HUNTER AND HE DOG UP A HOLLER, BY JAMES DUNLAP
In James Dunlap’s first chapbook, Hunter and He Dog Up a Holler (Swamp Editions 2018), set in the Arkansas delta, “Night ascends slow and half-hearted.” The world is only half lit and the paternal figure who might come at their child’s call is to be trusted no more than the wolf. Two boys bear similar bruises from their fathers, in his poem “Primal Forms,” and drunk on “whiskey’s bitter twang,” they make do with their smaller scale destructions. Once noticing all the cows in the neighbor’s field gathered beneath a single tree, the speaker shoots off a bottle rocket, scattering them and burning down their shelter, while claiming “There’s not much saying / what made me do it.” By the poem’s end, the speaker also acknowledges that he is “happy / to see...something else burning.”
Despite the intense violence, one senses the speaker’s tenderness and that the violence rendered is an act of survival rather than indulgence. There are uneasy, troubled moments of slippage between this violence and tenderness. In the poem “and the blade whistle,” the speaker’s grandfather works a slingblade after beating his wife. The grandfather is an imposing and terrifying figure wrapped in sinew, but still a grandfather, still comforting when the speaker nestles in his arm⏤“like a horse hair on barbwire”—only inches from a sharp edge. In a similar moment of slippage, the speaker imagines “Unkilling a Deer.” The knife “[seams] back its rent robes” instead of cutting; “blood crawls back up the groin;” and the dogs “spit up chunks of bloody deer heart.” These gruesome moments all accumulate in reverse until the speaker is again, “just a boy,” as if undoing the destruction of this deer can win him back some innocence.
By the end of Dunlap’s vivid and starkly beautiful collection, he concludes “it all has to mean something to live in a land that has broken better men.” But, we see that the land doesn’t only produce things stunted and wrecked by inhospitable people. “It takes a certain kind of person to know what is born of this place.” There is destruction and lives overrun by violence, and there is also the “generations of good tomatoes” and “the way the sun strikes the face of Petit Jean Mountain.” There is room for beauty and life and James Dunlap has the character to unflinchingly sift it from the generational sickness that haunts these pages.
—Review by Zachary Harrod