Axe, Fire, Mule. By C.D. Albin (Golden Antelope Press, 2018, Pp. 88)


      Craig Albin’s debut collection of poems, Axe, Fire, Mule, provides everything that will satisfy Albin’s admirers and charm newcomers to his work.

      As his previous volume of short stories manifests, Albin is above all a story-teller. Imagine his speakers as soft-spoken middle-aged men reminiscing in the evening about events in the lives of themselves, their families, and their neighbors and acquaintances, events that touched their hearts and will touch the hearts of those who listen.

      Sometimes speakers reveal hidden abuse. In “Searcher,” the speaker recalls a man who kept looking for a lost toddler, long after others had retreated for the night, finding her “curled with her collie asleep”—asleep in the same dark Ozark hollow he’d haunted as a boy, “bloodied, belt-bruised,” but “never told.” In “Endgame” it’s a young woman the speaker remembers, “bruised blacker than the coffee” he was drinking, finally rasping out, “This time I’m leaving him,” before disappearing from his office, his building, his life.

      At other times it’s human loss speakers remember. “Allen’s Boy” pictures a fatherless kid longing to play basketball like his storied father once did, his long-gone father’s old rival coaching him along, body and soul. In “Lament,” a son who found his father dead, fallen in the fields he loved, laments that his dad reached out in death to the pasture’s “swayed, half-rotten corner post” rather than to the son himself. In “Nine Days,” perhaps that same son remembers standing poised between his father lying in his coffin and his own toddler clutched in his arms, the child’s “soft wiggly weight” comforting him.

      At still other times the speaker ponders missed chances, opportunities that will never return. In “Blessed Those Days” he remembers buying “baseball cards / and bubble gum at Preacher Roe’s,” the grocery run by the retired pitching great, “hoping for heroes like Lou Brock, Hank Aaron, or Roberto Clemente,” never thinking to ask Roe about his days playing with Jackie Robinson. Another speaker in “Shadow Box” rues that he never thought to ask his grandfather, a WWII vet who fought in New Guinea, about the old man’s dreams that “often woke him to / sweat-drenched bed linens inside / a clapboard house of shadows.”

      A few speakers recall sad stories of men whose lives collapsed. “Downsized” portrays a one-time junior high tough guy, now a laid-off “machinist gone paunchy with / beer,” who rants against “greedy bosses” and “lazy Mexicans whose checks / should be his.” “White as Lime” recalls the city’s stubbled ballpark groundsman who reached a breaking point, filled the city mowers’ gas tanks with lime, and disappeared forever in the back of a police cruiser.

      Above all, the speakers of these poems love the place they’re in, the rolling foothills of the eastern Ozarks, just as much as they love the people who share that world with them. In “Restoration,” for example, a grandfather’s old fiddle, pinched alive, assures the speaker that “Ozark soil would hold him fast.” In the title poem, “Axe, Fire, Mule,” the speaker, in the face of drought one year and flood the next, expresses the heart of many who love the land they live on:

. . . nothing’s sure for me

except Julie and the kids

need all that’s left of us here.

we’ll stay, start over—rain, shine.

      Sharply, deftly drawn, these taut narrative poems elicit the small-town world many Ozark dwellers know and love, from Cape Girardeau to West Plains, from Rolla to Batesville. They often surprise you with their twists and, ultimately, with their insight into who we are—not just small-town Ozarkers but men and women who live, love, err, lose, regret, and cling to what remains.

Terrell Tebbetts

      Reviewed in Elder Mountain:  A Journal of Ozarks Studies, Issue 8, 2018