BROADSTONE BOOKS, JUNE 15, 2021
A version of this review was published by the James Dickey Review, 2021.
Why is it that we seem predestined to live our lives clinging to false doctrine designed to keep us mindlessly avoiding truth, in spite of daily proof that our misconceptions are irrational? In a time when having the loudest megaphone trumps reason, is there a place for critical thinking? Is there still room for true empathy? In his first full-length collection of poems, Intentional Fallacies, Edison Jennings explores the themes of falling from grace and its consequences, life and death, and what ultimately defines the sacred and profane. But perhaps most importantly, Jennings engages the reader to reexamine what they have been told to think and, instead, to use compassion as the way to find truth and understanding.
As in his previously published chapbooks (Reckoning, Small Measures, and A Letter to Greta), Jennings, in this 2021 release, proves to be a brilliant observer of the people and places in his native southwestern corner of Virginia. While illuminating the defilement and subsequent ruin of the once beautiful—now dying—towns of Appalachia, he wastes no time with subtleties. Instead, he slices with precision, revealing a misunderstood and complex world.
Jennings searches for, and typically finds, dignity in the citizens of these dust-choked mining towns. Many of whom are simultaneously addicted to both substance and survival. In the poem “Country Song,” a couple does what it takes to subsist in rural America:
and he drives a long-haul truck,
popping Addies to stay awake,
selling weed for an extra buck
to pay off their subprime loan
and not have their house repo’d.
“We’re screwed,” he says, “screwed to the bone.”
And despite their flaws, or perhaps because of them, Jennings finds beauty and treats his characters with respect:
And though they get high, they somehow survive
and manage to raise three kids
(who say they’ll visit, but never arrive).
Last night she held him while he was asleep
and heard him mutter, “ain’t nothing will keep.”
Whoever dies first, the other will weep.
Biblical references abound in many of the poems, juxtaposing the holy and the irreverent, a contrast no doubt common in many parts of the world but conspicuously predominant in the ancient hills of the eastern U.S. where Saturday nights and Sunday mornings can often be as different as, well, night and day. For example, in “Spontaneous Combustion,” sheep farmers come up on a burning stump. One of the men insist it is a burning bush, where he then “… knelt and asked its name…”. The two farmers begin drinking from a flask and joke about the divine imagery as they continue “working the meadows, drinking whiskey, mending fence, / sipping fire that maketh glad the heart of man.”
Hinting at the Eden-like splendor that once existed in these rural communities, Jennings pulls back the curtain exposing the horror brought on by greed, poverty, loss, and hate. Through many of his poems in this collection, Jennings examines people who have been put in the ironic situation where, in order to live, they must dedicate their lives completely to the one thing that will ultimately lead to their deaths. In “Tipple Town,” the residents desperately cling to religion and community as a major coal plant shuts down, eliminating jobs and leaving the town in state of apocalyptic dystopia:
The coal dust settles everywhere,
and fish are dying in the creek.
Mama thinks death’s in the air.
The coal dust settles everywhere.
Now Daddy drinks and doesn’t care
that mining made his lungs real weak.
The coal dust settles everywhere,
and fish are dying in the creek.
Jennings lays bare the hypocrisy of having compassion for only those who look like us, believe in our own traditions, or come from our own towns. Three narrative poems, “Cold Spring Morning and the Grade School,” “The Klansman,” and “My Fascist” cunningly reveal how unconditional love can shelter appalling horrors in our families, friendships, and communities. How we unquestioningly allow love and hate to somehow justifiably coexist.
Jennings reserves his most scathing treatment to those who willfully refuse to acknowledge the plight of their community, those who succumb to the allure of greed, those who strive to prove their worth by denigrating their very own neighbors, those who use tradition to justify hate. Similar to the paradox of how destructive industries or substance abuse can be both sustenance and death to the poor, Jennings demonstrates how the self-proclaimed righteous deliberately excuse, or in many cases, embrace those in power who are often responsible for bringing them ruin. In “The Financier’s Lenten Confession, A Dramatic Monologue,” a rich man reveals that as long as he appears pious to the working class, he will continue to be revered despite his greed and manipulation.
And while these concepts certainly pertain to our current tumultuous times, they are not new observations. Far from it. They are simply extensions of time-tested manipulations observed in societies since the beginning of time. The cover Jennings chose for this collection (Satan Watching the Endearments of Adam and Eve – one of the many illustrations created by poet and artist William Blake for an 1808 edition of John Milton’s Paradise Lost) is evocative and gives a hint of what is found inside.
To take the metaphor one step further, Jennings demonstrates our gullibility before or during our seemingly inevitable falls from grace. The Dickey-esque poem “Rainstorm” tells of the youthful naivety of a reckless, hell-bound road trip “across the rich and sinful South.” Jennings then explores the unspeakable grief that often accompanies our collapse such as in “Blue Plate Special,” where a girl’s father and her boyfriend share a dinner together after her untimely death.
The poems collected in Intentional Fallacies are not only the continuation of the story of the fall of man, but how we struggle with the consequences of decisions—those made by us, and those made for us. Jennings uses gut-punch imagery to paint a desperate landscape populated by soulful people struggling against dire situations, and yet still searching for love and peace and meaning. These poems are expertly crafted and easily accessible, especially those written in narrative free verse. However, it is perhaps the more structured poems, with their almost singsong rhythms and clever rhymes that are most memorable in the collection, evoking the oral tradition of storytelling that has been handed down across time, civilizations, and traditions in this small corner of the world and beyond.
Available at Broadstone Books (click on image below), independent bookstores, and Amazon.
A previous version of this review was published in the 2021 issue of the James Dickey Review. Special thanks to the editors who worked with me to make this review better!