a little bump in the earth

Image of a little bump in the earth
Release Date: 
April 2, 2024
Copper Canyon Press
Reviewed by: 

“Daye’s poems insist that the spiritual and the physical are not separate. He is a writer who celebrates incarnational existence.”

Halfway into this superb and superbly idiosyncratic collection, Tyree Daye presents readers with an assortment of artifacts, playing the role of curator for his North Carolina family. Among the relics are “found” poems that take the form of marriage certificates and registrations cards, collages comprised of photographs of relatives, a roll call of names carved on stones in the town’s cemetery, and perhaps most importantly Daye’s own testimony about the living and the dead, how the bones of their lives are inseparable from the place they lived and from Daye’s own life in the present.

In what he calls “a little museum in the herein-&-after,” the poet claims “When we say we remember, that memory is happening. We are there. We are moved. . . . Poetry and all art allow for this, a timelessness that creates a path that resists the linear.” And so with the help of these magical poems, we slip in and out of time, moving across decades and days. Falling in and out of the poet’s evocation of history, we stand witness to the making of that very same history, and Daye declares rightfully and righteously that Youngsville, where for more than 200 years his family has resided, is a sacred place, the single spot on earth he’d run to “if the world were ending.”

While in the present moment the forces of anger and hatred—including racial intolerance and bigotry—swirl in a toxic stew of acrimony, causing some to conclude the world is ending, we’re given the gift of a book about “a little bump in the earth” that makes the reader feel like perhaps we aren’t finished just yet, that there is still a way forward.

Using an example of love and a spirit of forgiveness and acceptance—(and note that all is not peaceful and well in Youngsville, as demonstrated by the recurring character of Cousin Jimmy in such poems as “Jimmy as the Dog He Always Was”)—Daye suggests that maybe we can learn to live in closer connection with those who reside with us and within us, learning to grow in a way that brings about the possibility of restoration.

And where does Daye find this hope? In his consistent conjuring of the green world as found in tomatoes and winemaking, strawberry cake and peach preserves, in perseverance and memory and the long truth of a matrilineal history whose stories of strength are celebrated in everyday actions—domestic and wild—that have too often been overlooked and neglected.

Daye’s first two books received well-deserved attention and acclaim, placing him firmly among the very best poets of his generation. He’s a writer rooted in the cosmic constellation of Appalachia’s soil, subverting dominant narratives of place by reimagining the manner in which they may be told and the contexts of their telling.

He begins the book with a bit of poetic mischief, overturning the language of regulation in the form of a “rental agreement” for the Youngsville Community House. In this “contract” the book’s themes are firmly established. Here lineage and love and the blurring of the arbitrary boundaries between the living and the dead take center stage.

Making use of erasure, underlining, and all sorts of soul-filled playfulness, the poet reworks the rental agreement’s directives. Where it asks for initials, Daye instructs us to “Initial by remembering your grandmama”; “Initial by saying your grandmama’s name”; “Bow and initial now”; “Initial with your grandmama’s eyes”; “Initial with your grandmama’s courage”; “Initial child and be saved”; and “Initial by drawing an outline of your face.” Such admonitions are the work of a trickster who won’t let the powers-that-be control him. They’re also the words of a grandson who has learned his grandmama’s lessons well, proclaiming “We agree to nothing but the light & dirt which is God.”

By removing the academic scaffolding of poetry—with its attendant powers and politics—only to replace it with the ways of country folk, Daye’s work is inviting and accessible, mapping the regional to get at universal truths. As the poet writes in “The Matter of Things,” “I’m telling you the plain truth,” and that truth includes the fact that when he comes home as a boy on the “pencil-colored bus,” his mother is waiting for him, “laughing with the other mamas,” not “bitter-bathed” as some might expect in “a town with this many poor folks.”

While Daye’s work consistently surprises and disrupts, toppling conventions and expectations, he doesn’t ignore systems of racism and white hatred. In the final lines of “‘tween my gone people & me,” he testifies that he “woke up // beside my grandmama writing / 500 years in—to this American experiment // trauma made our mamas / turn a thousand / made our daddies dead.” But such an acknowledgment is braided with resilient celebration as “they kick dust / to Raspberry Beret,” “coins of light” flying from “Uncle Duck’s disco ball”; or in the jubilant litany of mothers in “Mama’s Poem”: “mamas of cantaloupe & tomato meetings,” “mamas / who bound sticks,” “mamas who dance,” “mamas who sang what they could not name,” “mamas talking to dead husbands & nieces,” and “mamas who rivered us clean.”

Daye seeks to name, but not explain away, the sacred, and to that end angels fly through his stories. In a particularly surreal episode, angels fall asleep in a pantry only to wake with their wings covered in molasses. Caught by such a sticky infusion, they hang out in front of the corner store “with bottle-passing old men” whose faces they kiss while they sleep. But all is not goodness and light. Like the humans who populate Youngsville, the angels are complex and full of contradiction. The same angels who kissed the old men also throw “sand / in somebody’s face” and send “them to hell.”

Daye’s poems insist that the spiritual and the physical are not separate. He is a writer who celebrates incarnational existence. In a particularly telling poem, “We Ate Moon,” an older cousin by the name of Ham works the garden “in the coming-on dark / like he was being born again, his body growing from the root.” Here in the garden the earth births not only purple cabbage but the spirit as well. The moon is “astonished,” and rivers are lifted “out of their beds.” A human is joined to earth and earth to a human in an epiphany ending with Ham calling out to God, his luck turning around as the soil opens up. It’s these kinds of moments that provide not simply solace but true joy in a book whose atmosphere turns and turns in a subtle depiction of memory and passing.

A little bump in the earth is a heartbreaking and heart lifting book of elegy and beauty in which, thankfully, the dead do not stay dead.