Review | Fire Baton, by Elizabeth Hadaway

Elizabeth Hadaway’s debut volume of poetry, Fire Baton, displays both impressive formal skills and a riveting fluency. Beautifully executed, her poems mold contemporary language and subject matter into innovative formal verse, in which regular meter, rhyme, and the shape of received forms produce narrative, portraiture, and vigorous disquisition. Hadaway takes as her primary text a region—the Southern mountains—and that region’s peculiar temperament, which is piquant, spirited, and ornery. Her affinity for form is rooted in the cadences of mountain speech, and its character and diction are preserved and enlarged in Fire Baton. Yet, these poems are not merely regional in their concerns, nor are they merely formal exercises. They are more satisfying and complex.

Like many first books, Fire Baton self-consciously takes stock; and, as a place to begin, Hadaway’s Appalachia offers rich material for the poet’s eye and ear. “Was You Born Here?” the book’s first poem, offers the reader a primer on how to read the poems that follow it:

“Cause you don’t talk like you
was born here,” said
my probably fourth cousin,
at least an eighth. “Coarse-bred,”

Yeats called Cockney Keats. What
he’d think of me I know.
I’m talking American Viscose,
Magic City Mortgage Co.

among my parentage.
But marry that
to old moonshiners who read Cicero
in nothing flat—

in rounded mountains, knobs
where where’s whirr, peaks
of laurel burning into bloom—
I start to speak,

and sound like a stranger everywhirr.
The Cure taught me Camus
and still the flatland bouncer asks,
“You’re from somewhere, aren’t you?”

In this short poem, Hadaway makes her obsessions clear: place, kinship, class, language, philosophy, and literature, and the poems in Fire Baton marry these diverse elements in fine style. In “Was You Born Here?” Hadaway’s attention to the sounds of words—key to making poetry sing—is apparent. As where becomes whirr, we hear the sound afresh, and something is set in motion. As new meaning is constructed from a particular way of pronouncing a common word, Hadaway fires the opening salvo of the book’s argument with itself: How does place shape us and resonate within us? What will we make from it?

Appalachian culture, shape-shifting as it collides with homogeneous consumer culture, triggers many of the poems in this book’s first half. “The Hundredth Summer of the Chestnut Blight,” “American Viscose Plant, 1929,” and “Magic City Mortgage Co., 1951” (these last two named in book’s opening poem, as a kind of foreshadowing) as well as the title poem point directly to an irresistible personal and public history that must be investigated, an investigation enacted through poetry. Always, Hadaway’s deep connection with the region is a shaping force. The remarkable “Fire Baton” is crafted in six-line stanzas with a loose aa bb cc rhyme scheme, a form that in less capable hands could be too familiar or distracting. Instead, Hadaway crafts a resonant poem of closely observed details and surprising images. As the speaker reflects on her childhood stint as a clumsy baton-twirler, she offers an ars poetica, its central metaphor the performance of teenaged majorettes who wield fire batons in carefully choreographed routines:

                   in the dusk
of Pine Ridge, majorettes,
star-crowned in high school, met

to practice fire baton.
They knew their craft. Their wands
or brands burned at both ends
and flew. The smoothest spins
in both hands, keeping time
with drums and flames, defined

my beautiful. Not cute.
Their hands reached, resolute,
into the fire and showed
no wavering. Their code
hid rising blisters, tics,
and every cicatrix.

More interesting than its formal structure are this poem’s precision and wit. The speaker is a young performer, “Wobbling in heels . . . / down candycane-lit streets . . . frozen, runny nosed / in child-sized hooker’s clothes,” an image that is both darkly amusing and poignant. It is with these experiences and materials that Hadaway works best. Other poems in this volume touch on such well-known icons of the South as Uncle Remus (“Disney Ride Song of the South”) and Dale Earnhardt (in a wonderful, dark meditation, “A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Car, of Dale Earnhardt at Daytona”).

The second half of Fire Baton includes several longer poems, which wrestle with—and resist—easy reconciliation with the past or soothing palliatives, choosing instead extended interrogations of faith (and faithlessness), blending elegy and intellectual inquiry. One such poem is “Fancy Gap.” Organized into three longish sections, “Fancy Gap” takes as its subject the image of a woman on a highway poster, warning about a dangerous and curvy stretch of mountain highway. This image, whom the speaker calls Fancy, is unforgettable:

                                 But her hillvampy pose
on prop split rails, rope-belted, veil of hair
a gallows hood, a warning not to doze
on 52, still managed to invoke
something chthonic. 

Seductive, almost mythic, Fancy embodies both place—Fancy Gap, a mountain town—and a legacy of terrible sacrifice. As Hadaway takes on the difficulties of growing up female, often crippled by custom and misogyny, she also writes about making something lasting and rich from this history.

For the speaker, Fancy is muse and provocateur: “some places have toll-spirits. Fancy Gap / had mine. She owned a torn wedge of the map // of Appalachia.” Hadaway frames this poem with images of travel, beginning with the risky mountain roads and ending with a cross-country road trip during which the speaker turns away from Fancy, who has proved to be a false god:

Then all night through Nevada, limitless
jackrabbits: dead, dead, dead. The thrill was brief,
though, briefer each time, soon unhappiness.
So Fancy lost my faith. She wasn’t tough.
One sacrifice was never good enough.

Throughout Fire Baton the poet’s voice is spiky, assured, and utterly contemporary, but also tuned to the past for both locution and literary antecedent. In other poems, Hadaway invites in Laforgue, Shelley, Eliot, Derrida, and Pinsky; her erudition is fierce, sometimes amused at itself, always fitful and knotty. These poems bear up well under, and demand, repeated reading.

In an essay in The New Criterion, poet and critic David Yezzi wryly observes, “[F]ormalism has been deemed reactionary, irrelevant, sleepy, and woefully out of touch with the way people speak and think.” Elizabeth Hadaway offers evidence that, in the right hands, formal poetry is compelling and readable. Fire Baton speaks in the vernacular, lifting up and amplifying ordinary speech in a distinctly un-ordinary way. Hadaway’s ”meter-making argument” is finely tuned and convincing.  

Elizabeth Hadaway’s poems have appeared in The Bellingham Review, The Blue Penny Quarterly, New England Review, Shenandoah, and other journals. She has received scholarships to the Breadloaf and Sewanee writer’s conferences, and has been a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University, and a Randall Jarrell Fellow at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Hadaway lives in Kingsville, Maryland.