AE Hines on Russell Karrick’s The Way Back

“We folded our feathers at dawn,” Russell Karrick says in his opening poem “Delirium” [p. 1], “perched in the fruit trees and sang the holy songs of our Father.” Winner of the 2023 Slapering Hol Press Chapbook Competition, The Way Back is a remarkable debut, particularly for its use of the lyric to magnify specific narrative moments that praise the natural world. Most of these insights occur amid the flora and fauna of the poet’s adoptive country of Colombia, often in the company of his wife and infant son. And while his poems are steeped in nature, Karrick generally avoids tackling topics such as climate change, or engaging in the environmental activism that is characteristic of most eco-poetry. In fact, in The Way Back, instead of reminding us of forthcoming catastrophe, Karrick instead invites us to sit down and closely observe his daily rhythms and experience their simple joys. To luxuriate in each moment, and as he says early on, “drink rain in the garden.” Thus, by lingering in nature, and with careful focus on the next generation (in the form of Karrick’s son), the poet quietly highlights all we stand to lose. And perhaps, what we have already lost – our direct connection to the planet that sustains us. Such subtle reminders become one way to interpret the collection’s title. “The way back,” Karrick seems to suggest — to our healing of the earth, to our caring for each other –- requires accessing the selfless wonder that the natural world and our fellow humans provide.  

In his poem “Green Mangos” [p. 10], for example, during an ultrasound before his son’s birth, the poet imagines the baby as a “tiny astronaut floating in space. His heart ... the size of a star seen from Earth.” Here, using the lyric to slow time, and with diction and syntax that are precise in their musicality, Karrick manages to play with scale to recreate the astonishment one feels when becoming a parent. By dramatically shifting his perspective, for example, from the micro view of a developing human heart, inside a fetus’s developing body, out to the macro, even cosmic view of space, stars and celestial bodies, Karrick delights our imaginations and inspires childlike awe.

Another fine example of this craftsmanship is found in the closing poem, “Dusk” [p. 21].


Perched in the branches

of the avocado tree, the chickens

are almost asleep. My son

lifts his head from my chest

and points to them. Each day

I carry him through the yard

at dusk, and we hunt for seasonal

treasures. Tonight, he spies

amanita muscaria below the pines,

and we marvel at its ruby caps.

In the sky, the moon is not yet

a moon, but I whisper its name

into his ear, and as I begin

to walk back toward the house,

he stops me near the guava trees.

I move us closer while he stretches

his arm and, by some instinct

I’ve long lost to reason, plucks

the only red fruit among the leaves.

In this poem,  it feels as if we’ve happened upon a private, tender moment between father and son. Karrick invites us into the experience, first, with nature – the avocado tree and dosing chickens — and we can’t help but draw the comparison between these fragile creatures, sleeping in the branches, and his infant son lifting his head from the poet’s chest. Notice how Karrick employs the genus and species name for the red-capped mushrooms — amanita muscaria – which, as contrasted with the intimacy of the moment, creates distance and tension between the beauty of those “ruby caps” and our own knowledge that, like many mushrooms, they might be dangerous. And yet, this tension makes the turn at the end of the poem all the richer, where the child (using instinct alone), reaches out for a ripened guava, needing it seems, no instruction to know the bright red fruit is meant for him. Like the collection as a whole, this poem’s power comes from its play with opposites – in this case, danger with safety, reason with instinct — lending both a vibrant sense of place, and meaningful emotional stakes.  

And while Karrick may draw our attention with beauty and tenderness, it’s important to point out that there is nothing saccharine or sentimental about his verses. In fact, his poems are successful precisely for their reliance on the darker elements, the shadow-side of life, that bring his more uplifting moments into relief. Karrick might begin, for example, with a full moon and the gleaming rice fields of Bali, only to end with the anxiety of a missing person [p. 2]. “Sweet basil and grilled sardines,” might give way to a cliffside visit from a father’s ghost [p. 7]. The lovely “white jasmine and bougainvillea petals” on the streets of Cartagena, suddenly, transform into a dead horse, its driver, “beaten by a mob” [p. 6].  

Throughout the chapbook, Karrick’s unwillingness to look away from such darkness brings a sense of authority and authenticity to his work. Here’s life, the poet seems to say. Yes, it’s beautiful, with all its simple pleasures. But it is precious, and urgent too, precisely because it is fleeting. As such, in The Way Back, we find a poet in love with the world, despite the pain of inevitable loss, and poems that provide a passage back to wonderment — that remind us of the power of language to reveal and enrich our interior lives.  


AE Hines is the author of Adam in the Garden (Charlotte Lit Press, 2024) and Any Dumb Animal (Main Street Rag, 2021). He has won the Red Wheelbarrow Prize and Palette Poetry’s Love and Eros Prize, and has been a finalist for the Montreal International Poetry Prize. His poems have been widely published in such journals as The Southern Review, Rattle, The SunPrairie Schooner and Alaska Quarterly. And his literary criticism can be found in American Poetry Review, Tupelo Quarterly, Rain Taxi, and Northwest Review. He received his MFA from Pacific University, and resides in Charlotte, North Carolina and Medellín, Colombia.