Nick Norwood’s ‘Gravel and Hawk’
Gravel and Hawk
by Nick Norwood
Ohio University Press, $16.95 paperback, 72 pp.
Nick Norwood’s Gravel and Hawk, his fourth collection of poetry and winner of the Hollis Summers poetry prize, has struck me with its commanding voice. The speaker of these poems has a wonderful way with imagery that provides a strong sense of the rural Texas where his speaker grew up (along with a few ventures into neighboring states). Something as simple as a walk through a field contains “ground like black gumbo / slick and sticky, thick as an oilbase, a dark / mucus.” When I read through this collection, I experienced quite a bit of tension between Norwood’s willingness to be direct and matter-of-fact, and his alternate tendency to be rather sparing and reserved. Quite often a poem would leave me in full admiration of his craft, but it could also leave me feeling conflicted about how it ended. I was always able to observe the speaker’s command of the page, but that strong grip may, to some, also feel controlling, as if the author’s hand was still there guiding each line. In one sense, that’s a good thing. The voice was compelling and authoritative; it kept me rapt, eager to see where each poem went. It was difficult to become distracted reading these poems, because I always felt that something (even if I wasn’t certain what) was at stake, and that the speaker was forthright enough and far enough from sentimentality to eventually reveal what that was.
On the other hand, sometimes the journey seemed to quit too soon, hesitate (though never out of weakness or accident). It was as if we were on the threshold of an enormous revelation, but then the speaker thought better of it (perhaps out of humility) and stopped. The poem “Early Hunting Trip” has a clear enough set-up in the first two lines: “My cousin Tommy takes me / and a pair of Remingtons from the hall.” Then the next two lines of that quatrain draw me further in with the oddly charming image of “Our corduroys, stuffed with shells, bulge / like squirrel cheeks.” Immediately, the poem has me hooked. At the end though, after the speaker, snagged on barbed wire, “blast[s] the neon / orange hunting cap off Tommy’s head” I don’t actually know what happened. There’s a mystery that is partially obscure, and slightly unsatisfying. The final stanza intentionally reveals little:
He sprinkles tiny drops of blood
on the yellow grass. A single dove
explodes into air from near my feet,
creaks like a rusty gate in winging off.
Granted, I find this imagery excellent. It’s original. It’s visceral. I know enough with “sprinkles tiny drops of blood” that Tommy still has a head under his hat, and that the speaker hasn’t committed the unthinkable accident, but where is the speaker? Norwood’s speakers are so often observers that the internality feels a bit lost. This is why, at times, I feel that the locations and situations of the book are more accessible than the people (a sensation that is often true in real life, if a bit frustrating).
Another instance of this is in the poem “Haying,” where a wife listens to the “throb of the tractor’s diesel carrying over the fields” for hours. “At six, she eats a cold supper and blinks out the window…By ten, she knows: / this is something; it’s something.” What is this something? We learn, after she phones her adult son to check the fields, that “The old man has reached in the baler / without killing the motor. / It’s run fast idle, six, seven hours.” We never learn what happened to the old man, though the ultimate stanza, as before, hints at it:
Till two in the morning
men stand in the freshcut.
Their long shadows lean and stretch in a circle of light.
Voices kept low in the quiet.
In the end, I know it’s something bad, very bad, but bad is a vague sensation as there are many degrees of dread. Did I want or need graphic detail? Not really. If the poem had been sensationalized, I would have probably rolled my eyes at it, called it ham-fisted, forced. As it stands, I’m actually more inclined to reread the poem, if for no other reason than to see if I missed anything. The deliberateness of these choices on Norwood’s part made me question my own motives and aesthetics instead of distrusting him as an author. Was I underappreciating the simplicity of the poetry, taking a lack of detours as a lack of surprise or sense of adventure? Was I being an unfair reader? Despite any of my nitpicking, an author that can make me interrogate myself, simply through his writing style, has accomplished something substantial. Without the slightest hint of reader manipulation, a conversation had somehow opened between the poem and my own imagination. These two poems, though not my favorites in the book, had earned a life beyond the page.
The poems in Gravel and Hawk tend to be highly narrative in presentation and come together to form, among other things, a coming of age narrative amidst a desolate, often violent, landscape. The speaker’s father plays a key role in this and appears in a number of the poems. In “A.M.,” a relatively mundane scene becomes beautifully cinematic as his father shaves with the radio on:
“The one tiny speaker strains and crackles.
The air fattens on Patsy Cline.
Earnest Tubb comes on and it starts to wobble.
Daddy’s dark face, mirrored back a foot away,
half –shrouded in a cloud of Barbasol,
cuts through a cirrus of steam.
In T-shirt and boxers he’s like a linebacker
in a phone booth...
It’s a vivid scene as his father sings alongside the radio with a voice that “doesn’t level off / till it hits Oklahoma.” What immediately follows stings like a palm across the cheek:
“In six months he’ll be dead
his oilfield Cessna accordioned into the flats
near Olney. But right now he’s happy,
almost completely himself, a half-assed
country singer, playing to a packed house.
As a seeming elegy (the poem is footed with i.m. Richard Gaylon Norwood), this has a tremendous power, raw and honest, reverent yet hurt from the loss. I feel that when Norwood commits to the commentary that accompanies the beautiful imagery, he is at his absolute best, and the emotional strength of the poems shine through in a way that gives the characters a bit more dimension on the page. Poems like “Early Hunting Trip” or “Haying,” seem to circle this central anguish in a more conceptual way, perhaps colder or maybe mature and intelligent in their restraint. Regardless of where I fall between these two perspectives, I respect Norwood’s authorial decisions, because by all indications, they were all very carefully considered.
Although Norwood’s inclination is to go to the narrative packed with sharp imagery, he actually is equally capable in a pure lyric mode. “Firewood,” without any obligation to narrative resolution or completeness, wows me as “The swung axe thwacks, shh-wunks / into oak side” before the tree is “Rendered like a whale, chopped and channeled, loaded and stacked.” His sectioned lyric poems have a natural, earthiness worthy of Roethke as I can truly “Breathe talc / and camphor in this defunct smokehouse” or enter a storm cellar “More like a crypt, / a heap, or hummock, grassy shoulder / in the backyard beside the pasture.” In another poem, a dead cow ends up “Windblown, bone, / in six months she is // pasture gall. / Next year, grass.” In the pure description of the lyric poem, I lose my apprehension to his reserve which I had felt in some of the more story-driven pieces.
While I’ve said that I have mixed feelings about certain aspects of Norwood’s style, I don’t intend these to be read as dismissive, as I’ve never felt any disengagement with the text. He always had my full attention, and at worst, left me wanting more. While I may have my own inclinations and tastes as a reader and writer, I sincerely think these are accomplished poems that are worth reading once, if not twice. They might even be essential if you’re interested in this Texas landscape from almost half a century ago, rural living, a family dealing with loss, or even just original description and a good sense of the physical world. For every possible qualm or quibble (which are certainly subjective), I have twice as much praise.