This review appears in the Fall 2014 issue of Modern Age. To subscribe now, go here.
The Fiddler of Driskill Hill: Poems by David Middleton
(Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2013)
The great poets are something of a mystery. Whether they be Americans or citizens of some other nation, the best of poets create a profound paradox through their art. On the one hand, the poet always sings of the particular, the concrete, the local—this place, this time, these people. On the other hand, the successful poet transcends such concrete particulars and speaks directly to the human heart, seeming to bypass altogether his time and place in history. Such has always been the mystery of art and the secret of great poets. Perhaps Ben Jonson articulated this paradox best in famously praising Shakespeare as “Soul of the age,” and then within the same poem proclaiming that the Bard was “not of an age, but for all time!” David Middleton’s beautiful volume of poems The Fiddler of Driskill Hill stands in this great and paradoxical poetic tradition. It is a vivid, rich, and powerful portrait of its region that also aligns itself with the timeless and biblical understanding of humanity, creation, and the story of redemption.
This volume of verse also stands within two powerful currents in American poetry, one cosmic and broad, the other regional and particular. In the tradition of Walt Whitman, there is something of an epic scope to this slim volume. Middleton’s poems ever seek that which lies beyond the regional; they are always reaching toward the transcendent, the ultimate, the divine. Like Whitman, one gets the distinct impression Middleton is creating the contours not only of his region but of the cosmos in which this region and its poet reside.
Edgar Lee Masters and Robert Frost represent a different poetic tradition with which Middleton’s verse also has deep affinity. Frost, in the entire body of his work, sought to create a cosmos, but on a local level and with a distinctive New England character. Masters too sought to create a world on a small scale, and did so most famously in his brilliant Spoon River Anthology. Spoon River is the posthumous exploration of the fictive lives of the denizens of a small Midwestern town, emphasizing the complexities of their small-town existence. The Fiddler of Driskill Hill is a masterful and beautiful tapestry of Louisiana life in the tradition of regional poetry.
Like Frost writing about New England, Middleton captures southern Louisiana culture with electrifying vividness. Like Masters, Middleton manages to create a veritable community of personalities, histories, and individual stories bound together by the strong tethers of local community and local identity.
The connection to Masters is particularly noticeable in one of the most entertaining sequences in the collection. Middleton has a deliciously comic homage to Masters’s Spoon River in a brief sequence of poems about Louisiana Episcopalians entitled “Parishioners: For Bishop Charles Jenkins and Father John Senette of the Episcopal Diocese of Louisiana.” A vignette of poems with titles such as “The Wretched Sexton,” “The Lay Rector,” “The Yuppie Archdeacon,” and “The New Priest” celebrate life, death, marriage, divorce, love, joy, pain, and ambition through the perspectives of various members of a small, and not particularly devout, Louisiana Episcopal parish. This poetic vignette would have surely delighted Edgar Lee Masters in its regional particularity and emphasis upon individual personalities.
The Fiddler of Driskill Hill contains poems of life in southern Louisiana along several registers and themes, all of which have to do with continuity, tradition, memory, faith—the things that make up the fabric of culture. Deeply moving poems in the volume such as “The Deep End,” “Hand-Me-Downs,” “Leaving Drexel Street: A Wife’s Goodbye,” “Flies and Grounders,” “Black Lake Tales,” “The Latchkey Child, “and “Mother among the Graves” reflect upon the transition between generations and the healing power of remembering one’s kin—mothers, fathers, sons, cousins, uncles.
Poetry is, to borrow a line from T. S. Eliot, a mixture of “memory and desire,” and Middleton’s often very personal poetry helps one understand the profundity of this phrase from The Waste Land. Middleton skillfully transforms familial memories, the majority of which are presumably his own, into powerful concrete poetic verse—memories such as learning to swim with his father in the deep end of the pool, moving his mother from her home to live with her son (the poet), and fishing with his uncle.
Even mundane domestic objects such as hand-me-down clothes are transformed by Middleton’s poetic craft into a window for perennial wisdom; he writes in “Hand-Me-Downs” that a family
. . . knows that little’s really new,
That most of life’s comprised of hand-me-downs
Someone before us thought or made or grew,
Then gave or left us like a mother’s gowns
Through these familial images and lessons, Middleton rehearses through poetry a simple fact of human existence: we only aspire to be what we’ve seen others be. Family ties and the example of our own kin give us the most abiding images of how we ought to live, love, sacrifice, and grow old ourselves.
