a literary review
More and more I find myself drawn to poetry collections that hold together, collections in which the poems are individual entities, yes, but also building blocks in some larger monument. This is just the kind of book Justin Evans has written in Hobble Creek Almanac. Divided into three sections, the book centers around the history of Springville, Utah. In its early poems it explores the motivations and experiences of the Mormon settlers who packed up, traveled west, and settled there more than a hundred and fifty years ago. Part two deals with life in Springville in the early twentieth century, while part three appears to take up the poet’s personal history with the town. Just as it was a leap of faith for the settlers to uproot and move west to settle Springville, it was a leap of faith for Evans to take up this story and turn local history into art all these years later. After reading only a handful of the poems, I already liked Evans’s authentic sense of purpose—this is not a book the world would necessarily know it needed. Instead it is a book that feels as if it has come out of the deep personal need to revive and make art from something that might otherwise be lost.
Hobble Creek Almanac isn’t a perfect collection. A handful of the early poems get caught up in more general rumination, and while they’re fine, some even very good, as individual poems, when stacked on top of each other they create a sort of throat-clearing effect at the beginning of the book.
Take “Doubt,” for instance, which is a fine poem and thematically essential to the first section as a whole. In it, the settlers, fallen on hard times, “. . .begin to question/the strength of their faith.” If hardships had been the focus of more of the poems preceding “Doubt,” the effect might have been even more powerful. Instead, more of the poems tend toward “Instructions Given for the Naming of Places and Wild Beasts During the Establishment of Zion,” concerned with the bigger themes such as the fact that “. . . the names you give this land/will not outlast your lives without first/passing them to your children . . .” By no means is the first section weak, but it could have done with a few more poems in the vein of “Letter from Tryphena Bisbee Crandall to her Sisters, Polly and Sarah,” which lays bare the particular difficulties and personal fears the settlers must have faced daily:
Oh, sisters, I am weary. After a bitter winter, heavy with snow, the river swelled with spring runoff, washed away the bridge which has served these last three years. Two families lost their homes with the flood and now must share quarters while we build anew. The river spread mud and rock over many acres of land and must be cleared again, before we can plant.
Or a few more like “Great Grasshopper War, 1855,” which is both a beautiful account of a specific event and an interesting metaphor for what the settlers might face: “Finding nothing to eat . . .” the grasshoppers “. . . all died off/without mating, without insuring/the coming of another generation.”
Some of the best parts of Hobble Creek Almanac are the “found” poems, adapted from Evans’s research sources or, in some cases, entirely fabricated. They fit seamlessly into the whole, and in doing so, lend even greater authenticity to the poems that surround them. For instance, the inclusion of lyrics to a hymn, “His Kingdom Throne,” gives us a feel for what the mindset, or perhaps the soulset, of the historical Springville might have been, while inclusion of a series of fictional “unpublished fragments” from real-life early-twentieth-century Springville poet Achilles Blanchard, many of which mediate on the local landscape, cleverly invent a tradition for what Evans is trying to accomplish himself. It is as if Evans is giving Blanchard, and Springville itself, a chance to voice what never got voiced, using his imagination to give shape and meaning to history. And in fact, consider the following lines from “Gift,” a poem in which Evans uses Blanchard’s voice:
Here in this small valley
my whole world comes to life.
I am at once happy,
content, absent of strife.
The poem shares a deep for the shared landscape with Evans’s “On My Way to Work,” not written in Blanchard’s voice, in which the speaker wants to take a rock home and place it on his mantle, to
let it know I mean
to be a friend
worthy of breaking
its silent vow,
teach it to trust
“Morning Feed, 1904,” also from this section, is a simple description of how the rising sun will make a cold routine more bearable, but I love it for its simplicity and for the way it so fully resurrects a single moment more than a hundred years gone.
“Discovery” is another poem that appears simple on the surface—a son finds an Indian spearhead on his father’s land—but because the poem does not specify time period, it could both be a modern-day farm boy suddenly understanding the dangers his ancestors must have faced as the spearhead, in his pocket, “threaten[s] to cut [him] with each step” or a farm boy of the past to whom the spearhead might represent a more immediate fear.
Another standout in section two includes “Instructions Given for the Proper Treatment of Stillbirth, Premature, and Miscarriage Births,” which is just what the title suggests. There is a shocking power in the last stanza:
For the miscarriage of unknown length
the family doctor will cremate the remains
in the kitchen stove, the corporeal flesh
forever mingling with the family, breathed in,
carried on with those children that have lived.
Section three, then, seems to move forward to a past more closely connected to the present day. Here, the poet attempts to provide open-hearted, personal connection to Springville.
In “It’s Like that in Springville, Forever” the poet concludes that he is “. . . somewhat certain/I will end where I began.” “Why Springville?” goes on to further that connection without giving a clear answer as to the poem’s title question, only telling us that what pulls him back is “. . . a leviathan waiting to/pull me under with its eternal grasp into the cold.”
A few pages later, in “Oddity,” he is more forthcoming about the appeal, explaining:
I can see the dried, yellow husks of
past incarnations littering the outskirts of town,
wind and gravel having worn them paper thin,
all memory of this place lost from their cells,
forcing me to lift up the new pavement
as I look for the past where others have buried it.
These poems are perfectly placed. After the hard work of relaying, reconstructing, and in some cases outright inventing for us the place’s history in the prior two sections, we feel even more invested because we’ve seen how invested the poet is, and the self-reflection feels earned.
Throughout Hobble Creek Almanac the poems return to the idea of consciously creating something for posterity. Justin Evans imagines the people who settled Springville as concerned about a legacy, and so he gives them one and in the process really does blow life into the history of a little, out-of-the-way western town where one might be surprised to learn real people lived and struggled and loved and died.
In “Reflection,” the settling of Springville is described as a “life of service to God” to be made into “one long breath, a single exhale/spanning the decades.” Hobble Creek Almanac is a book of service to history, and it too is an extended breath that reaches across time. I’m glad it reached me.