In Somewhere Near Defiance, his sixth full-length collection of poems, Jeff Gundy is at the top of his game. The book revisits Gundy’s usual catalog of subjects — small-town life in the Midwest, nature, Mennonites, being on the road, and so on — but these themes remain fresh under his deft touch. Like two of his poetic influences, William Blake and Walt Whitman (who each appear in several poems), Gundy is a poet of the people in that his poems examine everyday life in a way that elevates it to the sublime. One of the book’s early poems, “Having It All Four Ways,” is written as a catechism, inspiring the desire to read it reverently, as one would whisper a prayer during morning devotions, but focuses on the holiness of fleshly being: “[s]weat, chocolate, lust, and fire” (23). The parallel emphasis on the earthly and the divine is present throughout this collection as an argument that the two are much more closely related than is often assumed.
One manifestation of Gundy’s ease in the world lies in the way Somewhere Near Defiance sprinkles pop-culture references alongside meditations on matters of seemingly more importance. In “On the Birthday of Ronald Reagan and my Mother-in-Law, I Mourn Jerry Garcia,” the speaker’s worries about the Cold War are eased while listening to the Grateful Dead: “For a moment I rested in the old dream that sad lovely songs on the folly of / war will make us stop killing each other” (34). Similarly, “Autobiography with ‘Blonde on Blonde’” moves from anger at President Nixon to finding comfort in The Lord of the Rings and Bob Dylan to encountering God in a nearby river. These references welcome readers into the speaker’s world and help our minds wander around, contemplating our own experiences with something larger than us. In “The Foreigner Attempts to Master Nonfiction Narrative,” the speaker notes that “All this I, I, I may seem myopic” (8, italics in the original), but the personal voices in the poems work because they invite readers along on the journey.
There is something in Somewhere Near Defiance for everyone, as the manufactured world and the natural one are both amply represented. Gundy is as comfortable in the citified world of a poet such as Frank O’Hara (whose emphasis on the everyday is echoed throughout Gundy’s work) as he is in the forested world of someone like Robert Frost. The tension between these two worlds plays out on the book’s cover: there is a picture of a waterfall framed by trees, but the title locates the collection on a map in proximity to a town. While Gundy writes about both of these settings well, Somewhere Near Defiance’s special strength lies in its description of human-made spaces and objects. Gundy’s poetry is at its best when it explores the messy world, flirting with transgression, as its speakers think about flirting with the women they meet (e.g., 12, 85). Many poets, Gundy included, write about nature well, but he excels at the rarer, difficult skill of making us care about others’ mundane, material lives in our cement-ensconced civilization.
Somewhere Near Defiance offers virtuosic poetic craft without pretentiousness, something that is rare in today’s overly academic poetry scene. Even the poems about academia (Gundy is a professor at Bluffton University in Ohio) are accessible, offering some of the collection’s most memorable lines. “Evening With Long Books” laments the speaker’s colleague’s love for “books so long only two will make a whole course” because “[t]his seems to me like making twelve gallons of chili / and eating nothing else till it’s gone” (62). “Notes From the Faculty Meeting,” one of this collection’s several list poems, ends with the deliciously cutting line, “After a national search, we hired Randy’s brother” (76). The mix of humor and light sarcasm here epitomizes the book’s success at striking the delicate balance between being ensconced in the sometimes frustrating details of life and being aware of life’s sheer beauty in all its facets.
At 110 pages, Somewhere Near Defiance is on the long side for a collection of poems. Nevertheless, readers will find themselves wanting more at the end.
Somewhere Near Defiance
By Jeff Gundy
Anhinga Press (2014)