The troubled and complex racial history of the South and Louisiana is sensitively and artfully explored through such poems as “Song of the Overseer,” “The Given World,” “The Sniper: Last Report from a Louisianian in Lee’s Tigers,” and “The Reenactor.” These poems are neither an outright denunciation of all the South stood for nor an odious romanticizing (overlooking) of the South’s legacy of racial injustice. What is referred to as “the better dream of Lee and Jefferson” is always understood through the lens of “Edenic blends of endlessness and time” or the movement from “Eden to the New Jerusalem.” The glories and crimes, the highest accomplishments and darkest sins of his region, are viewed through the lens of biblical drama, a drama wherein all humanity of every era is profoundly broken and needs to return again and again to its Creator for healing.
A thread of The Fiddler of Driskill Hill that is particularly original is the subtlety and reverence with which it upholds the written word. In the “Little Gidding” section of The Four Quartets, T. S. Eliot famously writes “our concern was speech, and speech impelled us, / To purify the dialect of the tribe.” Middleton’s poem “In Waking Dream” is a gem and ought to be treasured by anyone who has ever taught writing. It is a reflection upon two different literary vocations: the teaching of writing and the writing of poetry. The poet reflects upon a colleague, a friend and fellow college professor, who poured out her life in the thankless task of teaching composition, undeterred by even the dullest of undergraduates. He writes of her as one dedicated to “purifying the dialect of the tribe”:
You seem the good physician of our tongue
Gazing with your intense yet gentle face
On all those grave contagions of the human
Heart and mind—wrong cases, fragments, run-ons,
Letters and numbers somehow gone astray . . .
The first part of another poem couched in academic life touches upon the sanctity of the written word. “In Allen Hall—1. Of Textual Editing” is a reflection upon the task of the editor and scribe, one who reviews texts and struggles to tease out their clearest meanings so they might be profitably read by many. To our jaded era, the editor’s task is a largely irrelevant academic pastime with little significance to human life; in Middleton’s vision, the editor of even secular texts is like a priest serving a sacred cause. The poem concludes with a dismissal of postmodern notions of language; placed in the foreground is the heroic editor—he who keeps alive the beauty of words in which God the Word is always intimated:
We still believe in better texts and worse
Unlike those who declare all words absurd,
Corrupted Wits unfit to serve a king,
The Word Made Flesh, suffering to be heard,
His life a holograph whose psalm we sing.
To gain a perspective on the grandeur of The Fiddler of Driskill Hill, a parting comparison with Masters’s Spoon River Anthology might be fitting. Perhaps the greatest poem in Masters’s Anthology is “The Hill,” which is the fitting opening to the collection of poems. The “Hill” is, of course, the graveyard, and the poem contains a haunting ubi sunt? refrain, asking where have all the townsmen gone—and answering, “All, all, are sleeping on the hill.” This opening poem concludes with the image of Old Fiddler Jones, who all his ninety years played his fiddle, as constant as death itself. The fiddler images the dance of death, to which all are invited and none can refuse.
Middleton's collection doesn't start with the images of the fiddler and the hill; it concludes with them. The final poem is entitled “The Fiddler of Driskill Hill” and is ostensibly about a girl who loved to play her fiddle on Driskill Hill, the highest point in all Louisiana. But unlike Masters’s fiddler of death, Middleton gives us the fiddler of life, the fiddler singing a song of time and eternity as old as Eden itself. Looking down upon the corner of the world known as Louisiana, this girl proclaims, “I’m the fiddler of that dance / Where stars go round in rings.” She is the fiddler of morning, of hope, of regeneration, of redemption:
Sometimes I climb the highest pine
On this our highest hill
As Daybreak breezes play through limbs
Where light and silence spill. . . .
And thus atop green Driskill Hill
Each year in high July
I sing what is and ought to be
And will until I die;
For that’s what bow and strings are for,
To raise things up in song
Between The Fall and Paradise
And urge the world along.
The Fiddler of Driskill Hill is a brilliant and shimmering book of poetry written by an accomplished craftsman. More than giving us beautiful regional poetry, David Middleton gives us Louisiana cosmopoesis. Yet this cosmos is not the world of postmodern despair that tempts us daily; Middleton’s world finds its boundaries in a world celebrated by the Fiddler on Driskill Hill: the space between Eden and the New Jerusalem. His poetry is at every turn an invitation to step into what Caroline Gordon called “the primal plot,” a plot that began in Eden and ran right through Golgotha and the empty tomb, and one that encompasses us still. In the poem “Upon the Publication of a First Book of Poems,” Middleton suggests that the ultimate purpose of poetry is to “Confirm the Maker in each maker’s rhyme.” In a world that is increasingly insane, The Fiddler of Driskill Hill provides a disarmingly beautiful and simple vision: the poet is a maker of words guided by the Maker who is the Word, and our stories are incoherent unless we find them in Him. ♦
Aaron Urbanczyk is dean of the School of Arts and Sciences at Aquinas College in Nashville, Tennessee.