Thursday, January 21, 2021

Bob Snyder’s Milky Way Accent (Dos Madres Press, 2020), reviewed by Gregory J. Wolos


Bob Snyder’s Milky Way Accent (Dos Madres Press, 2020), reviewed by Gregory J. Wolos

Bob Snyder, whose poems are gathered in Milky Way Accent, died twenty-five years ago. The manuscript memorializing his work has been prepared for publication by those he loved and mentored. In a preface to this volume, Snyder’s sister states that the poems “reflect love, family, West Virginia, crazy wisdom in the Buddhist tradition and countless other themes showing that in spite of (and because of) our hillbilly accents we are part of the Milky Way and the cosmos.” Snyder, though his poems spring from and reflect his West Virginian life, is not to be dismissed as a Regionalist interested only in depicting local color. Rather, his sister suggests, the poet “uses the prism of Appalachian experience” as a means of extending outward. The details of his poems are Snyder’s way of approaching the “Milky Way,” i.e., the “Universe.” Paradoxically, the more Snyder’s poems are authentically tuned to local voices and experiences that demonstrate how the Appalachian people “fit together in a fabulous backbone way,” the more they foster a Buddhist “one-ness.”

Snyder’s poem “Night Watch” illustrates the wide-angled lens through which he takes in the world: “above it all I’m the satellite watching/ lonesome cities lighting the Trans-Siberian Railway clusters/ of burnpipes on the Persian Gulf/ . . . squidlights flooding the Sea of Japan.” Yet the poet “keep[s] an eye on the whole planet,” and also draws the readers attention to the significance of minute detail: “I spy out David Boothe—hey Boothe! You down there/ in your bachelor trailer on Fenwick Mountain/ . . . / straighten up! There’s a blue baby mouse in that pile of dishes!” The poet sees not only “the flames across the African grasslands/ Amazonia dotted with slash and burn” but also “the campfire that Boothe and Billy have scattered.” Snyder, from his perch in the Milky Way establishes a connection among the fires of the world by containing them within the vision of a single poem: “a coal shining here . . . another over there/ what a spark-eyed sight to see.”

Though the language of Snyder’s poems is colloquial and the details and imagery drip with local color, their historical and literary allusiveness connect their immediacy to a greater world. In “Billy Greenhorn’s Tradegy [sic]” the lovelorn title figure, a stand-in for Snyder, refers to himself as the “Great Beer Joint Poet” while he “sits at midnight/ on the cold cold statehouse steps/ nestled on the Orion Bridge/ two thirds out the Milky Way radius.” As he sits, he imagines himself as the object of desire of famous women: “let me go you dirty dog/ it’s Billy Greenhorn I love/ (sez Heloise to Abelard)/ and [as] Mark Anthony smooches Cleopatra/ . . . / she rolls them Egyptian eyes/ and sighs and says/ O to have been born in the future in the province of West Virginia/ then I could have obtained a REAL MAN.” In “Kerouac in Charleston,” Snyder envisions the writer literally “on the road” in West Virginia. The visiting writer is “humble illusory” and ensconced in a kind of zen oneness as “sunfaced Mason says to moonfaced Dixon/ we got to draw no line nowhere.”

When Snyder celebrates the beauty of women in his poem “West Virginia’s Darlin Gal,” he does so by creating a bouquet of compliments drawn from the local roadhouse: “you’re no more’n inside the roadhouse door/ when everyone winks and whispers your name/ and law! You’re not one bit embarrassed/ but just tickled that someone—someone!—cares.” Snyder observes, “for you the pay phone rings off the hook/ for you bats circle Butch’s shingle job/ on the roof of the roistering honky-tonk/ for you Roy lurks in the parking lot/ nursing a tire iron for his rivals/ . . . / and for you just you/ the lil orphans in red sweetpea pajamas/ fold their sleepweak palms and pray for sugar.” In “Welfare Witch” Snyder captures the ensorcelling power of West Virginia womanhood: “Buster the canary mumed an oh/ No sooner than your slick sole hit sill./ Goldfish huddled behind the white chateau/ . . ./ This gal’s famous, I thought./ You tossed creek gypsy hair, flashed green eyes./ Trashy. Irresistible. Hot to trot.” But there is more to this woman than temptress, and Snyder’s concluding imagery connects the object of his fascination to the fertile land of his home: “[You] gave out such a wild will to show/ What went past sireening. Here was/ Stronger scythe. Broader swath. And longer row.”

In “To Blossom Dearie” Snyder describes the women he has known as confidantes, educators and symbols of a world unified by time, place and desire: “O the women of the fifties/ hard-loving women of the fifties/ the slinky smoke of their cigarettes/ rides in rings to the everlasting/ ebb and flow of human music--/ for one reefer lights another.” These women invite Snyder into their world: “they greet me/ HI BOBSVILLE WHAT’S HAPPENING” and treat him to “stories of exes and lovers/ in jealous little pictures . . . / a private collection of worries/ come down from La Boheme.” Snyder rhapsodizes about these women, suggesting that they not only educated him to the ways of the world, but set him on his path as a recorder of human emotions and feelings: “Out of love and boppawhatnot/ they made me their historian/ showed me what to feel and when/ and how to slide with the seasons/ (going through changes, doing takes)/ all that/ I owe to the women of the fifties.”

Snyder, having established in many of his poems the general truths that can be drawn from the specific, has provided a context for his close treatment of details in other poems, allowing readers to share a unifying experience through his depiction of a specific moment. “Payne’s Place” is a paean to the memory of a single kiss: “of all them fifty thousand-odd kisses/ there was one in particular/ in your old black Chevy/ outside Payne’s beer joint/ . . . / you pressed into my lips/ that cracked half a benny/ and all at once laid the kissereenymoe/ on your wide-eyed Christ of the cornfields.”

Snyder’s poems in Milky Way Accent demonstrate both the universalizing beauty of a remembered moment, as well as the truths to be gleaned from experience over time. The wonders of the galaxy are found in the metonymic features of small town West Virginia life; the vivid colloquialisms of Snyder’s verse celebrate the moment they depict—but they are the fruit that draw our attention to the tree that bears them.

1 comment:

  1. As a former student and protege of Bob Snyder, it is heartwarming to read your review of Bob's work which sat primarily unread for 25 years after his untimely death. Bob was the epitome of the characters in the Kris Kristofferson song "The Pilgrim":
    He's a poet, he's a picker
    He's a prophet, he's a pusher
    He's a pilgrim and a preacher, and a problem when he's stoned
    He's a walkin' contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction,
    Takin' ev'ry wrong direction on his lonely way back home.
    He has tasted good and evil in your bedrooms and your bars,
    And he's traded in tomorrow for today
    Runnin' from his devils, lord, and reachin' for the stars,
    And losin' all he's loved along the way
    But if this world keeps right on turnin' for the better or the worse,
    And all he ever gets is older and around
    >from the rockin' of the cradle to the rollin' of the hearse,
    The goin' up was worth the comin' down.

    Bob Snyder was a very complex man and, at times, a complex poet. But, at other times, he was a poet of the simple, even the simplistic, the ordinary. And by that, I mean the kind of ordinary that happens on Saturday night in a Vine Street Bar in Cincinnati, or somewhere in a small town pool room in Southern West Virginia. He understood both the plain and the extravagant, loved the plain, frequently despised the extravagant, and always knew which was which and what needed to be said about either. If you have not known Bob Snyder or read his poetry, you need to open your mind, give your soul a good bath in cold West Virginia spring water, and read his book slowly, carefully, and more than once.