by BENJAMIN MYERS
reviewed by CAROL HAMILTON
Lamar University Literary Press, 2019
Benjamin Myers' third volume of poetry, Black Sunday, is a change of pace for this accomplished Oklahoma poet. In it, he continues to deal with his homeland and themes of family and neighbors, but delves into history and turns to formal poetry in a series of persona poems in sonnet form as he tells the story of a Dust Bowl-plagued family and their neighbors.
The collection is interlaced with grainy photographs from the era, trees scrubbed free of leaves by wind and sharp-grained dust and vehicles in a dirt-filled sky, their lights like insect eyes emerging from shadowy closets.
Lily Burns, the mother of the protagonist family, sets the stark scene:
The static in the dust could knock a big
man down and stall a car mid-street, its dark
battery drained. Soon men learned how to rig
their cars with dragging chains to ground the sparks.
And her husband, Will, expresses the constantly-frustrated dreams of so many farmers who staked their family's future to the lure of farming the plains, often on government land giveaways:
That sweet, deep black turned green when shoots came out,
and, boy, I thought of money when I saw it.
I thought it'd turn to gold, if there's no drought.
Then we'd be in the black, is what I thought.
But every golden thing soon turned dead brown.
Myers' story is carried through the worries of Lily and Will for their farm and their daughter, who looks back on her childhood memories, as well as through the point of view of a village school teacher, concerned for her pupils, and the town drunk, already hopeless enough, sleeping in abandoned homesteads and barns:
Most times the wells
are dry. I look down their earth throats and think
I'd like to fall deep dark into some fresh hells.
Don't mind me. I think I need a drink.
Perhaps the most compelling character is the Reverend, come West to try to do some good after the death of his beloved wife. He struggles to make sense of the suffering:
Do you then read the Book of Nature's red
ink dribbled down the posts? Consider all
the world's wide gore, the white-tailed deer that's spread
across the road, the earth's unlapped offal.
Everything broken must be broken again.
I will make you fissures of men.
Returning often to his own confusion at his personal loss, the pastor reminds us of our stark helplessness against the truths of nature even without choosing to battle in such harsh lands.
Each character shows how the human spirit goes on trying to make sense and purpose from what we cannot change. Will, for example, wonders if we were never meant to be here:
We're like the tumbleweed that hid
in seed that shipped from overseas and now
runs thick as bandit gangs across the plains.
The dirt storm gone, I'd swear I saw the marks
of warriors' horses half-mooned in the dust.
With stories and photos and an occasional short poem inserted on the hardscrabble land, even today, almost all is gray, little color or cheer to be gleaned from such tragedy. Yet Myers' skill as storyteller and poet keeps the reader engaged and lifted by the kind of beauty only found in the sharing of such heartbreaking human grit.
And then he gives us a fascinating Part II: "The Faith Healer." This long narrative poem, one that could only take place in this land of extremes, tells of men and women and children beaten down to the core truths of existence while still sharing fantastic beliefs in miracles often framed in rustic showmanship. The inclusion of this story surprised me at first. Later it seemed so fitting in this place where I remember, as a child, sneaking in with cousins and friends to the back rows at tent revivals to see the preacher's frenzied throwing of chairs and Bibles at the crowds of stirred-to-hysteria sinners or, years later, listening while driving across the flat lands late at night to letters written to those radio evangelists who could heal from afar, tales of how the sick cat jumped up, fur electrified, healed by sitting on the radio.
Myers' healer story features Lily as a girl. This story must somehow mysteriously fit into our tale of later times. But like many things in life and literature, I can't quite figure it out. Still, in Myers' hands, in the end it feels right.
Black Sunday gives us a tenacious people, full of dreams, come to a harsh land and staying to learn and survive their desperate days through one catastrophe after another from the hands of God, the policy-makers, and the bankers. Somehow they kept going. Oklahoma has a perfect chronicler of such a people in Ben Myers, and Black Sunday is a masterful re-telling of an era and of a people.
CAROL HAMILTON has recent and upcoming publications in Commonweal, Bluestem, Southwestern American Literature, Pour Vida, The Maynard, Sanskrit Literary Magazine, U.S.1 Worksheet, Broad River Review, Homestead Review, Shot Glass Journal, Poem, Louisiana Literature, Haight Ashbury Poetry Journal, The Aurorean, Blue Unicorn, Birmingham Poetry Review, Pigeonholes Review, and others. She has published 17 books: children's novels, legends and poetry, most recently, Such Deaths from Virtual Arts Cooperative Press Purple Flag Series. She is a former Poet Laureate of Oklahoma.