In Jeff Gundy’s seventh collection of poetry, Abandoned Homeland (Bottom Dog Press, 2015), the poet moves his readers through a familiar Midwestern landscape of muddy-banked creeks, “sun on the skitter pond,” the damp burrowings of beetles and whitefoot mice, and butterfly-filled trails that skirt the cornfields. The poems in this collection are easy with themselves, often unrolling in long-lined couplets. Gundy’s meditations in and of the natural world are clear-eyed, and his lyrics rise up from a place of gratitude. Gundy believes in the plenitude of the world, and he extends his gratitude in this collection to include the company of others, the indirections of spiritual searching, even the companionship of words themselves. These praise-infused lyrics are not born of naiveté. In the poem that gives the collection its title, the speaker tells us, “I’m all in favor of grief, mercy, and language, but what kind / of meal do they make?”
Gundy attempts to nourish his readers with images and meditations that will serve to hold the door open to the world, and the poems thus strike a chord of hospitality. He even creates a mythos by naming friends and family in his poems, as if readers too are included in the fellowship. Don’t allow yourself to get too cozy, however. Gundy knows how to take that seeming ease and then deliver some true punches to the gut. In the poem “In Boston,” old friends reunite, head to a bar, and retire to a table with a few beers. In the last line of the poem, the speaker telescopes ahead to an unimaginable event that will occur just a few feet away from where the friends are relaxing: “Nobody said / the second bomb will go off just outside, but not tonight.” This dark prophecy of the Boston marathon bombing shakes the reader awake, and the reality of our current cultural dis-ease pierces with its truth.
There are other moments in the collection, however, where the poems could dig deeper. In “The Poet Watches His Neighborhood,” the reader is lulled into summer Americana with lawn-mowing, corn growing high in the fields, even the predictable circling loops of a neighborhood girl on her bicycle. The stupor in the reader is carefully cultivated in order to allow this next line to fully startle: “I failed completely at protecting Trayvon Martin.” The speaker, it turns out, has put himself in an uncomfortably productive parallel with another neighborhood watchman, George Zimmerman. I am glad for these moments in the book, when the speaker both inhabits the safe world he is in, while questioning the assumptions that hold that world up as normative and universal. But at this poem’s close, the speaker fires up the grill for turkey brats, and Trayvon’s death, while it troubles, doesn’t seem to push the speaker into any greater urgency. The poem ends, “All the ground is still standing, with no help from me.” One is left to wonder, whose ground? Perhaps the fact that the ground itself emerges as somehow complicit is Gundy’s attempt at striking that unsettling chord. Nevertheless, it’s the turkey brats on the grill – their comfort, their gesture of an unchanging, safe world – that remain with me at the close of the poem, leaving me hungry for greater complexity.
Denise Levertov’s Vietnam protest poems elicited a similar critical response, and the comparison is apt. Like Levertov, Gundy recognizes the privilege of his own security – one poem even begins “I’ve lived my life in safe places” – and this saves the collection from ever falling into apolitical retreat. But like Levertov, too, Gundy expresses his moral outrage from a comfortable domesticity in which distance, even and especially in the poems themselves, remains a safe default position. Levertov’s later Vietnam poems began to think through this notion of distance more fully, and I wonder if Gundy will fine-tune his instrument in a similar way as he continues to write lyrics that agitate for and advocate peace.
Gundy’s Mennonite background and ethic are visible in this collection beyond what the poet himself, in a recent interview with Bethel College’s literary magazine YAWP!, labeled “the peace thing.” Gundy gently and humorously probes some of the tensions within his own Mennonite community as only someone deeply connected to a tradition can do. In “Fifty Billion Planets,” the “Peaceful Menno code” keeps the speaker from any version of an authentic response in his own classroom, and in “Further Notes on the Martyrs” the still-warm tongue screw of a martyr is picked up from the ashes by the orphaned child himself. As in earlier books, Abandoned Homeland makes visible the traces of a capacious reader. Largely through a series of epigraphs, Gundy generates a conversation among an eclectic set of interlocutors – Bob Dylan just pages away from Mary Oliver, and Brazilian theologian Rubem Alves knocking ideas around with Rainer Maria Rilke and Martin Luther King, Jr. Gundy’s poems revel in their intellectual heterogeneity, which offers the reader a delightfully unpredictable path through the book, one that is well worth walking. Put on your hiking boots before you start the collection, because these poems will remind you to get out into the world, for which, Gundy tells us, “a certain cockeyed hope is still required of us.”