By Marc Harshman

Vandalia Press. 91 pages. $16.99. ISBN 978-1-943665-22-8

Reviewed by Charles Ashleigh

Marc Harshman is the West Virginia Poet Laureate. He’s perhaps not well-known in Britain, though he ought to be, his poems having a clarity and awareness that gives them wide relevance. He writes about West Virginia, but not in a way that excludes those who may never have been there. People are often central to his poems, and their situations and actions can be easily understood:

                                              Jim, who loves puzzles goes to work daily 
                                                where, under the factory’s shadow,                                                                                             
                                                he awaits his reprieve from destiny.                                                                                             
                                                It should be easier than this.

He’s a lonely man who walks his dog and dreams of a different world, one that is lighter and brighter, and has a girl called Persephone who will “come home to love only him.” The easy movement in this poem, and what I’ve quoted can only suggest its overall impact, delights me.

The landscape is there in the poems, and it is deftly described:

                                                        A rusted trestle high over the gully,                                                                                                                            Norfolk and Western running out of town,                                                                                                 out of steam, out of here forever.                                                                                                                 Coltsfoot spangles the gravelled bed.                                                                                                                   Spears of broken glass glint, go dark under clouds.

I have an impression from these poems, and the prose poems also in the book, of a very real place, one that sometimes has angry people who’ve seen things that have scarred them for life: “Little kids, parts of their bodies strewn across the road like windblown trash.” And now he’s “fifty-nine years old. And lately it felt old.” He reflects on politics: “He’d vote the bastards out of office if any other bastards would do any better.”

It’s a poetry of observation that is at work. The lay of the land, the way people talk and act, and the little things that say a great deal about how alert the poet is to what is happening around him:

                                                        Under the awning, 
                                                        in the blushing red shadows,                                                                                                                      the old man reads the news                                                                                                                        and sips at coffee until                                                                                                                                      a sparrow hops in off the street,                                                                                                                       and the old man doffs his cap                                                                                                                          and smiles, folds up his paper,                                                                                                                                and stands. What I noticed                                                                                                                                was how the bird watched                                                                                                                                                           and did not fly.

It’s beautifully simple and very effective.