A strong, bold voice pervades the poems of Christopher Ankney’s debut collection, Hearsay. The collection, winner of the 2014 Jean Feldmen Poetry Prize, must be considered a major accomplishment. The poems are successful and at their best when the poet is confident and capable. A handful of them could be considered too light or casual, but overall they fit together meaningfully and intelligently in this slender volume.
The vast majority of the poems in Hearsay have appeared in prestigious literary publications. (The author, who earned an MFA in Poetry from Columbia College in Chicago, has been published in the likes of Fourteen Hills, Linebreak, Prairie Schooner, and Nashville Review.) Collections of previously published work can feel disjointed or haphazard. Oftentimes, books like Hearsay are simply collections of poems, one page after another, with no underlying connection, but that is not the case here: There are several overarching, related themes at play throughout Heresay.
Among the related themes is that of family, and the father figure is a major premise of the book. The idea of the archetypal father, in fact, is the primary connective thread throughout the collection. The poet draws from personal experience to evoke images and scenarios both haunting and inspiring. For instance, in “To the Rivers,” Ankney writes:
My father, my mother says, had Indian in him
His history walks into you, too.
In addition to the strong presence of a father figure, Ankney’s poems are firmly rooted in place. There is a strong Midwestern sensibility about them. The book is populated with rivers, tornadoes, cars, backroads, and the bleak realities of small-town life. A unique American gothic works beautifully, for example, in the “1988” series, which appears in Parts 1 and 3. In “1988: Suicide,” the poet writes:
The day before his thirty-third birthday
he vanished like Jesus.
Left us with myth.
Left us with dustless facts.
In “1988: Accidental,” Ankney contemplates the incomprehensible:
Did he really breathe in fatherhood?
Was he fishing, or just fish food?
The second and third parts of the collection move more toward the personal and observational. There are reflections, insights, the occasional illumination, high culture mixed with low—the typical experience of our time. There also are epiphanies. This is shown, for instance, in a moment when the poet discovers himself through his child in the poem “Son:”
You counted three languages
on my hand to learn the world
is full of rhythms
This new life brings Hearsay full circle. The mystery of father and fatherhood becomes tangible, the fear and the dread, real. Through this journey the poet finds himself, and what better way to find oneself?
Hearsay is a well-written collection of poetry. The language and logic are consistent, and the imagery feels like a rolling landscape, making this volume well worth the read.
October 2014, Washington Writers’ Publishing House
$16, paperback, 96 pages
—Reviewed by Nathan Prince