Southern ancestry permeates ‘The Forage House’

“The Forage House.” Tess Taylor. Red Hen Press, 2013. $17.95

“Eldest Daughter.” Ava Leavell Haymon. LSU Press, 2013. $17.95

“The Biscuit Joint.” David Kirby. LSU Press, 2013. $16.95

No less an authority than the former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky has commended the “poise, candor, and reach” of Tess Taylor’s new collection, “The Forage House.”

Taylor does not have to boast her direct descent from Thomas Jefferson, because her career speaks for itself. A lecturer at UC Berkeley, she reviews poetry for NPR’s “All Things Considered,” and her work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and elsewhere.

An indistinct Southern ancestry haunts the whole of “The Forage House.” In “Eighteenth-Century Remains,” Tess stands solemnly before the divided earth of a minor archaeological site, focusing her eye on pieces of bygone lives: “pipe stems, seeds, three greening buttons.” What transactions might they have attached to? And who sat in that place, “against a sill-log wall that did for home”?

The Civil War’s legacy is unabashedly woven into Taylor’s work. It’s the “genteel poverty” of her 19th-century family, the scarred tobacco lands, and all those places the tourists flock to where the fireplaces are painted over and no charred sample of the past remains to feed the historic imagination.

She tours the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond, Va., responding to what’s left over: “Lee’s tarnished bowls await no one’s meal.”

Taylor intuits history through her engagement with pieces and particles and secrets, making the most of captured fragments of memory and pottery. This combination of the material and ethereal is carefully measured and put to the test when it comes to Jefferson himself.

From the burial place at his mountaintop home in central Virginia (“Portal to the gone world, the old world”), she experiences the elements, interspersed with Jefferson’s owwn words, as he set them down one day in a memorandum on the shoveling done by slaves.

She speaks back to him in several of the poems.

“I climbed today through what remains of your oak forest / & passed again our gated family graveyard”; and it led to acute discomfort over the investment Jefferson made in books and seeds and artwork; and the investment he didn’t make toward freeing the men and women in chains.

But still she asked the guardians of Jefferson’s home for permission to touch his bedspread.

Ava Leavell Haymon is Louisiana’s recently crowned poet laureate. Like Tess Taylor’s offering, her new collection, “Eldest Daughter,” is as confrontational as it is inventive.

The poet relives earlier days growing up with a Baptist minister father.

The voice from the pulpit, the careful watch over a girl’s virginity, the yearning “to stifle sex / and anything else that branded me woman,” informs us that the poet’s purpose is to look honestly at those occurrences that reveal where cultural power resides and psychological power applies.

Some of these poems are plainly autobiographical, and all are immersed in human frailty. Interrogating the inner worlds of children seems to come easy to Haymon.

Then there’s “Church Schism,” refreshingly iconoclastic. The verse can be saucy, too. It rolls over and over without caring who gets trampled, as in “The Holy Ghost Moves to Kilgore” (Texas) and “The Holy Ghost Tries Out for Little League” (the outfield).

In case you weren’t sure, Louisiana’s poet laureate is not shy. She also forced me to look up “Hulapopper” on the Internet.

There’s no way to define the poems of David Kirby simply, but I’ll try. If you can picture an accomplished student of philosophy — a very likable guy — who wakes up one day to find himself as manic as a classic cartoon character, you have a pretty fair idea of the Kirby effect.

In “Biscuit Joint” (the term comes from woodworking), he’s an inspired conversationalist whose wacky thoughts are ecstatically unbound.

Kirby’s writing is literary-minded and knock-kneed, as in one idea knocking up against an incongruent other: that’s just how humans impersonate, that’s how the mind juggles.

Take “Psychodynamic Electrohelmet,” his mind’s invention. He’s seeing the prototype in an ungovernable dream: the “single-bar face mask” that football players used to wear way back when, and it’s attached to “an electric cord with a plug you stick into a wall socket.” Somehow, it’s going to get him the girl, we read, and “the cherry cola of Paradise.”

“People yawn in picture galleries the way / they do nowhere else,” opens “What’s the Plan, Artists?” There’s Gauguin and Karl Marx, the poet Milton, Shakespeare, Michelangelo, and Franz Liszt, coming from all angles in the same poem.

“Ten Thousand Hours with You” speaks to the tragic death of Jayne Mansfield and — this one’s for you, Tess Taylor — adds a thought or two about Jefferson’s biracial descendants “doing yoga and drinking designer coffee.”

My favorite Kirby is “My Favorite Foreign Language.” It’s beyond clever, even if you’ve never been to Senegal. “What’s the best country?” he asks. And answers: “Heaven, probably: as everyone knows, the cooks are French, the mechanics German, the police English …”

In the end, the playful wordsmith has it figured out. Poetry is an orgy — no, not in its easily imaginable excitement, but in its real indeterminateness: “you’re disappointed most of the time, but you never know what’s going to happen.” Kirby is never disappointing AND you never know what’s going to happen.

Andrew Burstein is Charles P. Manship professor of history at LSU, and the author, most recently, of “Lincoln Dreamt He Died.” His website is andburstein.com.