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We never know how and when a superb literary voice is born, much less what makes it happen.

But happen once more it has with the young poet Travis Mossotti’s first published collection of poetry About the Dead, winner of the 2011 May Swenson publication prize from Utah State University.

This year’s contest was judged by my old acquaintance and American icon Garrison Keillor. My initial response to his selection was driven by several things I’d like to clear up. One, that I could only find two of Mossotti’s poems online by which to make an off the cuff response to his work, which as it turns out are among the few weaker poems in his book, and two, that I feel strongly that no one should be allowed to enter a publication contest under the age of say, forty-five. Further, it seemed to me that the Swenson prize should be judged by a woman, as women are still under-represented in American arts and letters and Swenson’s oeuvre displays a brilliant woman writer in utter mastery of her craft.

These may be outrageous statements to some but hear me out. We have M.F.A. graduates pouring out of our schools now possessing a high degree of technical proficiency. They have enjambment and figurative language, the popular tone of alienation and focus on life’s many contradictions down. What they lack often, in my view, is the depth of experience and vision—and voice—to produce a coherent body of work in which the quality is uniformly high, and too many of their poems deal in pyrotechnics and surfaces without any soul to them. I make these judgments about my own small press book Reunion, published in 1987 while I was earning the MFA at Colorado State University. When I read the book now I see awkward turns of phrase, blunders of diction, convoluted, idiosyncratic imagery that I would now revise.

The other bone I’ve picked before on this blog: to me it is a shame that contest manuscript screening is most often placed in the hands of graduate students. I could name you at least fifty poets over the age of 45 who’ve been left in the dust because of the half-formed and often ill-considered aesthetics of MFA students who, it has been said more than once, are also dying to please their mentors.

Having said these things, I have lived with Mr. Mossotti’s book for several days, opening my heart and mind to his work. He is a fabulous poet and an exception to my broad-brush commentary on MFA’s.

Consider these lines, that come later in the collection but speak to the whole:

Extinction is such a harsh word. I pray for words/ that soften with each use until we may forget/their meaning altogether. I pray to never/become extinct or fashionable. I pray to live/inside the hallowed walls of your mouth forever.

An ambitious statement for a young poet. Mossotti’s book of course—although dramatically and glossily black, both cover and jacket– is not grounded in death but in life, and life’s apprehensions of mortality. His masterful long poem Decampment, which launches the collection,   is a lyrical coming of age poem that with steadily building and piquant imagery unveils the speaker’s relationship with his father.

Long before the night my father and I hiked the rim/of chicory and sedge that marked our property,/generations of ghosts already meandered down/the ephemeral streambeds’ smoothed cavities,/making camp under colonies of black elm, cypress.. And with this alluring invocation an odyssey begins.

This rich poem merits several re-readings for its exactitude and beauty of language, simple, spare and yet compelling: “…A train of empty boxcars slugged by before dawn /and carried us back to Aynor like kings/..defeated. I threw up three times in a ditch,/dunked my head into a bucket of rainwater, …stepped inside, a new man.”

This poem of Mossotti’s has received a great deal of exposure and been made into an animated film. You can see the film here—be sure to have the text on hand.

About the Dead contains poems of loss and longing interspersed with vignettes of southern life, spare and dry landscapes somehow rich in flora and fauna— moments both tangible, poignant and surreal, funded at times with a sense of detachment and alienation. In many of these poems Mossotti’s imagery is unerring—it is as if we are reading someone with a compass in his hand who plots his course carefully and both knows materially although perhaps not spiritually just yet, where he is.

The poet’s control over his material is thus admirable to me, and as noted I have encountered numerous unmatchable lines of lyricism, leading me to understand why Mr. Keillor selected this work. It strikes the balance between keen, singular  and often quite witty observations of the quotidian and it clearly comes from what one must call the American narrative.

In I’m explaining a few things Mossotti writes…

There’s an old bullet lodged in the field of scrub
behind my house that’s grown colorless as dirt.

The land is implacable, even as its familiar scene
of death and light retreats into the browning dusk.

Offspring of the offspring of the offspring
of crows cross over the thistle and brush,

Cross over ground that remembers nothing of human loss.”

While the poem alludes to an act of violence, the full-on descriptor—implacable, familiar scene/of death and light…browning dusk are quintessentially and referentially American lines wrought from the vast and great dreamscape/landscape ever giving rise to the survivor self.

