Wild Muse: Ozarks Nature Poetry, edited by Phillip Howerton (2022) & Tornado Drill, by Dave Malone (2021)

Howerton collects a generous sample of poems from C.D. Albin, Wendy Taylor Carlisle, Paulette Guerin, John J. Han, Gerry Sloan, the late Mark Spitzer, Agnes Vojta, Amy Wright Vollmar, and Howerton himself. There are 189 poems here, enough to keep you in contemplation and revery for many months.

Last year’s ghastly heat and drought inspires several of these poems, notably Albin’s “Pharoah Dreamed of Cattle,” which portrays a man surveying a farm shrunken under the heat, and, like the man himself, hanging on until rains return. Maybe they won’t return. Maybe something has changed that can’t be reversed.

That sense of ecological doom informs several of these poems. There’s Carlisle’s “Kings River,” for instance, certainly a celebration of a pure stream, and yet the poet imagines another stream, and “floating/on the stagnant water among the plastic bags and beer cans.” Wild nature is awfully frail, these days.

Each poet writes a two-page autobiography that includes the reason he or she writes poetry. Carlisle’s is perhaps the most striking: “I write poetry because prose confuses me, because my head fills up with rhyme, because poetry sussurrates and moans and sighs and whispers and sings at my shoulder. Poetry because it is in every corner, around every dogleg turn, because it is dilemma and euphoria. Poetry because without poetry, what?”

Howerton’s “Rain Crow” also evokes climate change, in a wry twist on the folkloric notion that crows can predict rain. The signs aren’t there anymore and keep changing, mystifying the laconic crows. Howerton provides another definition of poetry: “Perhaps it’s an overstatement  to say that a poem should never be about what it first appears to be about.” That sentiment jumps out from “Barn Removal,” a short, disconcerting portrait of  swallows returning to their former home, a barn that’s been torn down. Home, the thing of all things we depended on, isn’t there anymore. What do we do now?

Most of these poets celebrate nature with minute portrayals that resonate beyond the page: Guerin and Sloan and Vollmar with the near-nature of back yards, and urban environments clashing against rural ones; Vojta’s desire to merge with nature (“I want to spend a year by the river/and live in her seasons”); and Han with his masterful haiku:

summer breeze

a baby turtle 

peeks out of its shell 

And then there’s Mark Spitzer, whose poetry doesn’t fit with any other of these poets. You might say it’s the freest of free verse:

so I went to the storied Devil’s Hole           

clearly marked on Google Earth                       

got onto the farmer’s land                                   

and found a sinkhole                                               

stuffed with the stuff of dumps  

Only that last line seems somewhat poetic, but Spitzer is a concrete poet, something of a rarity these days. He dazzles with line placement, citations from newspapers, and photos to create hisoriginal take on mythic creatures such as the terrible green gowrow and Big Al, an impossibly large alligator gar.  

Spitzer was very funny. He died on January 17th at the tender age of 57. He wrote thirty-some books, and there are two in the pipeline, including Crytozarkia, from Cornerpost. He was boundlessly enthusiastic about writing, about fish, about life, and he’ll be impossible to replace. 

Wild Muse, clearly a labor of love, should stand up for quite some time as the essential collection of Ozarks poetry. It celebrates and grieves for the Ozarks, with its pure rivers and distinct wildlife, itself a great and troubled poem of nature. 



Dave Malone, from West Plains, Missouri seems like a sketch artist to me, one of those people who carry around a pad and fine pencils or pens to record life as it rushes by. His poems are not shallow, however.. They are polished, exact, and always with characters whom Malone brings to life in a few, sparse lines.

The title poem evokes the curiosity and quiet terror of school kids crouched beneath their desks as a tornado threatens, then strikes. “Fruit” is a menacing tale of teenaged girls who accept a ride from “two old men in a truck,” and, as darkness falls, may live to regret it.

“Mattress” is a downbeat love poem, a discarded mattress standing in for a love gone sour.

A section of Malone’s book is entitled “Quarantine,” by which Malone refers to our national experience with Covid and also a feeling of being shut off from life, curtailed in some way. In “Elegy,” a man mulches trees as he mourns the loss of a friend. It’s August, and no new trees can be planted. Death is all there will be for a while. “After the Funeral” charts similar territory, musing over a highway death with causal explanations, but the death  might actually have been a suicide.

Malone can be playful, too. My favorite is this sometimes whimsical little book is “Summer Afternoon in the Pod.” It’s about a woman—living in quarantine times—who buys a cheap, blow-up pool and puts it in her back yard. She

fills the pool with chilled water,

drops magnolia blooms 

in its low tide when

her girlfriends arrive, 

and she serves apple quarantinis

as sweet as laughter. 

Around seven, a storm

tumbles in from the west 

like a toddler. But she shoos

it north. To a better home. 

What a lovely little portrait, evoking a circumscribed life and joy at once. If it were fiction, which of course it is not, I’d say John Cheever and A. A. Milne had a few drinks and decided to collaborate. 


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