By a stroke of dumb luck, I happened to finally begin Bob Snyder’s Milky Way Accent just as I finished The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolano. These things may seem as far apart as one could imagine, but there is a great point of intersection that brought Snyder’s poetry into a unique focus. Bolano was one of a group of young poets in Mexico in the 1970s who called themselves the infrarealists, or infrarealismo in Spanish. In his fictional depiction of this group they are called “visceralrealists.” Bolano recounts and dramatizes the idealistic aspirations of a group of young poets who try to carve out a place in literary history from a world that often gets relegated to a kind of local color and regionalism. With this weighing on my imagination, I find myself immersed in one of the preeminent “Soupbean Poets,” who were a group of young poets who tried to carve out a place in literary history from a world that often gets relegated to a kind of local color and regionalism. Urban Appalachian Community Coalition core member, Dos Madres Press poet, and former Poet Laureate of Cincinnati Pauletta Hansel is one of the Soupbean poets.
Let me begin by taking the easy route and place all of this within another group of young idealistic poets. The affinities between Snyder’s poetry and the Beats are easy to see, especially when he names them in the title. Reading “Beatnik Perfume,” it helps to place the drum beats and bass rhythms of a jazz trio in the fore of your mind. The rhythm of Snyder’s lines fall right into step: “this mirror of chill silver/ seems more to you like/ a dognosed snowflake or like/ what remains when the mind is melted.” Follow the line breaks. They snap right in step the swing and pop of bebop. But slow it down just a little, and it falls in with the 3/4 time of a something you are more likely to hear in West Virginia. The point is that the poem is both, in a spare few lines the imagery runs the extremes as we see someone “reach past the Q-tips and baby aspirin” of an ordinary home and continue “past the benzedrine and amyl nitrate” of a Beat fueled scene. The beatnik life of being beat is not so much superimposed onto another world, the two worlds are one in this poem. Snyder’s poems cannot be relegated simply to a local color movement. These poems are too rich to be relegated to anything.
While the Beat comparison is easy, other poems defy me, at least, with the linguistic games that are a constant in Bob Snyder’s poetry. Snyder’s poems are threaded through with language of his own creation; linguistic games that may have more in common with wordless vocables and nonsense syllables of jazz skat. “MooogaBooga Bible” isn’t quite nonsense since the lines involve recognizable words, but a reader has to work to pull the words out from under the rhythmic syllables: “God i-tok: ‘Goodcritter!’/ Frog i-tok: Singsing!’/ Goodcritter! Singsing! Alltime alltime!” We can make out the biblical language buried under this, but it is more fun to simply sing the lines and words as they are pronounced. Honestly, the claim that you cannot understand the words is the old fart cliché from people who hate rock and roll.
In other poems Snyder works with his own form of code switching throughout his poetry which is curious since this is a linguistic maneuver commonly found in Latin American poetry in which English, Spanish, and Spanglish bleed into each other. This kind of linguistic trick is deliberate and is meant to force readers to meet the poem on its terms, which is to say that this “hillbilly” poet, like the Latinx poets, is not willing to relinquish his language into anyone else’s language to be understood. Code switching is also a political statement, one that seeks to undermine the very idea of a dominant language. Rather than writing in a wholly different language, code switching involves interweaving the language of the poet with that dominant language. In Snyder’s version we read:
it comes to me in flick a flick fireworks
dit dark ballgame brief excuse-me-mams
brightly verging matron maid or hag
into the almost not quite face of you
here! but no
there! but no
Re-arranging syntax into a spoken syntax that is closer to the Appalachian way of speaking—“dit dark ballgame brief excuse-me-mams”—trips the reader, forces us to come to the voice in the poem rather than remain comfortable in our own worlds and words. How to unpack the syntax and translate the language, or perhaps not to even try. The language switches into dialect and deliberate word traps. This is “Bob’s Bodacious Flashbacks” after a few rounds of Rolling Rock. We are meant to roll between sense and confusion. And the language is designed to trip up the reader who does not know how to speak the language. A poem like this speaks to regionalism as much as it illustrates how “the subaltern speaks,” to quote a highfalutin theorists.
Bob Snyder alludes to the highfalutin theorists in the postscript to Milky Way Accent. He tells us that his “explanation of Soupbeanism begins with its nonchalance about the near and the far of urban modernism, including post-modernism.” I get that his point is that Soupbeanism does not particularly care about the near and the far to the extent that this brand of local color takes what they want and uses it as they see fit, that the global needs to grasped at the level of the local, not the other way around. I have lost interest these days in all the post-movements. I suppose I am post-post, and what I find in Snyder’s poetry is a voraciousness toward cultural references that does not recognize borders of any kind—neither geographical nor linguistic.
