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Poetry The well of memory

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Sunday, August 4, 2013, at 12 a.m.

“Driving Late to the Party: The Kansas Poems” by Jeff Worley (Woodley Press, $12 paperback)

Wichita has had a long, easily overlooked love affair with poetry for nearly a century.

Most famously, Allen Ginsberg breezed into town in 1966 and read to a packed house at the former Moody’s Skidrow Beanery on East Douglas, near where Eaton Place stands today. Here, Ginsberg found inspiration for “Wichita Vortex Sutra,” his sprawling, declamatory poem protesting the Vietnam War.

But poetry is not about celebrity, as any aficionado knows. And, even if it were, Wichita has its own legacy of poets to celebrate, artists who have enriched the cultural landscape with their inventive, award-winning verse – from Irma Wassall in the 1930s to Bruce Cutler in the 1970s to Jeanine Hathaway, Albert Goldbarth and Bryan Dietrich in the 21st century.

Cutler (no friend of Ginsberg’s, by the way) especially helped shape the city’s poetic soul, establishing the Master of Fine Arts degree in poetry and fiction at Wichita State University, and passing the mantle of Adele M. Davis Distinguished Professor of Humanities on to

Goldbarth.

But for all their artistic prowess, none of these poets was born here, raised here, nurtured here or left here as a young adult. Their voices grew out of very different roots.

Jeff Worley looms as the exception.

A native Wichitan and the second graduate of WSU’s Master of Fine Arts program in 1975, Worley has gone on to win numerous literary awards and laureates in his adopted home state of Kentucky.

Most recently, he snagged the X.J. Kennedy Prize for “A Little Luck,” a new collection of poems to be published in September.

But before that volume goes to press, we should turn our attention to “Driving Late to the Party: The Kansas Poems.” In the spirit of Philip Levine and B.H. Fairchild (also a native Kansan) – with a canny nod toward Robert Lowell – Worley returns to his hardscrabble roots in Wichita to craft a compelling, lovingly detailed autobiography

in verse.

The essence of the Air Capital City permeates these pages the way garlic seeps into a pizza: its gritty streets, its dead-end jobs, its alleyways of rebellion, its moments of disillusionment, its breeding ground for an uneasy filial love.

How much of Worley’s personal experiences will coalesce with those of readers like me, who grew up in Wichita during the baby boom years, depends in large part on what you expect from poetry.

I expect music, wisdom and stirring emotional depth. I expect vivid imagery, disciplined form and a facility of diction. I expect soul, a lyric soul that can sing the blues as easily as it can an aria to Art with a capital “A.” I expect, always, to be viscerally surprised.

Worley delivers on all fronts. Call him the Whitman of Wichita, charting the glories of Boeing’s print shop, Griff’s Burger Bar, Riverside Park and Texas League baseball.

Here is his description of how he imagines his father reacted to his birth.

Now I see him clearly:

shirt pocket stuffed

with fat cigars,

suddenly inexplicably terrified

by what he’d set

in motion.

Glancing again at his watch,

the perfect circle

strapped to his wrist

harnessing his blood and mine

at the starting line.

One characteristic of Worley’s body of work happily beams forth from this book: His poems are highly entertaining, full of irony, good-natured self-deprecation, and wit. Yet they also possess a gravitas and profundity pointing to a horizon of wonder that captivates every poet worth his salt.

Take “When I Heard the News,” in which a metaphor for John F. Kennedy’s assassination is embodied in an unlikely automobile collision with a chicken. The bloody detritus on the road effortlessly merges into the horrifying report that the president is dead.

So I went on down the road in my first car,

1963, sunlight shooting across wheatfields.

When the radio fixed me in that spot forever

with the news from Dallas.

In “Boeing Print Shop,” Worley turns the drudgery of manual labor into an existential lesson on survivor guilt, on our ultimate isolation as human beings.

He and his coworkers relieve their boredom on the job by hurling shoes at flies alighting on the shop wall.

Five gooks at one o’clock, Emmett would say

from the Itek machine, and we’d idle our presses

long enough to surprise the squadron of flies.

Then, when the group learns “that Emmett had been killed / his second day in country” in Vietnam, they band together to scrub the wall clean, ridding it of all traces of the dead flies.

At the end of that somber work day, “We showed the guard our badges, and stepped / into the parking lot. The lights snapped on, nodding / on their long spindles, and fixed us there.”

As birth did for his father, so death haunts Worley in his adulthood, leading to poems that end with the strong moral force of epiphanies full of exacting physical detail, and revealing how little he knew of life, how much he still had to gain from his art.

But even stronger than death is the presence of his father, a man striving to connect with his son, yet distant; emotionally hard on the boy, yet caring.

In “Skunk,” a wonderful allusion to “Skunk Hour” by Lowell, Worley configures the awkward ambiguity of father-and-son relationships, their mystery, their imminent

heartbreak:

It was summer.

He slammed the back screen

and rushed inside. His breath

was a fusillade of whisky,

his eyes monstrous lakes a boy

could drown in. He lifted me up

before I could run

and took me outside, the night

thick with fireflies. We sat

in silence. The pulse

of the wind beat in my ear.

Here, as throughout this carefully wrought collection, Worley approaches the deep well of memory, raising a bucket that overflows with repercussions for the future. The past is the future; the future, the past. Only the now of the poem creates a stay against the permanent loss of forgetfulness.

When Worley’s father offers him advice on fishing, the poet turns it into a lesson for his art. We, too, can find in it a guide for reading “Driving Late to the Party.”

Reel it in,

hold it up to the light,

then let it go.

But we must ignore the last line. For Worley’s best poems endure: They simply won’t let us go.

Arlice Davenport is Books editor for The Eagle. Reach him at 316-268-6256 or adavenport@wichitaeagle.com.

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