The Fiddler of Driskill Hill by David Middleton. Louisiana State University Press. 75 pp. $18.95.
At a modest 535 feet above sea level, Driskill Hill—touchingly called Driskill Mountain by some—is the highest elevation in Louisiana. Only two states, the odd couple of Delaware and Florida, claim lower highs. Driskill Hill stands in Bienville Parish in the state’s northwest, a traditionally Baptist region in contrast to the its historically Roman Catholic southern portion. Bonnie and Clyde were gunned down by lawmen in Bienville Parish in 1934, and David Middleton was born some 40 miles to the west, in Shreveport, in 1949. The title poem of his new collection, The Fiddler of Driskill Hill, is the last in the volume. The speaker is a nameless fiddle player who climbs to the top of Driskill Hill in July “to practice this / old craft of staff and line.” He claims “none hear those notes” because he is “the fiddler of that dance / Where stars go round in rings,” echoing Henry Vaughan, who “saw Eternity the other night, / Like a great ring of pure and endless light.” In Middleton, as in Vaughan and his Metaphysical contemporaries, the local and eternal, the secular and devotional, unfailingly intersect. His title poem concludes:
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.
Middleton’s sensibility as poet and man is thoroughly Christian, Southern (or rather, Louisianan), and traditional, but he’s no unreconstructed romantic Rebel reliving the Civil War. His manner is meditative and elegiac, not rancorous or redneck. In a rare useful blurb on the back of the book, the North Carolina poet and novelist Fred Chappell describes Middleton’s work as “stately,” a quality more often associated with Milton than any contemporary poet. The OED gives us “princely, noble, majestic; (hence) imposingly dignified.” Except for “imposingly,” this is an accurate assessment of Middleton poems. The stateliness of his lines is achieved, Chappell says, through “technical mastery, devote labor, judicious sympathy, and loving contemplation.” We might think of Middleton as mingling gravitas with deftness of means, a sort of Mozartian grace in which the profoundest themes—death, memory, redemption—are treated not portentously but with the respect they, and we, are due. Often in his poems he visits small country cemeteries, whose occupants typically are family, friends, or neighbors, as in “Deep Country Epitaph,” which closes:
A soul with virtue deep imbued,
Commandment and Beatitude,
Spared late in this most graceless age
That worships its own pride and rage
Modernity’s depraved embrace,
Fled far beyond this time, this place.
Some of the new poems were first published in The Anglican: The Journal of Anglican Identity and The Anglican Theological Review, as well as Arator: A Journal of Southern History and The Sewanee Review. Middleton and his poems are geographically rooted in a sense almost unique in twenty-first-century literature. Of the 40 poems in the new book, 23 are identified with place names in Louisiana and 16 with a specific date. Eleven carry dedications, often to members of Middleton’s family. This is evidence not of self-infatuation but rootedness, devotion to a beloved place across generations. In the South, as is not always the case elsewhere, memory is holy. One of Middleton’s epigraphs to The Fiddler is drawn from “The Hind Tit,” Andrew Lytle’s contribution to that great Fugitive/Agrarian manifesto I’ll Take My Stand (1930): “Throw out the radio and take down the fiddle from the wall.” Middleton dedicated an earlier collection, Beyond the Chendeleurs (1999), to Lytle, and a poem dedicated to him in that volume, “The South,” includes these lines: “Down here great Sherman suns burned up / The sweetest fields our Aprils bring, Gay daisies blazed with buttercups, The cavaliers of spring.” Middleton preserves a pact with the writers among his Southern forebears, including Robert Penn Warren and Allen Tate.
Middleton has now published four collections, not counting chapbooks, totaling 176 poems, all with the Louisiana State University Press. His output is small compared to poetry’s overachievers, but he has never collected a mediocre or bad poem. Each feels measured, crafted to a fine finish. In “Upon the Publication of a First Book of Poems” (referring to The Burning Fields, 1991), Middleton says the appearance of that first book, at age forty-two, “brings humbleness, not pride.” The ten-line poem concludes:
Here also is that absence, black despair,
That stared from blank white spaces at my face
Until the courted muse released her grace
And words flowed into verses like a prayer.
Such moments of eternity-in-time
Confirm the Maker in each maker’s rhyme.
It’s an old idea, once common: Early poets thought of the world as embodying words spoken by its Maker. Their task as poets, as makers, was, as Middleton says elsewhere, to “mimic, evoke, and praise.” This is a long way from poetry as protest, confession or gibberish, and closer to Middleton’s fiddler, who chooses to “urge the world along.” One of the new book’s centerpieces is “Black Lake Tales,” which carries the dateline “Bienville Parish, north Louisiana, 1959,” and is dedicated to Middleton’s uncle, Joseph Lynn Sudduth, a retired lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Corps. Told in the third person, the poem recalls a fishing trip with his uncle when Middleton was ten years old:
And in such moods the uncle often spoke
Not to the child alone but to the man
The child’s ripe innocence barely held within
Of what had long possessed his heart and mind,
Stories gleaned from books and from the book of life.
The uncle describes to the boy their place in geological time, in “an unabstracted known domain: / Crests of the buckled uplands,” and on Driskill Hill. The uncle, a representative man of his time and place, studies at LSU with Cleanth Brooks in 1941, and soon is flying bombing missions over Germany and witnessing “a scene / come up from unimagined depths of hell”—the Nazi death camps. With his nephew he “found a new access to a past / Now called back in full poignancy by grace.” Deeper in the past, as he wanders “through Eden’s trees” in Bienville Parish, he recalls the death of Will, the mixed-breed hunting dog he had as a boy, lost in “the Big Ditch,” a sort of Dantean malebolge (“evil ditch”) transplanted to Great Depression-era Louisiana. Somberly, after cleaning the fish they’ve caught in Black Lake, the uncle and nephew, in the poem’s final lines,
gazed awhile, in silence and the night,
On old unsounded depths of earth and sky,
Black lakes whose beds no light has ever found.
Like all of Middleton’s poems, this one is quietly audacious: It dares to celebrate creation and mourn our fallen state, the gift and our reluctance to accept it. They are written, as he puts it in “Black Lake Tales,” “within a triple history / Of nature, Holy Writ and humankind.” The Fiddler of Driskill Hill is the finest of Middleton’s peerless collections of verse.
Patrick Kurp is a writer living in Houston, Texas, and the author of the literary blog Anecdotal Evidence.
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