Oyster Boy Review 10  
  January 1999
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Babylon in a Jar

Kevin McGowin

  Babylon in a Jar.
Andrew Hudgins.
Houghton Mifflin, 1998.
72 pages, $22.
ISBN: 0395909945

This is Andrew Hudgins' fifth book of poems, and it breathes. This, I think, is why we bother to still read poetry: for the freshness and honesty Hudgins brings to his vivid narratives and for their poignant imagery, poems that move and live beyond the confines of the page and the catatonic state of much of what these days passes for poetry, but which are little more than stale and unoriginal academic pretensions: "still-life poetry," I call it. But Hudgins speaks to us, and he connects—sometimes softly, sometimes with a controlled and carefully calibrated rage, but he speaks our language and the poems succeed.

Technically, this collection is a maturation for Hudgins—he often breaks up the line here, achieving a more dynamic and polyphonic voice than in many of the poems in The Glass Hammer, which for me were at times flat, making an otherwise brilliant collection uneven and less passionate than I'd come to expect from his earlier work. But here the devices work, and are most appropriate to the book's themes of the presence of the past in the present and the daily difficulties of understanding experience and making sense of it. Names and allusions weighty with connotations crop up where you'd least expect them in these poems, and the weight of a word or a phrase or a name reflect the title and morph into transcendent images, like "the redbud's gnarled / calligraphy, / azaleas red as every word that Jesus uttered" ("After Muscling Through Sharp Greenery") or "the sermon and its commerce, the wind's new commerce, / and breathed it in and breathed it out and breathed it in" ("Ashes"). There are the familiar Hudgins themes and Biblical allusions, the memories of being young; the ephemeral and the destructive presses of time, as well as the magnificent epiphanies from seemingly mundane scenes ("Ball"). Overall the poems become a wresting of meaning from all this fractured experience that makes Hudgins a truly major American poet, among the greatest (if not the greatest) of his generation.

I've felt this way about Hudgins since I read his classic "Mary Magdalene's Left Foot" in his first collection, Saints and Strangers, which introduces many of the themes (including "Babylon") fully realized in the present volume. And I never could have imagined he'd equal the riveting sublimity of "My Father's House" from the first book or "Dead Christ" and "Bewilderments of the Eye" from The Never-Ending (1991); the raw and rending power of After the Lost War: A Narrative (1988), or my favorite, the unrevised version of "Tricks of the Body" as it appeared in the New England Review (collected in The Glass Hammer, 1994).

But he has, and he's added to it. This, guys, is the stuff. Taken as a whole, this collection is Andrew Hudgins, finest yet; but why and how that is, is almost beside the point, for me, as I put the book down. The point is that these poems often gave me chills, down my neck and my back. Chills I haven't felt for far too long.