Book Reviews by Ace Boggess
Azrael on the Mountain   by Victor Depta
Blair Mountain Press, 2002 (ISBN 0966660854)

Reading Azrael on the Mountain is like taking a long rural walk among the living, or the dead.  So many shadowy faces to see along the way, and so many stories waiting behind those eyes to be explored.  Appalachian poet Victor Depta takes us on that journey, stopping to say of everyone he meets "Who are you?" and "What's your story?  Where do you come from?"  He captures their lives and the myths of their lives in vivid detail, sometimes funny or insightful, but more often dark, brooding, ominous.
      Writing mostly in long Whitmanesque lines that flow like essays, Depta hits and misses with the form.  Like a Ginsberg of the mountains, he rambles and rants, often with a style and language more suited to essays, short stories, or narrative nonfiction, as in the poem "Delbert":

      I mean he's as likely to blow your head off as notI start honking my
           horn and hollering the minute I turn up the laneit used to be
           a fine placenow the sheds lean worse than a drunk, the tin's
           all rusted and worn loose, half of it blown off, the barn sags
           like a swayback, the fences are down, the hay's uncut and him
           on the porch in a kitchen chair.

      While much of his writing in this style misses what poetry is, one then he never misses is what people are.  He invokes their images, personality traits and quirks, their beliefs and disbeliefs, the blue-collar ethics, and everything else important about his subjects, as in "Sister Gladys":

       That sister of mine is about as interested in the mountains as I am in
           doilies which, by the way, she's draped over everything,
           including her jambox and her VCR machine.  I can stop along
           Route 10 to admire the viewI don't get up that way very
           often, visiting family and such, and she starts bitching will you
           go on, dammit, they'll be in bed before we get there

      Of course, these prose-like depictions only fill about two-thirds of Depta's collection.  The poet at times shows his understanding of his craft and also his love for classical mythologies, writing brilliantly in more traditional lines and stanzas.  He takes myth after myth and relates them to land, natives, and the nature of the Appalachian people.  He does this with an artist's sweeping strokes, hitting upon lines both powerful and vivid, as in his poem "Ovid":

      though Pluto remained
       not the dear divinity of the grain and the wealth it brings
       but the deep-delving god, Dis of the mineral earth
       of blackness and death
       and he, in a metamorphosis of which such deities are capable
       became, as the locals aptly express themselves
       lord god!
       it's the dozers up there
       it's the coal trucks
       it's the dragline machine.

      Recommendation: Azrael on the Mountain is worth a read on two different levels: 1) the understanding of a culture, and 2) a glimpse of all that is beautiful contained in all that is ugly.  While this collection of poems may not be for everyone, for those with an interest in the mountains, mountainfolk or human perspectives beyond the news and stereotypes in modern popculture, this book hits home like a brick through the window.  Hard to pass up reading the note attached.
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Reviewed Nov. 20, 2002
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