By Luke Hankins
Wipf and Stock Publishers, Eugene, Oregon, 2011
Reviewed by Christopher Davis
It is appropriate to call Luke Hankins' powerful, surprising first collection of poems, Weak Devotions, "confessional," but with an emphasis on the original religious sense of the word. These poems are not in any way self-absorbed or self-pitying, but, like in the Confessions of Saint Augustine and Rousseau, they are written out of a commitment to an ideal of self-scrutiny. These poems are not "clever": although their tonal range is excitingly broad, including Miltonic high diction, the colloquial immediacy of Beat poetry, and the conversational clarity of Elizabeth Bishop, one tone which is not heard in them is irony. They are honest. Selfhood is not dramatized in narcissistic display, but is present everywhere in language-acts of integrity. These poems are decisive, grounded in particulars of place, experience and intellect, and courageously engaging of the reader, who is addressed as a fellow human being trying, like the poet, to live well, and looking for the imagination for help with that task. These poems do help.
Hankins, a graduate of the Creative Writing MFA program at Indiana University, where he held the Yusef Komunyakaa Fellowship in Poetry, and a resident of North Carolina, has edited an anthology, to be published in 2011, called Poems of Devotion: An Anthology of Recent Poets. Like Bruce Beasley, another startling and innovative contemporary Christian poet, Hankins demonstrates that a "received" conceptual framework, or dogma, can facilitate the originality of the poet by providing a foil or context for meanings which are personalized. "The Voice of One Crying Out" begins, "I was wrong," and concludes with these lines:
All those years I was carrying the message
from the hand of God
and shouting it out loud
on the streets,
I never once turned over
that tiny slip of paper
with God's name on it
and saw on the other side
not the name of the world
but my own name.
Biblical references and quotations, and lines from George Herbert, Saint Augustine and Bede, appear throughout the book; they signal a cultural orientation which does not dominate or narrow the scope of the poems, but amplifies it. A poem like "Pissed On" ("Children at the hands of children suffer wrong,/as I did when I was pissed on/by one of the neighbor boys I played among") is as "revealing" as an Anne Sexton poem, but there is a generosity, a charity, of feeling here which suggests that self-destruction is not in the cards for this poet:
I've never wished him ill. (I found
him ill enough.) But, for his sake, not my own---
for his sake, I swear it, I have wished he'd never done
what he has done.
This largeness of emotional scope dominates the second half of the book, in the title poem, a sequence of fifteen prayers, and in the final section, which consists of persona poems with titles such as "Dancer's Prayer" and "Patient's Prayer." The speakers are real characters, speaking out of their own life dramas, more than mere masks for the Luke Hankins. In so many ways, these poems show us that "believing" in something within and beyond this world allows the individual to truly live in this world, as is summed up in the final two lines of the collection: "Let the tree become nothing/but what rises through it."
The speaker of "The Old Preacher Prays" says, "I watch the world, and You hear." Hankins' attentiveness to the material world results in one of the strongest qualities of these poems: their descriptive beauty. The book's first poem, "Earthly Kingdom," seems to portray, in visual detail and in tonal particularity, the Louisiana where Hankins was born: "Creekmuck crawfish,/shitstenched mudbugs,/swarming through the murk--/we set raw meat on nets/to see how many we could catch,/to cup/the smallest crayspawn in our palms,/wriggling open then shut." This descriptiveness of course brings variety of color and sound into the poems, but, as in Bishop, Richard Hugo, Shakespeare and all of the many English-language poets who "feel the world" through our rugged, explicit language, there is also a sense in which the deepest layers of primal being are exposed, and considered, within the poem. Violence and death is present in many of the poems in the first and second sections, taking the reader through a kind of natural "inferno" landscape on the way to the redemptions of the last two sections. "Birth" speaks of this directly:
through the chamber
of the body
the harsh world,
of the flesh,
to love's terrible violence.
It will be exciting to see where Luke Hankins will go next as he makes his own way as a writer; it is clear from Weak Devotions that he will go somewhere we'll want to go, too. It is easy to have faith in poetry which is this essentially comfortable with the realities of human life, its suffering, pleasure, and promise.
Christopher Davis is a professor of creative writing at UNC Charlotte. His third collection of poetry is titled A History of the Only War, and his poems have appeared recently in Denver Quarterly, Hotel Amerika, Connotation Press: An Online Artifact, and American Literary Review.