the shoreline blooms with thimbleberry and clover-sunlight, mist off reeds, and my back flat against the dew

Stink – Henderson Swamp “The swamp smells heavy like a soul tethered to the heat dripping down every windowSometimes the Alligator Gets to Write the EndingThe alligator is not compelled to carry the opossum safely to the other side of the bayou” Sometimes You Get the Bull, Sometimes – Angola Prison Rodeo, 2013 “There’s got to be a moment when the inmate clown wants the bull to stomp him out, that long second when the dust kicked up from the bull’s charge rises toward heaven…”Q&A – For Thomas WhiteThe other side of sickness or pain is heaven, and that last much longer than it takes to empty your stomach”

Owl-and Wolf-Infested Lands -after Bachelin “bent away as salt water creeps in through the canal” Like Asin at the Edge of the WoodsIt would not matter there’s no undertow, not with catfish or copperheads pressing bellies to the mottled bottom” La Llorona Rests Her Feet in the CreekThe Mountain lions always come to me in pairs at night, heads low, with ears peeled back, contrite” There is No Train but the Tracks Will Lead You There -Honey Island “No need for maps or guides to find the swamp’s heart” There is WindYes, there is wind. And waves. For now, the ghost of trees and lines of reed remain” In the Open Space of a Crawfish Pond, PresageI’ve had old people down the bayou tell me animals carry all the truth” The News, AgainI tell her all hope can swell to fit our idea of God. She wants to know if that hope dies, too, if we don’t take care of it”

ConflationHis socks were filthy from the slogging through the Quarter during the morning’s flood. As hot as it was, those socks must have felt divine on his feet, like a river of cool breeze…” Neighbor TonesEven when scales cannot reconcile themselves geometrically, we can choose to hear them together”

Bio: Jack B. Bedell is a Professor of English and coordinator of Creative Writing at Southeastern Louisiana University where he also edits Louisiana Literature and directs the Louisiana Literature Press. Jack’s work has appeared in dozens of journals. His previous collections include No Brother, This Storm (Mercer University Press, 2018), and Color All Maps New (Mercer University Press, 2021), He served as Louisiana Poet Laureate, 2017-2019

Re-published poems from Jack B. Bedell

photo from cemetery in Slidell, LA (unsplash)

all poems first published in Rhythm N Bones Lit/Dark Marrow

P.V. O’Neill’s Grave

An oak tree has left its ghost
        on this plot with crumbled
                      marble and mangled wrought iron

bent all around the tombstone.
         The psalm engraved below
                       O'Neill's name failed

to offer any peace against
         the weight of that trunk
                       calm breeze and cool water

or not. Today, the grass is cut tight
         at the site, and all the bits of stone
                     have been stacked neatly

inside what remains of the fence.
       No roots left from the falling, though,
                      and even fewer signs it matters.


You'd probably chuckle to know I pass
your grave every morning bringing my kids
to school. They've asked all the questions
their teachers have told them to ask,
and I've answered as best I could:

Did he want to die?

                              Probably, but not
that night, and not in his parent's house.

How did it happen?
                                  From the beginning?
Coltrane, Hendrix, the dude from Blind Melon.
They were all beautiful to him. Release.
A slowing of heart. Sleep. Stop.

What was it like?
                                    He always said
it was like swimming in honey.

Why would he do something that made him
sick every time he did it?
                                       The other side
of sickness or pain is heaven, and that
lasts much longer than it takes
to empty your stomach.

Do you miss him?
                                 I miss the way his pick hand
moved so casually over the strings of his bass,
how perfectly his thumb glided
down the neck of his guitar. His
potato rolls, the glaze he made for pastries.

Why couldn't you stop him?
                                 I held him
like a brother, threw him against the wall
by his collar like a parent, set him free
to make his own choices like God does.
That river only flows downhill.

What do you remember most about the last time you saw him?

This one I always have trouble answering out loud,
how your stubble felt like needles on my cheek.

The Pale Man's Eyes Never Leave the Horizon
                                                                             - Lake Champlain

When a wave rolls up out of nowhere,
do not look down. It is my body
shifting under the surface.

I will be there in the shallows
to hear the people of the woods
warn you not to disturb me.

My eyes, the size of white perch,
will roll back into their sockets
at the sound of your laughter.

Whenever your children come to the shore
aching to disappear into my calm lake,
I will grab them by their ankles,

draw them into the deep water
with their last breaths still captive
in their lungs. For each beating heart

I devour, each of your barges
full of tree trunks I sink,  you
will cry a slow prayer toward

the dying light.  There is no lesson
in this pain for you, no
road you can build long enough

to escape my reach, the teeth
I sharpen each night, waiting
for the crunch of bones you are. 

A Fevers of the Mind Quick-9 Interview with Jack B. Bedell