Kate Buckley’s A Wild Region opens with a quotation from Wendell Berry’s The Record:
As the machines come and the people go
The old names rise, chattering and depart.
With these lines, one immediately sees what Buckley’s collection of poems will be about; the old names, her history and the history of her family in Kentucky; an expression of her own life through the lives and stories of her past. It may be hard for the modern urban or suburban reader to imagine these lives or a time when people died in the beds they were born in, as one of Buckley’s subjects does in “Coming Down Fall”, “covered with her grandmother’s quilts,/ patchworked with the fabrics of firsts and lasts:/ christening, communion, wedding gown - . . .” But Buckley manages to take us there and guides us on a long journey with many sights that thrill and terrify, often at the same time.
A pervasive theme in her work is the desire to leave, as others have left before, as well as the desire—but inability—to make others stay. With her spare and direct language, she shows the power of the monosyllable to convey the hardest truths, “she was there one day,/ and then she was not.”
A classically trained painter, Buckley is also very good at painting with words, as when she describes Kentucky as a “dark-veined monster burning coal in her belly” or remembers her grandmother watching her as she flew a kite on the hilltop, “skirt taut,/ caught between your legs, signaling something,/ I could not make out what,/ the kite obscuring my vision - /the wind would catch it, then let it fall.”
Many of the poems recall the work of poet Andrew Hudgins, both for their subject matter and use of forms. Perhaps these rhythms are a kind of heritage of the song and music of the culture that feature heavily in their poetry.
Like Hudgins, Buckley can convey the physical and emotional violence of characters without apology, presenting people as they were and laying bare their choices without too much explanation. In the poem “Rue”, she gives a thoughtful and surprising meditation on the unpopular subject of the title. No one is supposed to feel such an outdated emotion as rue in these modern days of quick apologies, no regrets and everything working out for the best. Certainly no one should look back, but the poem does look back as “Swampland sings its stuck-mud staccato,/ shaded path winds around the lake/ over and over to its starting place” and then makes the bold statement worthy of a Spartan, “There is truth in vengeance,/ in the flowering over and over/ of evil deeds.” The poem reminds us of the darker emotions beneath the surface that can creep slowly into our lives, as “grass tramped by heavy boots/ soon springs back.”
W.H. Auden once said “a poem is like a story . . . with all the boring parts left out.” Buckley certainly has many stories to tell, of birth and deaths, abandonment and murder. And she is a gifted storyteller. One of the most compelling stories is in “Mt. Eden”, about a housekeeper named Matt, killed by her minister husband.
Though the poem can be read as a good hair-raising tale for a dark night, there are details that make the story more affecting and poignant. The poem makes its own form, starting with a description that eerily foreshadows the subject’s death, “the way she moved, the way she spoke, like water when it has no wind/ and no reason to move,/ and so stays where it falls.” The reader comes to learn that Matt’s body will be poisoned and dropped into the pond, “weighted her swollen body with stone, pushed her over the bank in the cool, dark night . . . “
Matt’s tea is poisoned, the same cambric tea she would make for the speaker. Written in spare two line stanzas, the first half of the poem moves upward when Matt takes the speaker with her to clean the church, “while her voice played among the rafters.” In the second half of the poem, we sink down with the body, “a long slow journey to the bottom of the pond.” It’s an effective way to plot the narrative, giving some sense of form and shape to an inexplicable and mysterious act of violence. Perhaps, this is Buckley’s intent in many of her poems -- to take the chaotic and random pieces and make them fit, make them record a life, like a handmade quilt. Buckley’s poems are as beautiful and well-crafted.