Today's Paper Latest Coronavirus Cooking The Article Families Core Values Story ideas iPad Weather Newsletters Obits Puzzles Archive

Fowler's big ideas expressed in plain-spoken lines

by Philip Martin | June 21, 2020 at 2:43 a.m.

James Fowler is a professor of English at the University of Central Arkansas who teaches poetry and creative writing. I should like to introduce him to you.

Fowler is a poet, and I think you would enjoy his work even, or perhaps especially, if you consider yourself the kind of person who doesn't care much about poetry. Miller Williams once told me that those people were the ones he most wanted to connect with through his work.

I think that's a worthy aspiration; some poetry should be more like beer than single-malt Scotch, though accessibility in and of itself is not determinate of quality. But some things are good and good for you, and I think Fowler's little book of poems, The Pain Trader (Golden Antelope Press, $15.95), may be one of those things.

Fowler divides his slim 78-page book into two sections, "Hereabouts," which contains poems about Arkansas and Arkansas history and Arkansas people, and "Thereabouts," which collects those poems that are about other places and things and events like trying to remember Geraldine Page's name, interrogating the authenticity of an Arby's manager, a "mitten state tenderfoot" who writes cowboy poetry and the state of Texas enacting a law allowing individuals with concealed carry licenses to carry concealed handguns on the campuses of its public colleges and universities. (Yee haw.)

Hell with tippy-toe pointy-headed


an argument's only as good

as its holstered logic.

In the Arkansas section, Fowler gently limns the lives of Ozark pioneers, tells the story of a frontiersman caught up in the inexplicable havoc of the New Madrid earthquakes of 1811-12, and the title character, a craftsman who trades his carvings and listens to the settlers' hardship tales:

All this while a shape emerges,

carved, etched: creaturely perhaps;

blossoming; stark, like crystals.

A thing of power rough hewn.

We move on to "Arkopolis," a name proposed for Little Rock, where the petty bustling and strivings of civilization play out. The Sultana disaster is recounted:

But now when nothin' but thorns

is reaped, and bullet for bullet

stretches murder out to kill

peace itself, a floatin' charnel house

like this don't count for good.

Must be all that death ain't quite

draint out of the works yet.

"Over Here" marks the attitudes of those who came to the woods and hollers to be away from the whir and grind of history and resisted conscription into "Mr. Wilson's war":

Never no more will boy hereabouts

kill his own self before

being shamed

into killing some like foreign soul.

So come, all you deputized fools

step into our cove's finished mystery

and repent your war with

mountain folk.

Fowler writes about sundown towns and accomplishes an ambitious cycle about a family (that, we learn in his end of book notes, has been set to music by composer Michael Brown), recalls the Hot Springs roadside attraction I.Q. Zoo and touches on genocide in the Delta:

Delta fields that holler,

holler blue-black murder

to a deaf air about town

a town named Elaine.

What I imagine is the book's most recent poem concerns itself with last year's Arkansas River flood:

We'll all be downstream

people soon

enough, south of our crying

carelessness, cursing our

former upstream selves

for hogging, abusing, off-kiltering

what seemed naturally gyroscopic.

There is calm and equanimity in Fowler's voice, and wit too, and he skillfully compresses large ideas into a few plainspoken lines. There is a weight to his cadences, and every word is shadowed. While these are not poems to be picked at and solved they do seem to change with the light.

The Pain Trader would fit on any shelf devoted to Arkansas folklore or history or literature, it would be right at home next to Donald Harington's Let Us Build Us a City or Charles Portis' novels.

That might seem like high praise, but it fits.



Sponsor Content