Robert Dunsdon on Hayden Bergman’s Ad Hoc

All too often a collection of poetry will come my way which presents itself more or less as a code to be deciphered: a blur of obscurity wherein a precious atom of truth, some revelatory insight perhaps, is there for the taking if only we had the wherewithal to unearth it. All very well, I suppose, but sometimes you yearn for a little more immediacy; something with energy and colour, something which might just re-connect you with the noblest of arts. 

It was a relief therefore to park the metaphysical for a moment and let wave after wave of Hayden Bergman’s freewheeling verse unclog any residual inertia. From the first poem in this collection – a preacher’s telling of Jonah and the whale, whose mid-section is a short, but quite revolting description of some boys’ antics in the front pews – to the somewhat farcical recollection which concludes the book, there’s no shortage of incident and illustration. None more so than in the swathes of nicely descriptive scenes of rural life depicting time spent amongst the bales and the barns, the homemade trailers and dusty hay; bemoaning the work but relishing the passages of contentment and wonder. Seemingly inconsequential moments are picked out and brought into focus, and It’s difficult to resist Bergman’s eye for detail, observing for instance how the cows trudge,

                    and a calf angles its tail to piss

                    in the manner of a happy drunk.

But don’t be deceived; head-on analogies like this sit alongside some really quite touching and effectively nuanced impressions throughout. Indeed, the title poem, in three incarnations, is a kind of slide-show of such instances. We first come across the young narrator having reluctantly to turn down a coy proposition from a girl down the street because he has to be on the farm, walking through crop straw, sifting chaff for broken wires while squinting into the all-day sun. Later, he and a friend are to be found sweeping wheat dust into gatherings, imagining themselves older, when they will grow to be the same size as the cracked and splintered brooms they are pushing. Later still, we see him and the Colburn boys napping between shifts, “faces milled into our elbows, / sweat-soaked feet crossed one over the other, fawns asleep till twilight thickened...”. They return to the fields, to:

                    work that wasn’t holy, though the stubble ground

                                             was gold.

The work referred to might be tedious, the opportunities few, but the adolescent spirit is described beautifully, and burnished with some fine touches hinting at the satisfaction, the joy even, to be gleaned from labour; from the exercise of youthful bodies “smooth as young oxen”. Tinged with a gentle melancholy, this is a very fine piece, skilfully assembled. 

Away from the fields, Bergman introduces an assortment of characters, each of whom might easily, in their understated, parochial way, be the subject of a short story, such are the tantalising sketches allowed us. I’m thinking of Mr Meyers, the tenderly efficient, one-eyed undertaker sizing up the living, walking unmoved from the dead. And what, you wonder, will become of the troublesome amputee in a nursing home, his door locked from the outside? But the most intriguing are three beautifully drawn vignettes of women whose circumstances are illustrated with the lightest of touches. Consider Miss Roma painting her nails, but leaving the moons untouched “to show myself to me, to show that I have not given completely to this man. / I loved him, as required.” A rare insight from, I’m tempted to say, a mere male. I liked very much the almost intrusive glimpse of Betty, standing before a mirror listening to the waxwings, the jays, the grackles and the ravens while she has the chance; while she’s away from husband, children and duty. That spirit of defiance, of individuality, is very much in contrast to the sadly resigned Miss Brenda riding on a Greyhound, letting us know that: “Nobody touches my purse. I don’t even guard it. Men won’t notice things of a woman / they don’t care to own.” 

Ad Hoc is a wide and detailed sweep of a landscape and its people, cut with the author’s own shrewd narrative. There is little room for me to convey the variousness and originality of what’s on offer here, but it’s enough to say that there’s an eagerness to pass on ideas and observations in whatever form the poet feels appropriate, necessary even. From scraps and sketches to prose poems and full-blown, intricately constructed verse, it’s an approach which brings with it a refreshing liveliness anchored by intelligence and perceptiveness. 

With this debut collection Hayden Bergman, a poet, critic and translator from West Texas, stakes a claim as someone to be reckoned with in American poetry. His enterprise and his authority, as well as his flair for elevating the ordinary are evident, I hope, from the few examples I’ve given. What appeals most to this reviewer is his representation of a particular grouping and the understanding and fellow-feeling that underpins it. Bergman is essentially a storyteller, and a good many of his tales here relate to the youth of a rural community whose voices, rarely heard, are authentic and compelling. A species of dreaminess or naivety, an unaffected optimism and an essential goodness is nicely displayed, together with the exuberant and the mildly obscene. The opening stanza of the ambitiously titled “The Rural Skatepark Presents Itself Prior to the Abstraction”, given in full here, seems to rather neatly sum up, or symbolize, the almost spiritual nature of these artless individuals stumbling into adulthood.

                    Mallows gather at the edge of the drainage ditch, and the grackles group,

                                                                    while the sun slow plays a sinking game

                                                  and I lie down on this blue-yellow crush of grass

                                                                    and swell with its acceptance  

And if you can’t see yourself alongside him, immersed in this glorious end of day scene and luxuriating in the warm glow of potential and expectation, then perhaps this fine selection of poetry probably isn’t for you.                   

Robert Dunsdon lives near Oxford in the UK. His poetry has been published in Ambit, Allegro, The Crank, Candelabrum, The Cannon’s Mouth, Decanto, Pennine Platform, Picaroon, Purple Patch and others.His book reviews have featured in Tupelo Quarterly, Heavy Feather Review, The Lit Pub, Sugar House Review, Colorado Review and Poetry International Online.