We can read an example of how Bob Snyder’s poetry evokes the particular and local with the global in a poem like “Comfort me with Hyssop.” What appears to be little more than a melancholy portrait of life and loss reveals much more through that guiding image of hyssop as we carry this image through the poem. While the Biblical allusion might be evident to many readers as the herb Moses used to sprinkle the holy text for protection and comfort, hyssop is also a plant native to Appalachia. Part of the mint family, it has a powerful aroma and women were known to press hyssop into their Bibles. Certainly, the Biblical tradition was what motivated this practice, but they also did it to help them stay awake when the preacher got too wordy. The poem opens: “in soft pencil my great grandmother Caroline/ underlined all the most pessimistic parts/ of her cheap little 1880s Bible—”. The line is broken off as if the speaker lost the train of thought. That cheap little Bible underlined and perhaps marked with the scent of fresh hyssop, the most pessimistic lines would mark the attitudes and character of grandmother Caroline as much as they do the text. The second stanza provides ample reasons for her pessimism. “Lloyd’s lifelong whiskey habits” and “her youngest dreadfully burned to death” are enough for grandmother Caroline to have earned her right to find comfort in the hyssop of Moses and the aromatic scent of fresh Appalachian hyssop. This poem offers the meeting of Biblical tradition that is woven into the culture and individual family life of Appalachia.
In a poem that appears in the preface called “poem to my Grandfather,” I found an intense point of identification that I need to mention. The poem tells us, “My grandfather argued/ with bugles of phlegm.” Announcing his views through throaty phlegm and perhaps that ancient meaning of phlegm as in a reserved temperament, he is also unreachable” “No one could win with him/ He was so full of whiskey.” We have the image of a stubborn old man, whiskey drunk and so opinionated he doesn’t even make sense. But toward the end, “Old granddad got a split-tongue crow/ and he taught it socialism.” Again, Snyder’s language cuts at least two ways. Are we still talking about Grandfather or the whiskey we know as “Old Granddad?” And does it matter. What matters is the old crow says “all men are brothers” and granddad gurgles “yes, yes.” My great uncle, who came from some part of the hills I know not where, liked his whiskey and was full of opinions. Toward the end of his life, he would get into his highballs and start telling everyone that “Jesus was a communist! There ain’t nuthin’ wrong with no communist!” As a boy I was shocked and amused to hear Uncle Paul announce such heresy. I now have to ask, who’s to say what an old country boy knows or does not know? What worldly wisdom comes out of a small unknown place that has so much insight into the entire world? It seems likely that Grandfather and my Uncle Paul knew a lot more than anyone was willing to allow.
The idea of a regional poetry strikes me as elitist in the first place. It depends on where you happen to be standing in the world as to who is the regional voice and who speaks to everyone. Bob Snyder makes it clear that he is an Appalachian poet, but to suggest that the voices of Appalachia do not articulate the world in some fashion is to take a position that is foolishly presumptuous. Does “The Red Wheelbarrow” depict the local color of Williams’s New Jersey, or is it a nostalgic reference to his native Puerto Rico? When I was an adjunct, I shared an office with a guy who loved that poem. He would get animated about “The Red Wheelbarrow” and almost yell, “It’s America!” Bob Snyder’s poems are also America. Soupbeanism is America. I will end with the short poem “Chicken City”:
the old fart
sits on the porch
Mayor of Chicken City
We all know this guy.
Author: Michael Templeton
I completed my Ph.D. in literature at Miami University. My area of interest was the British Romantic poets. I have a fondness for William Blake. After spending some years as an adjunct professor teaching at area universities, I decided to strike out on my own as a freelance writer and independent scholar. In addition to writing blogs, I have written several essays which have appeared in The Culture Crush, Culture Matters, and Aurore Press. I am fond of the literary fragment in both poetry and prose, and I have begun experimenting with this form in my own work. I have also read my own poems at Cincinnati Word of Mouth. In addition to writing I am a professional musician, cook, and barista. More accidental jack-of-all-trades than renaissance man, I have learned to do many things over the years. My involvement Dos Madres Press began when I hosted readings while I was a barista at the Bonbonerie Café. Working with Robert on these projects has led to writing these blogs. I live in downtown Cincinnati with my wife who is a talented photographer. We spend our time walking around the city snapping photos. She looks up at that the grandeur of the city, while I always seem to be staring at the ground.