Certainly the Speaker in our contemporary  tradition places himself or herself in the land from which he has sprung, the love and tenderness for place and all inhabitants of that place that dwell in his bones, as in the fabulous poem The Dead Cause:

On the porch, a grasshopper waved
its serrated foreleg at me while I juggled

Groceries for keys; it was the kind
of friendly wave I might’ve expected

From a loved one, recently dead,
reincarnated into this green husk.

The whole ordeal triggered an alarm
of distant thunder, stuffing my head

With dark seeds; so after waving back,
I ducked inside, fearful…

But the natural world is as disturbing to the speaker as it is familiar. As I read on in the collection,  the conflict between love and fear from which the work takes its dynamism led me to wonder what resolution might be waiting. And, most of the poems have backbone, ribs and flesh, have been hewn with an ax, worked at with a chisel and singed at to intensify their language.

This is not a convoluted poetry forcing the reader to guess and  unravel the poet’s meaning or to speculate whether the poem means anything at all, which is the case with so much poetry in currency now.  Mossotti’s work is highly accessible for the most part and saved from the prosaic by what feels like an unerring love of language.

I will touch on something that could be a matter of vigorous debate; this is a very masculine book; the work’s references/objective correlatives if you will,  arise from a young man’s world. Consider the referential maleness of these lines from Saxifrage:

The gym’s boxing room has the sunken décor
of a Fifties bomb shelter—a heavy bag
girthier than an elephant’s penis, loafing
pendulumatic, long after the barrage of punches
have stopped. I used to imagine pummeling

The chops of the guy who slept with my ex.
Thump, Wham! Thump, Thump, Wham!
Knucklebone, Catharsis. Winged prayer
field-dressed like a pheasant. But sooner
or later, everyone has to move on: tornado

swipples a huddle of yearlings from the field…

How unexpected knucklebone and catharsis, followed by a winged prayer “field-dressed.”  How indelibly male this voice, to write “a huddle of yearlings from the field.”

And the last stanza of Decampment:

Our house sank two inches
the day after my father died.

The foundation split. My mother
kept tripping over the new cracks
in the front porch, and Cora
spun a screwdriver on the rail.
My head filled with cement.
That night, I hiked four miles

over rotting trestle
to the abandoned quarry…

These poems do, in their own admirably direct way, radiate compassion, humanity; in general the speaker is the witness, the somewhat taciturn observer, as if to articulate comes with a price, as if one is unused to unfettered expression, another masculine/male aspect of Mossotti’s work.

The last poem, Only Then, returns us to the primal father-son relationship:

…My father would light those
stubby brown cigars and lean
over the rail of the back deck
like a Buddhist shaving his head
in the dark: he would smoke and
stare past the forest and imagine
the coming winter and the next….

I had a bit of trouble with the title poem of the book which I found compelling in its earliest stanzas– What remains/ of the dead fascinates me. In Paris, I wandered/ the Catacombs for hours looking at the bones- stacked so neatly. The plagues were so efficient/ at producing bones to stack—the churches’ graveyards /dug up and brought by horse-cart under moonlight/ to the vacant sarcophagi of the old Roman quarries

However then for me, the poem takes a plunge; the speaker recounts literally arrested lovers on Jim Morrison’s grave in graphic language: “The man’s cock remained a hard, diligent protester/bouncing as they hauled him away over the cobblestone path/out of the cemetery—something still locked up inside him.”

All of us encounter surreal moments in human affairs and are so struck by the irony there we endeavor to give it voice. Certainly “diligent protestor” intrigues. But as a 63 year old fellow poet and reader–and woman– I trip over this blatant double entendre regarding coitus interruptus; I have no idea where this poem might have gone but we have wandered far from the intensely compelling image of the efficient plague, to something gratuitously graphic.

Despite this misstep, and here and there for me jarring diction—as in the use of the adjective “lithesome” which is so archaic as to jut out of a given line—I am impressed by Mr. Mossotti’s mastery of his craft. Mr. Keillor writes: “…like most readers, I am exasperated by so much poetry I read and exhilarated by some, and my reactions have little to do with schools or styles… this book struck me on first reading as an adventurous book grounded in real places and real people…I was struck by the rightness of his word choices, surprised by so many odd words that seemed so exactly right.”

A number of poems in the book have been awarded prizes and an impressive thirty-nine have been published. This speaks well of Travis Mossotti’s achievements to date. He is decisively launched, and the trajectory of his work will be rewarding to follow.

Jenne’ R. Andrews, M.A., M.F.A.
Reunion, Lynx House Press
Fellow in Literature, NEA.