I'm not a poet. Wouldn't know a couplet from a coupling. It's why I rarely talk about books of poetry and even more rarely write poetry, but I felt a stout and strong urge to talk a bit about Rusty Barnes' REDNECK POEMS.
In this collection of fourteen poems, there is much to appreciated in as far as poetic device is concerned. I can recognize that much, but I'll go no further on that topic. Rusty moves as easily from poetry to short short fiction to longer works to editing the writing of others with equal ease and skill.
Here we're pulled into a world of hard people who by turns are aslo looking for nothing more than any of the rest of us – peace, companionship, redemption, and a healthy dose of risk in ultimately seeing these things obtained. At other turns, we're shown with a true Appalachian voice just how hard those edges can be, the misery that can come from falling against those edges as we traverse through the collection.
And at times, Rusty allows his characters to fail at the thing they most seek to obtain, as in "Hollywood Appalachian Noir: A Lesson".
In this poem, the narrator has decided to beat a guy's ass for more or less fucking with his woman, the sort of thing that spreads like wildfire in mountain towns, a virtual heat-seeking bomb of information that makes its way with record speed from the nursing home to the honky tonk.
"...I love my wife and Vaughan, /but with his sweat-thick hair and brandy snifter ways /like having a job and cold green in his pocket, /whiskey he doesn't have to color with tobacco /and
all the white teeth in sweet red gums /he didn't have to pay for on a plan but was born /with. All the teeth in the world won't save him."
And so our narrator makes his move, but there is no hero moment to be found.
"...Vaughan turns round /and strokes my jaw loose on its strings with his hard-/working fist. I am no hand at the arts of mayhem, I fear."
Then in a moment of near metafiction that Rusty manages to pull off without the usual pitfall of authorial intrusion we find the narrator is telling of this encounter after the fact to a cousin as a warning of sorts.
"Soon I am ass-over-teakettle and not even Patrick Swayze /can save me now. Vaughan kicks me into next week, /from which I write this verse. Cousin, don't mess with a /ridgerunner woman."
It's a poem that gives that clear picture of redemption or revenge perhaps that ends, instead, with failure and defeat and then wisdom as a result. And this told through a mix of both lyrical and regional tongue. A strong start for the collection as a whole.
Many of the remaining poems will often move back and forth between this lyrical and common style, but is strongest when we have that in-your-face and matter-of-fact tone such as in "Ode to ___________", where the second stanza starts with both an observation and then confession, all written with economy and that regional voice Rusty has tuned into so well. That voice and this poem is testimony to how clearly Rusty keeps his sense of regional identity in mind and how also well he is capable of sharing it on the page.
"A woman I barely know called /me cowboy tonight. I auto-denied /it; but she's right."
For the most part, the fourteen poems in REDNECK POEMS deal almost exclusively with relationships between men and women, with the exception of two that come immediately to mind – "Cutter" (a father and daughter) and "The Electric Fence" (a group of boys) – which, by contrast, may not fit the overall theme of the collection beyond the idea of relationships and the dynamics within those relationships, but remain powerful even as they stand apart in a collection this size.
At times in REDNECK POEMS, Rusty will write from the man's point of view and then twist his pen and write with spectacular skill from a female point of view as in "On a Miscarriage."
"Outside the piss-yellow moon fucked against the sky. /She thought of the children lost in the night by blood/and by accident and by God. The stars don't twinkle, /she thought. They stick up there out of pure love /or out of cussedness. All those dead babies up there, /she thought. They dare not fall to earth, ever ever again."
This is never an easy task for a writer, to get into the mind of the other gender and especially when tackling a subject such as this, but I feel it is by far the strongest, most honest and well-crafted poems Rusty offers in this collection.
For a chapbook that comes in at just under twenty pages total, Rusty has packed these poems with meat and bone, the hardness of the land and its people, and the heart and heartbreak at core of it all. It's a collection of poems I'll return to frequently just for the joy of a well-told moment in the lives of characters both complex and yet simple in the best ways, and also for the talent in craft that is evident in each line.
To get a look at REDNECK POEMS for yourself visit here where you can buy a print version for a fair and reasonable price or download the chap for free.