Presenting engagements (including reviews) of poetry books & projects. Some issues also offer Featured Poets, a "The Critic Writes Poems" series, and/or Feature Articles.

Saturday, May 2, 2015



The Coal Life
 by Adam Vines
(The University of Arkansas Press, 2012)

Adam Vines’s prominent style of ‘show, don’t tell’ draws readers into his world of poems without much difficulty. He rarely speaks in abstractions and instead usually begins with a scene that has mostly to do with fishing, mining, raising kids, being a son, and observing nature; all experiences somehow related to masculinity. His clear and concise expression in the poems addresses a lot about normal and peculiar life without sugar coating much of it. Considering that Professor Vines, a professor of English Honors Program at University of Alabama, is an avid fan of nature and in contrast has experienced rapid technological development since he was young, this collection of poems best represents what he feels and has experienced in this world.

Professor Vines does not stick with one specific style of poem but instead wanders around many to fit his themes best. Not only does he use many stanzas to emphasize silence and graveness in some of his poem, but also writes in one single stanza to highlight flow and connectedness in others. There are also a lot of other styles that have their own themes. Look at the poem ‘Toilet Flowers’, for example.

They sat in an open box next to the toilet

I shared with my three brothers, father,
and mother. They didn’t come with Mother’s warnings
or reprimands like “Don’t swordfight with the plunger;
______ will kill you; _____ will make you go blind.”
I knew they were for her, all else was a mystery.

In this poem, the boy slowly discovers the truth of his mother and her use of tampon. He slowly realizes that these mysterious objects are for her, but has no idea of their function. The speaker compares the objects to other objects found in the bathroom that have come with warnings. In a house full of three boys, it is easy to imagine them swordfighting with the plunger and other miscellaneous items that may be dangerous. However, the tampons come with none. They are simply there to be a mystery. Another poem ‘Burying the Dead’ deals with remembering his father because his dad has passed away when he was eighteen.

I tell myself this time I’ll dig deeper.
I wave Mom off like Dad would,
tell her I’m too busy for lunch—
the dead must be buried
because the rain will come again

It is about “if one ever can really move beyond the sorrow,” and is “ based on a recurring dream I [he] had for years” ( interview with Adam Vines). In this particular part, he is planning to bury his “army men and cowboys” deeper into the ground because the rains have brought them closer to the surface. These objects are the “dead,” but he does this as a ceremony to bring back memories of his father. The poems ‘Path’ as well as ‘Almost Clean’ also deal with the speaker’s father.

Besides his transitioning theme and style of his writing, his language seems to be consistently using colloquial language, such as barge and slough. It turns out he is in love with ”language/jargon from industry and disciplines outside of what we commonly associate with the arts” ( interview with Adam Vines) because it brings to the readers a sense of the rhetorical as well as sensory richness. It gives him a sense of mastery of what is he narrating about. The jargon also coherently demonstrates his use of “show, don’t tell” through specific details and language.

The speaker poses many questions on church and religion in his book. In “The Baptist Steeple,” the speaker says that “The steeple never rose above the spoils,” indicating the holy aspirations of the church never rise above the works of the common man that the church hopes to serve. He uses working men’s language to show the gritty life and experiences of the subjects he chooses. There are other poems in which immaterial things become more substantial than actual things. In his poem “Overburden,” shadows are a dominant motif that motivates more action than other physical objects in the poem. In these poems, Vines’ sense of language brings weight to physically immaterial things, bringing gravity and substance to things that would otherwise be inconsequential.

Vines also seems sanctify the works of laymen. In his poem “Path,” the speaker says that “At shift change, children who can’t sleep / forget the sky and look to the path for stars.” The stars are actually the lanterns that the children’s fathers are carrying out of the mines. Through such imagery, it is clear that Vines has a tremendous appreciation for working class life. The language he uses to describe such gritty work is more appropriate for religious and academic contexts. However, Vines makes it work to his favor.

Vine shows how the everyday experience has been and continues to be a huge influence on his work. He paints and sketches with language instead of paint and graphite. The Coal Life contains a few ekphrastic poems. Quite a few poems mention visual artists or paintings. The visual rhetoric is what he is interested in most: anxieties between objects, people, and the natural world. The painting may have a narrative embedded in it or fruitfully ambiguous tension or idea. His poems are essentially responses to the rhetoric.


Min Gu Kim Bio: I am a senior at Indian Springs School, originally from Seoul, South Korea. I’ve been to Canada (Toronto) for several years to learn English. This year, Amnesty International appointed me as a Student Activist Coordinator for the state of Alabama. In this role, I will serve as the student contact for all student groups in the state and help other high schools form Amnesty International Chapters, according to a press release from the school. I am also the Founder and President of Amnesty International on campus. I am currently planning to go to college in the U.S. When I am not writing or leading the club, I enjoy planning soccer and making sculptures.

Jongyoon Choi: I am a senior at Indian Springs School, originally from Seoul, South Korea. My family moved to the U.S. for several years when I was in the middle school because of my father's job. I enjoy watching movies and reading books. I am currently planning to go to college in the U.S.

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