This Time Machine Works Damn Fine: On Carolyn Hembree

Guest Article by: 
Sean F. Munro

Carolyn Hembree “know[s] how to fuck with the future” and the present and the past. In Hembree's second book of poems, RIGGING A CHEVY INTO A TIME MACHINE AND OTHER WAYS TO ESCAPE A PLAGUE, she writes a verse novel as a fractured multiverse set in Tennessee.

There's a family in these poems. In her words, “The protagonist/anti-hero is an accursed wanderer named V. Cleb. [who] has something like second sight.” There’re also: Mama Cleb, the matriarch; V. Cleb's girlfriend, Eyecandy; and their child, Adeline. Hembree layers loops of these characters’ experiences, which mystifies their underlying interior narratives that this book explores. This book is/was/to be a badass time machine. It uses time on the grandest scale and at the smallest value simultaneously:

wash away
wash away

The rounded Appalachians are where this book roams. This interrogation of time and memory is enacted spectacularly in the form and repetition in this book. It's a repetition that isn’t repetitive but a rearrangement and layering. It is that “voiced pause”—a favorite teaching reference of Hembree's from Marianne Boruch—but this voiced pause is not purely for rhythm and sound. It is taken further and reaches back and forward into other poems in the book. It is the connective tissue that fires neurons throughout the book. You experience the book’s brain. This is no blatant act. Its subtlety and its difficulty to track are where it gains its effectiveness and sensation. Hembree’s not going to show you the blueprint for her time machine, but you can ride in it. The last section of poems, “Customer Assistance,” completes this circuit and functions as a coda that strings together the timelines growing throughout the book like “each yellow vine that hooks your heel.”

An early poem in the book, “11 a.m. Aubade,” also exhibits the book’s architecture, albeit on a smaller scale (at first) in the framework of the book:
Eyecandy bites her thumb
stabs it into the bottleneck of
this very

Time is viscerally controlled here, and when

. . . .She pulls
her thumb from the bottle-
neck of this very second. Sees
all this spill out around her— . . .

Read the rest of the poem in her book to watch what spills out. (This action mirrors what the final five poems do.) This spilling out also somehow reassembles and unveils the existential struggle these characters deal with throughout the book.

There’s another family in these poems: a family of fierce, alive language and imagery. Hembree has her aesthetic forebears here with her: CD Wright, Thylias Moss, Frank Stanford, Frank Bidart, Etheridge Knight, etc. Call it “New Southern Gothic.” Call it a mouth with eyes that has seen rot, rinse, and shine. Call it baroque, except the images and language here are not exaggerated; they are not nostalgia; they are genuine and original:

A coin slot
owns this hollow's night-
life: its blast
furnace flares
its brush arbor blessing
its passion
front porch settees
Night is an umbrella
duct taped
to a baby stroller

This forward momentum and propulsion carries throughout the book. Hembree brings a breathing, coughing world to our palms:

Yonder jaw
upon jaw
every last
trap rusted
rusted the
fuck open

This is how we are left while reading this book. Thankfully, the apostrophe in the first poem, “Kill the Harbinger” warns us:

Ironclad your nerves:
should a spirit hassle the hackberry
cast it out.”

These poems are cast into us, and what they drag up hurts like blues drowned in dread.

Read this book in one sitting. Then read it again and watch it:

be fledgling
be scripture
be bluebottle


Better yet: go to a reading and experience Carolyn Hembree perform these poems. She hails from Bristol, Tennessee, so this book's language and fire is in her blood. Escape whatever your plague is for a while and listen to her rev the time machine. Hang for a while in the “blown-open open.”

Sean F. Munro writes, teaches, lives, and listens in New Orleans. Some of his poems appear in The Offending Adam, The Brooklyn Review, and elsewhere.

Carolyn Hembree reads at Brazos on Tuesday, January 24, 7pm, in partnership with Public Poetry
Find the details of Hembree’s January 23 workshop at Public Poetry here

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