An introduction to the work of Jack B. Bedell

by Jake Adam York

If you have ever been to south Louisiana, you will know why water dominates Jack Bedell’s work. There is little else. Swamps and bayous hatch the map, and what land there is is mostly water — so much so, houses float, their foundations like pontoons, just above the water table or rise on stakes like oceanfront homes. There’s so much water, in fact, the mountain-born aren’t even sure the land should be so called.

But Jack Bedell’s poetry, even as it considers the inevitable rise of water, gives south Louisiana’s land an indisputable life. Here, land is the precious and precisely negotiated zone of human life.

Its boundaries are permeable. Solids tend easily to dissolution in water, as the hips of Bedell’s swimmer in “The One Thing That Sticks” “roll… over into waves,” or the remains of the dead, in “At the Bonehouse,” “returned to life by the slow, / consuming burn of water.”

But the imminence of such solution underscores the heartiness of the surface as much as its ephemerality. It is above the water’s level that Bedell and his various partners conquer the water with their very hands. Their reels are tools — to be used in whatever ways will catch the quarry — as is their God, the everlasting hook that pulls redfish in “Les Mains du Bon Dieu” and draws cash in “For the Boy in Bayou Blue Who Spoke in Tongues.”

And the dominance that marks the land from the water also marks the land from the air. If the apotheosis of Bon Dieu as a fishing rod in “Les Mains” weren’t proof enough, Bedell’s “Fall, Batfishing” leaves no doubt that marking land also means canceling it from the air. Here, Bedell remembers using a fishing rod, baited with an apple, to drag a bat to the ground. The catch horrifies him in retrospect, as he now knows that “bats must fall into flight and know / nothing of the severity of ground.” But it is in such an exchange that the land, so often almost watery, gains the severity that supports Bedell’s weight.

In Bedell’s hands, south Louisiana bears the weight not of a life only, but of a way of life. Louisianans must, like Bedell, be ready to declare themselves visitors, buffeted as they are by the moods of water. But these poems, and the life to which they introduce us, suggest that the state is much heartier than it must appear at times.

If Bedell’s work is any testament, then the place survives because, like the great river that shaped the land, it is as supple as it is determined: though it moves, it will not be moved. It stays, a place.

Jake Adam York is the poetry editor of storySouth.