The House in the Heart by Willie James King
(Tebot Bach, Huntington Beach, CA, 2007)
In his first collection of poems, The House in the Heart, Willie James King offers the reader a variety of settings and landscapes, ranging from urban to bucolic. While varied, his writings continually use descriptions of the external world to convey the internal conflicts of their characters, a theme gracefully unifies the works in this collection. Filled with evocative imagery and finely crafted turns of phrase, King's book often uses these comparisons between interior and exterior to convey broader ideas about race, class, and social equality, proving at once lyrical and philosophical throughout.
In conveying these ideas, King offers several variations on this theme of dissonance between inner life and one's surroundings, allowing for a diverse collection. Although often presenting the reader with works that evoke the speaker's state of mind through cityscapes and vistas, other poems in The House in the Heart take a different approach, using the interior lives of characters to illuminate and complicate the landscapes they inhabit. A piece entitled "I've Just Heard," which King situates near the end of the collection, exemplifies this trend. He writes, for example,
...I stand transfixed
by failure's finesse; school
boys strapped to bombs;
heads severed by swords.
A city sinks fast
like a shelled ship. (65)
In this piece, the author conflates New Orleans after the natural disaster of Hurricane Katrina with children traumatized by the war in Iraq. While doing so, King presents readers with a speaker who observes detachedly, perceiving such individual tragedies as part of a larger displacement of the ideals and beliefs that underlie American life. Juxtaposing the chaos of the external world with the disconcerting clarity of the individual's perception of it, this poem, like many others in the book, uses the inner life of its speaker to problematize the exterior world he or she inhabits, often while conveying substantial social criticisms.
Throughout the collection, King uses similar strategies to raise larger questions about life in the American South, which he often depicts from the culturally fraught point of view of an African-American male. In doing so, the work uses this disparity between interior and exterior to suggest both the inherent equality of all individuals and the injustice of any society that denies it. These themes prove particularly apparent in a piece entitled "Orrville, Alabama," in which he writes,
...So, I led
a small, quiet life of school
and fishing until I left. And
now folk hail me: Come home!
Come back! Times've changed,
they say, but I'm not buying it.
All I know is Christ had a cross,
King was killed, the Klans
still ride, and men's
hearts haven't changed... (42)
Throughout this piece, King juxtaposes the internal tranquility of the speaker with the violence that surrounds him. In doing so, he contrasts the speaker's peaceful inner life with destructive events, such as Martin Luther King's assassination and "the Klans" still riding, suggesting that such discontinuities between the values of the individual and the world he or she inhabits remain common in the American south. Although portraying "men's/heart's" as unchanging, King often highlights and disparages such discrimination and violence toward characters who lead "small, quiet" lives "of school and fishing," evoking the illogical nature of subjugating peaceful individuals.
Approached with these ideas in mind, the poems in The House in the Heart offer readers evocative imagery while raising significant and often philosophical questions. Frequently conveying the subjective through minute concrete details, Willie James King's debut offers such societal observations through the modest "graveled roads" and "windblown debris" of everyday life, a combination that proves striking throughout. This contrast remains particularly apparent in a piece entitled "Complaint," which depicts a farmer's lack of appreciation for the natural world from which he subsides. King writes in the poem, for instance,
...Silence will not slide
in edgewise this side
of summer, perhaps not
until long after controlled
burning's done with, and
quail and crows have
long taken the farmer's
spilled grain he himself
intended to haul home, all,
before he ended his harvest,
and set his fields on fire. (10)
This excerpt, which occurs early in the collection, uses "quail," "crows," and "grain" as a metaphor for the tendency of most to disparage the natural world, which sustains and nourishes. In doing so, King uses the character's setting "his fields on fire" as a metaphor for the modern disregard for the well-being of one's surroundings, suggesting that, just as the farmer hoards his grain and neglects the birds, these behaviors most often prove to be self-destructive in the long run. Written in terms of modest everyday imagery, the poem, like many others in the collection, uses such minutia as a vehicle for larger statements about American life, frequently while posing open questions to the reader.
All points considered, The House in the Heart is a finely crafted and thought-provoking book. Ideal for those who enjoy evocative poetry, Willie James King's new collection is a must-read.
Kristina Marie Darling is a graduate student at Washington University in St. Louis. Eight chapbooks of her work have been published, among them Fevers and Clocks (March Street Press, 2006), The Traffic in Women (Dancing Girl Press, 2006), and Night Music (BlazeVOX Books, 2008). A two-time Pushcart Prize nominee, Kristina has also written on contemporary literature for The Boston Review, The Colorado Review, New Letters, The Mid-American Review, Third Coast, and other journals. Recent awards include residencies at the Vermont Studio Center and the Mary Anderson Center for the Arts.