Reissue: Don Share’s Union
Last fall, Don Share’s debut collection, Union, was quietly re-released by the UK’s EyeWear Publishing. Share, who we now know to be the current, and, some would say, reformist editor of Poetry magazine, first published Union in 2002 with Zoo Press to no small notice. Publisher’s Weekly said it “represent[ed] the promising next stage in so-called Southern narrative poetry” and reviewers widely acknowledged the book’s capacity for voicing the civil wars within. Since then, Share has given us two more volumes of original poetry, while also emerging as this generation’s lead translator of Miguel Hernández. Still, to put it mildly, it is not common for a poet’s early work to enjoy a second act during the poet’s lifetime. So, why Union?
Brimming with heart and intelligence, it’s Share’s ability to search the interior and exterior worlds with transparent candor that makes this book truly special and a unique piece of art. After reading Union, I felt more than sympathy for and with the poet—I felt myself enter the narrative, become the narrator.
“Signals Over Hill,”the first poem of the first section, moves us into the collection with headlong momentum:
I was one of the babies who boomed,
whose parents left home
and came back, prosperous, on car trips
in Plymouth’s packed with TripTiks, Thermoses and kids
Don’t be tricked; this poem is not a catalog of memories. It carries in it a motif of death marked by a surprising lyricism. The elderly of Germantown—the suburb of Memphis, where Share was raised—“were always proud of something,”celebrating the narrator and other children with dimes and the “clasping of hands / till at last, they gave up their gasping, odd-accented ghosts, / knowing that roots are, themselves, a form of rootlessness.”In just fifty-five lines, “Signals Over the Hill”culminates in a novel-like enormity, encompassing the time’s details, stories “told . . . and retold, / stories that drifted into notions / like butterflies reluctant to alight.”
Share’s keen ear and felicity with the English language are apparent throughout the collection, but the poet simultaneously keeps it all grounded in the real, such as in this favorite passage from “Dilemma:”
Dark rain drizzles down slick
as beads of tin-dipper whisky.
The land seems drunk
on it: ridge, path, and brier.
A poem of great reach, “Dilemma”explores the “Christ-haunted, contrapuntal”realities of American identities, a communal crisis that “heaves us around on its wild horns.”Share concludes that the past, raucous and violent as it will always be, “dark as murk,”is our only source for revelation.
More, Share’s poems surprise with their tonal variegation, as in “Saviour,”a piece that recalls the elemental vitality of James Wright: “Where is the so-called fat of the land? / The thick branches respond / to rain / in jeweled form.”Share’s lyrical compression and evocative dichotomy compound into a gorgeous realism that continues to recall for me Wright’s own. “Round May / the land gorges, / while the crow is always starved.”
Indeed, these poems grieve even as they delight. “Refrains,” a piece concerning infidelity, moves from Dickinsonian wit into Hopkinsian word-play:
Time is boring.
And for all my whoring
And point-scoring, and the scolding, and lurid
luring of me…
“Refrains”is a poem full of comedy, passion, and acuity, acknowledging how sexual desire, by turns “hot and cold,”haunts and humiliates us and alters our lives’s trajectories with powers unnamed. Still we travel, Share knows, to that destination again and again, despite it all.
Continuing the momentum of the collection’s beginning, in its final sections Union does not whittle to a point so much as it expands. In “Sweet Life,” a poem about the detritus of divorce, the house is sold and the divorcee’s “eyes danced like jam-jars of moonshine / thanks to self-love, that violent prayer.” Another, “Spiritual,” is an intimate portrait of Jim Tatum (the narrator’s father-in-law) as a singer of “withering old spirituals”and who induced the decay of those who loved him—Tatum’s wife, “struck old / as if by June lightning.”
“Union,” the collection’s penultimate piece, is among the most ambitious here: a terse, blues-driven search through place and time—Arkansas, the Mississippi River, Memphis—that reaches back to the Civil War and uses river itself to move us through the sorrows of a past made sacred by its scars. Even if the past laps at us, “Union” suggests, and even if we are sometimes exposed to the water and nudged forward by it, history brands us with experience. Time itself forces all “currents [to] flow / like knuckled roots / into one lonesome earth.”
Share’s Union makes a home in which readers can live, a place that proves warm even as it crumbles into the earth—and a narrator who comforts with his rectitude, reach, and pointed honesty. Much like the practiced memorialization of the Civil War itself, Union reminds us that we will not value our moments of togetherness, if we do not also speak frankly about our divisions. This is confirmation of Don Share’s stature in American letters. Evidenced by a return to his debut collection, he’s been at the summit from the beginning.