A Life Above Water by Doug Van Gundy

Full disclosure: Doug is a buddy of mine (and a professor at West Virginia Wesleyan College, where I have just finished my MFA).


And how to separate the poems from the poet, when you know him so well? I heard these poems in my head read in Doug’s voice; they made me miss him. No, I am not an objective reviewer. But I did love this book.

It’s organized in three sections. “All These Indigestible Parts” includes poems set in the natural world, with little human interference. Doug considers bat, brown trout, black birch, jewel weed, barred owl, crow, sycamore, white oak, and so many more; these are lovely jewels of poems that I can see. Where poetry challenges me is where it grows less concrete; these poems are wonderfully close to the world that I know, and I’m comfortable with them.

“Fellowship and Baked Goods” handles human communities. Here are “crow-eyed bachlor men / who lived on the hillside and always smelled / of friend potatoes and machine oil,” “vegetables packed into a cellarful / of identical blue jars,” and a man in “three plaids and no teeth.” But it’s about how they relate to each other and to the natural world, too. Doug’s poems are full of place, the West Virginia that he’s from as well as Portland, Michigan and the Sonoran Desert… but mostly, Appalachia.

Finally, “The Great Slowing” is about the ends of things, like life. This is where we find the penultimate poem “Martins Ferry,” for James Wright and after his “Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio,” a poem I’ve now studied a few times in the last few years and that I love. Actually Doug’s poetry is often ekphrastic, or written after or about other art: poems, books, films, paintings. I think he has an excellent feel for a last line. Every one of these poems left me ringing, like a gong.

This book came out in 2007 and I know Doug has a few manuscripts ready to come in the next few years. I cannot wait. This is the kind of poetry that works for me: concrete, heartfelt, not without metaphor and music but rooted in or related to a world I know and can appreciate. Good job, friend. Thanks for sharing this with us.


Rating: 8 fingered feathers.

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