Carolyn Hembree, Rigging a Chevy into a Time Machine and Other Ways to Escape a Plague, 2016

Reviewed by Will Cordeiro

[Review Guidelines]

Carolyn Hembree's new book, Rigging a Chevy into a Time Machine and Other Ways to Escape a Plague, presents a cast of creatures devolving in some backwater's slime-swamp genepool—paint huffers, jailbait, tent-dwellers, baby daddies, snake-handlers, vandalizers, and evangelists—all lovingly depicted in a bastardized, boozy, roughneck dialect.

The focus is on Vitalis Cleb, his consort Eyecandy, and their illegitimate miscarried ghost of an offspring Adeline. Cleb, who may or may not be a preacher, languishes away whole years in a spunk-soaked, moonshined daydream about the enchanted Sears Catalog Girl while Eyecandy, sporting a baby-T and a baby on each hip, seduces pimple-faced checkout-boys, one-arm cardsharks, snaggletoothed truckers, and anyone else whom her wiles can save from whiskey dick.

In this blighted white trash dumping ground of burnt-out filling stations and flea-bitten motels with vibrating beds, every dead-eyed born-again slurs his words and speaks in tongues, lays hands and loiters for handjobs. The Sears Catalog Girl—arriving like the Holy Ghost driving a videogame spaceship in one of Cleb's fog-brained visions—proclaims, "Ain't we all hiding / some kind of plague under our fig leaf?"

In other words, we're all diseased and lousy with secret identities, kudzu'd with illicit desires, riddled with kinks thicker than a viper pit; and we mask these defects and depravities behind a little sprig of superficial, postlapsarian decency. We hold to our fig-leaf; we cling to guns and religion; or we use gris-gris or ego or romance or denial or the tall tales we tell ourselves between sips of homebrew to keep the heebee-jeebees at bay.

In this vein, one poem offers an animistic spell, which begins:


Invoking the animal spirits of opossums and ravens, bobcats and bluebottle flies, the book portrays an old time religion that blends revivalist fervor with snake-handling mysticism, mixing up elements of voodoo, pagan rituals, and modern superstition along the way. Birds are augurs: "Call them what you will, you ought believe in birds." Fables and parables turn everyday wreckage into whirlwinds from the Old Testament. For these true believers, they can haruspicate by the queasy feelings in their guts; shake and convulse when the spirit takes them.

Better some fatalistic make-believe—some reassurance that otherworldly powers can intervene in one's lives—or the immediate gratifications of sex and drugs than acknowledging the awful reality of dead-end low wage jobs, rampant unemployment, chronic debt, alcoholism, widespread domestic abuse, poor education, vanishing social programs, and general fecklessness in the face of a global economy that, swifter than any rapture, has left them behind.      

Hembree's saga proceeds by vignettes, riffs, snapshots, and anecdotes rather than anything resembling linear narrative—we glimpse the intertwining stories of these characters through hints and divinations, drifts and thickets. This is a fitting structure since the characters are half-mythic, half-composite sketches who find themselves quagmired in the hollers of Appalachia and the bayous of the Deep South, where time loops back, sidetracks, uproots, rots out, grows over-lush and riots like the cankered branches of these characters' family trees.

Cleb's Chevy sitting on concrete blocks is going nowhere fast, bogged down in the putrefaction and backwards of these boondocks while time elsewhere keeps moving forward. The South is a graveyard haunted by the violence of its past, of a past (as Faulkner said) that's not even the past. The past lives on; the present is dying all around. Hard work and harder drinking makes young bucks good old boys in no time. The future is written like the wrinkled map of granddaddy's gum-shrunken face, which, with any luck, will be one's own. One inherits such a history like a field of bodies which have been amputated and sewn up again so many times that they're merely "phantoms with phantom limbs."      
The book takes a deft and unexpected turn in its penultimate poem: the language switches from third to first person as the authorial persona steps to the fore. All the previous poems construct a drama of mythopoetic characters that take on, by turns, the register of religious allegory and Everyman archetypes, while occasionally straying into kung-fu cartoons ("BLAM") or Southern Gothic clichés ("Mason jars," "baptism," underage whores). By contrast, this apparently more personal poem—which is, nevertheless, interpolated with citations from science journals, physics books, and regional history—reframes what may otherwise risk caricature by situating it within the context of the author's own family and their hill country heritage.

In this poem, the fictive ghost of Adeline is transposed onto the lyrics of a country song as well as a childhood memory of a neighbor girl. The book's myth-weaving thus brings home how truth is shaped by legend and how the most fantastic stories are still informed by life. Even so, I suspect that a whole section rather than a single poem would have been a more effective turn since this single confessional-seeming moment comes so late and is, moreover, too elusive and fragmentary to fully ground the book's insistent mythos in workaday reality. 
Language and local color, even more than the characters, give this work its moxie. These poem have a downhome twang and tangy bite. An underlying authorial savoir faire and the overarching narrative just barely contain the maximalist energies that everywhere threaten to slingshot these poems outward into an unstructured, primordial quasar or suck them inward into a hermetic space of psychic black holes.

The gravity of the events which have molded the South are strong enough to warp the space-time continuum; Hembree's book offers a testament of a place and culture deeply felt within the blood and exerting its dark and ensorcelling forces on her vision no matter how far she travels or erudite she becomes. Although Hembree may have escaped the worst fate of such a plague-stricken land, her sympathetic portrait of kinfolk, both real and imagined, shows that hers is an inheritance that operates by spooky action at a distance, a past that ghosts her, a familial destiny that's coded in her bones.