» Book Review
Jam Session in Poems
Cross Country, by Jeff Newberry and Justin Evans
WordTech Editions, 2019
Paperback, 110 pages, $19
In Cross Country, a collaborative book of epistolary poems published by WordTech Editions (2019), Jeff Newberry and Justin Evans pay homage to poet Richard Hugo. Hugo’s 31 Letters and 13 Dreams (1977) popularizes an epistolary tradition that originates in Ancient Rome and finds acclaim with Horace and Ovid. Hugo’s poems often address other poets such as Charles Simic, William Matthews, Denise Levertov, and William Stafford. Readers become voyeurs, dropped into intimate conversations between some of the most prominent poets of the twentieth century.
Hugo’s poems are often imagistic reports of a place, as he writes in “Letter to Wagoner from Port Townsend”: “Dear Dave: Rain five days and I love it.” These epistles transcend the reportage of place idiosyncrasies to reveal Hugo’s vulnerabilities and anxieties—both about himself as well as the world around him. In “Letter to Bell from Missoula,” Hugo writes: “Months since I left broke down and sobbing / in the parking lot, grateful for the depth / of your understanding […].” It is this balance of the specific details of a place with the personal thoughts of a brilliant writer and flawed human that has been so appealing to Hugo’s readers over many years.
In Hugo’s letter poems, we are only privy to one side of the conversation, however. We do not know how the addressees respond to Hugo—or if they respond at all. Hugo’s epistolary poems are decidedly one-sided; Newberry’s and Evans’ Cross Country, however, is a mutual conversation where both poets relay their deepest fears, desires, and hopes—to each other and to their lucky readers.
Evans sets the stage for Cross Country in one of the earliest poems in the book, “Letter to Newberry about Past Memories of Colorado”: “Dear Jeff: I think we’re all looking / for something, looking to run / to or from something.” Indeed, Cross Country feels like a search for a meaningful spiritual faith, for familial acceptance, and for a way to exist in a contemporary world that often seems mired in violence, sadness, and a persistent irrationality. This is a book that emerges from a contemporary scene that includes the mass shootings in Sandy Hook and Orlando and the 2016 presidential election, but it is also a book that asks looming personal and philosophical questions about love and loss, a book where we “want to see the mystery unfold, / complex as it might be” (Evans).
Evans and Newberry allow readers to see them at their most vulnerable—particularly when they broach the topics of their children, as well as of their own fathers. In a particularly tender sequence entitled “Letter to Evans: Like Waves Breaking,” Newberry describes his fears about his young daughter’s spina bifida, and ends the poem by writing: “I take each breath with her, willing my lungs / do the work for her. She sleeps and I sleep.” Newberry’s helplessness is profound, but it is in moments such as this one where a subsequent poem from Evans acknowledges Newberry’s anxiety and empathizes with him: “As a father myself, I / understand what you are saying, though / I cannot know the specifics of your fears” (Evans). The dialogue that Evans and Newberry create in Cross Country is deeply moving precisely because in it they engage fully in the difficulties of each other’s lives and offer each other comfort and solace.
If literature’s job is to teach us what it means to be human and how to empathize with one another, then Cross Country delivers those lessons in honest and accessible poems. Evans’ and Newberry’s narratives weave in and out of each other organically. It seems as though we are present at a blues jam session where the musicians have known each other for so long that they finish each other’s riffs. In fact, in the penultimate poem of the book, Newberry writes, “Justin, when you unseal this poem, remember / that it is made of voice the way that music is made / from the guitar player’s deft fingers.” The music in Cross Country will break your heart. Just like the greatest songs, though, these poems also sound the bells of hope and grit because, as Evans reminds us, “We must each / set the bar each morning as we greet the new day, / as each new day is certain to find us, willing or not.”