Soot, by Jeff Walt

Soot Sootpoems by Jeff Walt; Seven Kitchens Press 2010WorldCatLibraryThingGoogle BooksBookFinder 
This might just be my favorite so far in the Keystone Chapbook Series from Seven Kitchens Press. For one thing, the poet is very local: I can’t tell you how cool it is for me, as someone who grew up in Tyrone, Pennsylvania, to read poems this good by a guy who grew up in Clearfield, just one county over. For another thing, the publisher took the hand-made aesthetic so literally with this one, he appears to have personally added the inky fingerprints to each copy himself, in addition to the usual hand-cutting and stitching. I say that because the pattern on the book cover image here, which I stole from the Seven Kitchens blog, is quite different from the pattern on my own copy, and they’re from the same printing. The only way this could be cooler would be if they were the author’s own fingerprints, but since he currently resides in Hawaii, I don’t imagine they are.

But the poetry is of course the main attraction, and these poems left me pretty much speechless, which might be why I’ve been nattering on about other stuff instead. I love how over-the-top some of the images are. The sky before a storm is “suddenly the color of rotting meat.” A smoker’s heart is “stained yellow from yearning.” Anxiety is “a dog that always needs walking.” There were a few things in the book I didn’t think quite succeeded, but I always admired the brio. Because Jeff Walt is, as they say in hip-hop circles, keeping it real. I was hooked from the opening lines of the lead poem, “All Day I Have Been Afraid.”

I heard Mrs. Lee scream Kill me! Kill me!
from inside her house and I did not move.

At noon, all the dogs in the neighborhood
began barking wildly. Was it an unbearable truth

told in a pitch only they could hear?

Clearfield Country has the most strip-mined acreage of any country in Pennsylvania, so the subject of the title poem came as no shock:

Down deep they dug, the men
of my family. Shovels & picks,
backs bent. Night on their grave
faces. Monday blues black
every bituminous day of the week.

Though a mere 20 poems long, Soot presents a broad cross-section of Western Pennsylvania working class experience. One poem describes becoming a regular at a neighborhood bar. Another takes us through a sex shop. “Joyride” captures the weekend car culture:

Every Sunday we cruised
in Uncle Jack’s rusted Cadillac,
driving by the sign that marked the edge
of town, honking at stray dogs,
our lives abandoned and hungry.
Swigging Black Velvet
from a silver flask, he was a man
mastering the profession of debauchery.
His hands cracked, fingernails black
from ten hours a day behind
the dragline, excavating his own heart.

These are far from the subtle, understated poems of Harry Humes, but strike me as no less authentically Pennsylvanian. Exaggeration and swagger are a big part of the culture, too, especially in this part of the state. The eponymous “Three Drunk Angels” are “Sick/ of saving lives, escorting/ each delirious spirit from its hollow// body,” and by the end of the poem, the souls they’re charged with have been reduced to plastic shopping bags fluttering down the streets and getting stuck to the bottoms of shoes (soles?)–

Just another something
for the dog to bark at, its owner asking,
“What is it boy, what’s there, what do you see?”

As in the opening poem, the dogs are seers. There are a lot of dogs in this book, and not all of them are well treated. In “My Brother Walks His Neighborhood at Night,” the protagonist is “scavenging the streets” for a lost dog named Lucky, who sounds as if it had every reason to run away. By the end of the poem, the protagonist is in confessional mode.

As a boy, I wanted to kill
everything smaller than me: beetles sprayed
with AquaNet, butterflies smacked
from the bright air, wings dipped in motor oil.

No wonder the angels get drunk behind Fat Jack’s Tavern. By the end of the book, I needed a drink myself.

I’m reading a book a day for National Poetry Month (or trying to — I missed yesterday) with a special focus on Seven Kitchens Press, a Pennsylvania-based publisher of limited-edition chapbooks. Click on the book cover to go to its page in Open Library.

7 Replies to “Soot, by Jeff Walt”

  1. I do that. I react to something I’m not ready to talk about by talking enthusiastically around it. (Sometimes for weeks.)

    I like this one already.

  2. First of all, apologies Dave for having been a less regular visitor to via negativa recently than I would have liked. I’ve got very behind with your-book-per-post reviews, and keep waiting for a longer spell of time than I can ever excavate out of my days in order to catch up. A mistake I fear, because now there is even more to catch up on.

    But back to this book. I love the idea of those inky fingerprints. And I like it better that they’re real and therefore different on every cover. Enticing too that the poems give such an insightful account of your region of the USA, because through your blog and the photographs illustrating it, (and your mother’s blog too) I’ve fallen a little in love with Pennsylvania. So I think this is definitely one for me to order, though I shall have to gird my loins to withstand that poem about the dog that ran away. I’ve discovered that I have absolutely no stomach for animal killing. Our fencer Dan persuaded me to allow him to set a trap for a mole that was causing havoc in the new herbaceous border we’ve worked so hard on. Against my better wishes I let him, and of course, I forgot to go and spring the trap, which had been my secret intention. So now the mole is dead, and I feel horrible… far more horrible than I did when he left tumps all over our paths. No more mole traps. Those little fellows are so beautiful in their plush velvet jackets with their sugar-mouse-pink paws. Fortunately I can see there’s still a thriving population in the field below. I hope they stay there, because if they come visiting here, they’ll wreak havoc as I shan’t let Dan set another trap. But I digress. I’m going to get this book. Your enthusiasm for it has infected me!

    1. Clive, no need to apologize. I’ve been keeping up with your blog, but just barely — and not leaving comments as I’d like to.

      It’s hard to garden in the country without killing a lot of critters. One year when I was a teenager, I shot or trapped 25 groundhogs in one season, and they just kept coming. It was not pleasant, to put it mildly. Deer eat most things that we don’t fence, with the exception of herbs. No wonder so many country people keep lots of dogs.

      Glad you liked this review! The book has just gone into its second printing, so I’m sure Ron Mohring, the publisher, is being kept pretty busy. I think he’s a great desigher: the chapbooks he’s designed himself have generally impressed me more than those where he hired someone else to do it. One additional aspect of Soot that you might find interesting is that, in addition to being working-class, a couple poems make it clear that the author is gay — not always an easy combination, I don’t think. He doesn’t dwell on this, but it does add to the overall richness and complexity of experience on display in the poems: a real tour-de-force, as I say.

      If you’re putting in an order with Seven Kitchens, I do recommend adding a couple others to your order. Humes’ Underground Singing in particular should be of interest as a portrait of the Welsh part of Pennsylvania — I think he mentions that most of the mine owners in the anthracite coal region of Eastern PA were from Wales.

  3. Monday blues black/every bituminous day of the week. Soot sounds irresistible.

    I must stop reading your reviews, however, or reallocate grocery dollars to book budget. What the hell: always too crowded at the Jewels.

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