Tuesday, February 13, 2018

The Contrarian Voice and other poems by Ernest Hebert

The Contrarian Voice

and other poems

by Ernest Hebert

Bauhan Publishing

P. O. Box 117

Peterborough, NH 03458


What a pleasure to pick up a book of poems and find myself well into it without once halting in puzzlement, encountering poems clothed in obscurities of diction, syntax and metaphor. Poems that seem designed to make you feel as if the appreciation of poetry requires membership in a cult of superior sensibility, from which you, philistine, are excluded for your unfashionable taste. I feel that such poems, like the emperor, have no clothes, while these poems of Ernest Hebert are made of solid, worn from labor, denim, because, from the beginning lines of the book,

I loved what I could compare to what I loved.

The surface of a pond is slightly curved

as is music from a violin and the violin itself.

as I tried them on, one after another, they fit.

Twenty minutes later, when I finished the first of the book’s four sections, “Septuagenarian Look-Back,” I felt that Ernest Hebert deserves as much attention as Billy Collins. His poetry shares a sardonic perspective with Collins. Here is “The Dogs of Tunapuna, Trinidad” from this section in support of my thesis:

The streets are full of them,

big-balled dogs with torn up flanks

and limping bitches with prominent tits.

They sleep the day and roam the night

to mate, quarrel, and carry on.

for a couple of hours you hear

only an occasional bark or yelp,

then all of a sudden half a dozen will start in.

Soon the entire island is howling.

It all sounds comic,

until you realize that these creatures

are killing and maiming one another

over useless territory and loveless fucking,

just like the rest of us,

a response to evolution,

spittle from the God Roar.

The last three words of that poem reappear in the long title for the second section: “Poems Inspired by, The God Roar (a novel I never wrote, which in turn was inspired by a sculpture by Brenda Garand.)” The section begins with “Hypothermia,” when “I” discovers “You” in a snowdrift, near death from the cold. “I” rescues “You” and undresses “You’s” unconscious body and warms it with his and “You” recovers as they share his sleeping bag and have this conversation:

"Come to consciousness, I said.

"Do I know you?" You said.

"I hardly know myself," I said.

We lay quiet and still for an hour,

then I asked why you came into these woods.

You said, "Listen."

"I don't hear anything."

"Yes you do – listen."

"I hear it now,

the tick and scrape of tree branches."

"How nice when the wind blows through the tops

of the trees and underneath it's still."

"You came for that, a sound?"

"Yes, the God Roar, to record it for posterity.


However, the possibility of intimacy contained in this beginning remains unfulfilled in the seven poems of this section that are the fragments of a strange and dreamlike story told by "I." The plot elements sketched in these poems left me intrigued but dissatisfied. They are analogous to Sargent’s studies for the murals in the rotunda of Boston’s MFA, which are engaging in reference to the complete work, but of marginal interest without it.

Fortunately, with the third section, “Poems and Songs in the Darby Chronicles,” Hebert is back in full voiced empathy for the Yankees and French Canadians who worked in the mills and were abandoned when Capital moved their work south to our Free Trade Zone with the Carolinas. The “Darby Chronicles” are a series of seven novels Hebert has written about a fictional New Hampshire town and the inhabitants of the surrounding hills; each poem in this section is attributed to a character in one of those novels. This one, “Untitled,” is belongs to Hadly Blue in A Little More than Kin:

This sea in her gift for composition

has made a place, if not self,

for that rock, that kelp.

Thus I am unconcerned

that my hat has blown away,

that the gulls are laughing:

"There is less of him than usual."

By the fourth section, "Howard Elman: An Old Working Man's Meditations," the sardonic humor of Septuagenarian that is the muscle in the voice of the first section has matured by 10 years:

Plow Guy's Lament

…[four lines]

Octogenarian walked over to the truck.

Junior rolled down the window.

"How come you, not your dad?"

"He bought the farm yesterday,"

Junior said, just as calmly

as one talking about the weather.

…[14 lines]

Junior's only emotion

at the moment was glee

at the thought of inheriting

an almost new truck.

The grief would come later.

The concluding and title poem of the volume, "The Contrarian Voice," that follows, begins as Elman, now a widower, gives us a catalog of grieves that for him came later:

Munch on a village store grinder

while you imagine Wife

standing at the sink

and gazing out the window

at her birdfeeder,

just as she had done in life.

Tell her how sad you are:

connections and conniption fits

that enriched your life,

the Centenarian’s stew pot,

involuntarily memorized glimpses

of trees, stone walls, ledges,

old mossy gravestones,

fences and hosses and cows

This poem of 309 lines is a collection of more catalogs; some are angry; some are nostalgic (and of those some are regretful); and some are playful and speculative, as when he sends an email to his Sane Daughter:

Saint Peter, cranky gatekeeper of Catholic heaven

and frequent lurker on the Internet,

intercepts message to Sane Daughter.

Checks it off as a venial sin

and files it in the database.

Saint Peter is tired. This job is a lot of work.

Slips a note in the Judgment Day Suggestion Box:

How about an honorable mention

for the lab mice who did more

for the species who enslaved them

than the species did for themselves?

This introduction of Saint Peter is followed by a catalog of possible ways that Elman might die framed as an argument with himself. At its conclusion, “You don't have a prayer./‘I don't have a prayer,” Hebert reintroduces Saint Peter to answer Elman's assumption of damnation with one final catalog, which suggests that redemption will be granted to Elman and to all working stiffs just for the virtue of their being working class:

You don’t have a prayer.

I don’t have a prayer.

Saint Peter doesn't have a prayer,

so he checks the historical record,

bumps his forehead with his palm,

and calls out in Octogenarian’s voice,

talking in his sleep,

“Jesus, I get it now:

the ones with no education,

the ones who made mistakes in youth

and paid for them over a lifetime,

the ones who built the idiot pyramids,

and the useless cathedrals,

and that stupid wall in China,

…[seven lines]

and who appeared in apparitions in the minds

of soldiers calling for their mothers

as they lay bleeding out on the battlefield,

and who fucked the bosses to save us all –

they are all fucked.

And fucked again.

And fucked over.

And fucked forever,

us, the working people.”

After speaking this I think Peter should exchange his mythic robes of white silk for working ones of denim, faded from hard use and many washings.

                                                                                    -- Wendell Smith


  1. Anonymous9:43 AM

    We have performers of almost every type imaginable!

  2. Impressive in its hard edged truth told with lyric precision. I'm glad to know about this poet.