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The Effigies by Robert Hill Long

The Effigies, by Robert Hill Long
Plinth Books, 1998.

I've always wanted to go south, to travel beyond the gray-green cool of my native northwest home, but who wants to be snapped inside the trip of a tourist who sees only through a one-eyed camera? Robert Hill Long's poems brought me deeply inside The South in ways I've experienced only through certain novels, such as those of Kate Chopin and Ernest Gaines.

The Effigies consists of prose-poems, that intriguing literary hybrid. The book shapes the southern experience into three sections: A Century of Southern Light, The Streets of the Muses, and Toward a Bad End. In A Century of Southern Light, I expected to find only history. Instead, I'm brought within present lives of individual flowers, trees, men, statues, women, walking sticks, and dirt yards. Yet these are also stories of the past. There's the general in " A Well-Regarded Man" who wonders "What if he said nothing of arranging the final surrender, wrote / instead about the dollars and fifteen cents he had left after the / ceremony?" (33) This poem concludes with the evocative image, "Not even a million deaths, he thinks, will / make the iron doves touch the pomegranates" (34).

Long's facility with images also includes those of environmental destruction in this first section. In "Dirt Yards," the character is a rural woman musing on the encroachment of the suburbs. She stubbornly holds on to her more starkly beautiful, and natural ways because "Hungry generations of mockingbirds still thank you each night for / hiding their young in chinaberry foliage" (27). She knows she'll always sweep the dirt yard with her soft hearth broom, her "—own gray hairs among the threads / of Spanish moss that will falloff a little faster in the suburban air" (28).

I loved the portraits of specific places and people in the second section, Streets of the Muses. In "Polymnias," there's the priest who, in a gusty moment, became "—God's firewood." "Decades / of catechism and dull ministry charred, fell away. The rest of his life / would be a controlled burn" (42). In "Clio," my personal favorite, people either seek sleep, or are suffering from a kind of historical insomnia because, a generation ago, an entire Choctaw necropolis was destroyed, the bones of the people filling tin buckets, with few whites considering how their new, river town was built: "The history of Choctaws, of rice and cotton and slavery, makes / schoolchildren drowsy" (49). Yet one man wonders where his insomnia comes from and concludes he fears where his bones might end up.

There are other hauntings in the final section of The Effigies. An old lady in a creepy poem entitled "Ghost Powder," survives on almost nothing but the affection of elusive, neglected cats, raw flour, and face powder. She once confided that "white powder / scared off drunks and black people" (86). When neighbors call the authorities after a month of freezes, and a policeman finds her dead body, he lists a variety of odd facts about her life and her house in his report, including the pistol on the nightstand. Although he thinks she should want to live, "As for himself, he had a good deal of sick time built up; he planned / to take it as soon as he could" (87). The poet leaves implications up to the reader. The long lines of the prose poem allow for a development of two separate characters within this one narrative.

In "Flamingo Tongue"—an intriguing title—it's the experience of beauty in the natural world which haunts the secretary who has worked for twenty-four years in the urban redevelopment office. "So long since she knelt—since she was small enough to kneel and hide— / in marshgrass, watching brown pelicans tilt and divebomb / the mullet" (63). Here, Long shows us the irony of an average person helping destroy what she most loves. We're taken inside her deepest longing; what she wants is "only herself, small in the brackish reeds" (63).

If a reader takes the time to listen to the inner talk of the people in these poems, to note the music of these lines in a hum of electric scissors, the singing of the blues, the voices of banjos and harmonicas, then it's hard to miss the frogs, gone silent, in this elegiac sequence set in the Deep South riverport.

Printed in the Spring/Summer 1999 issue of CLR

Diane Averill Diane Averill

Diane Averill has had work appear in a number of national magazines and anthologies including the 1997 Anthology of Magazine Verse & Yearbook of American Poetry. Her first book, Branches Doubled Over With Fruit (University of Central Florida Press) was an Oregon Book Award finalist as is her second book, Beautiful Obstacles, currently out by Blue Light Press.

You can find Diane Averill on the web at:
—  Clackamas Community College
—  Oregon Live
—  Oregon Book Awards
—  Poetry in Motion
—  Amazon
—  Barnes & Noble

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