Youth, Grief and Appalachia in “Mothman Apologia”

Mothman Apologia is a demonstration of understanding’s miraculous growth from dissolution. Robert Wood Lynn’s first collection, and the winner of the Yale Series of Younger Poets competition, is hardly an apologia in the traditional sense of the word — a defense of one’s own conduct or opinions. Instead, it’s an exploration of the hurt and anger of youth in a world that feels, and often is, hostile to life and human connection.

Finding a way into this book took a while for me. A title like Mothman Apologia implies a formal explanation from the perspective of a regional cryptid or even on behalf of the region where they’re known. For anyone who isn’t into that kind of thing, the Mothman is a winged humanoid creature reportedly seen in West Virginia. Several of its sightings are claimed to have portended disaster, particularly the collapse of the Silver Bridge in 1967, where 46 motorists were killed. If you were looking for a persona who might believably articulate the nature of a region whose victimization has created a history of tragedy and predictable catastrophe, you could do a lot worse.

The book is split into three sequential parts and moves repeatedly between three main modes: persona poems written from the perspective of the Mothman; eleven “Elegies for Fire and Oxycodone” that build a personal narrative of the opioid crisis and an extended metaphor for addiction and greed; and independent poems with a variety of subjects and scopes. The latter two are from the perspective of a teenager growing up in the Virginias.

I can’t help resenting the title Lynn gave to this book. To me, it strongly implies a statement of the nature of a place or some kind of broad commentary on the opioid crisis or the othering of Appalachia. And maybe the meaningfulness of that region in the public imagination, or my own, adds to that expectation. Occasionally Lynn does write on those subjects directly, like in “(The Mothman Pronounces Appalachia),” “Extraction,” and “(The Mothman Reads from The Book of the Dead),” where his speaker, referring to the work of activist poet Muriel Rukeyser, comments:

Fayette County like the dusty
ghosts on Rukeyser’s lists when she wrote I first
discovered what was killing these men. She was not
the first to discover what was killing them. Thing is
those empowered to discover it weren’t interested in
what knowledge could save.

But although these moments of commentary are affecting and realized, the focus of this book is on the young voices navigating the histories of their home and their own personal tragedy. With that in mind, the title becomes a puzzle or a kind of koan. Lynn’s speakers, even the portentous Mothman, rarely have answers or explanations. The book wanders between the lyrical, political, and narrative as unintentionally as grief. Maybe the most direct apologia any speaker makes to justify themselves comes from defenses of their own Bukowski-like cynicism in lines like:

It was one of your better jokes and as with all jokes
funny at first then a little less until repeated only
as an epitaph for how funny it once was.
Fifty American Dollars. This debt smoldering
like your anger after I told you the words
I love you work the same way.

Out of context, this kind of cynicism can come off as unintentionally naïve, a kind of affected pessimism. But Lynn is occupied with demonstrating and exploring those feelings of anger and disillusionment that are a part of youth, however performative. This is where the book moves. Compare those lines to these from “The Season We Danced Alone While Pumping Gas,” a memory of the fear created by the D.C. sniper attacks in 2002. As if to force us to try a perspective on for size, Lynn writes, in second person, “You said / if there is someone pointing a gun at us & let’s be clear // there is nobody — statistically nobody – pointing a gun at us / but if there is, are you going to tell them / where to point it? To let your body beg shoot them not me?

The impulse towards cynicism and the impulse towards bravery both feel deeply teenaged, both unincumbered and unempowered by the experience of adulthood. Lynn’s speakers see language as a trap, knowledge as trauma. It looks miraculous, then, to see these speakers find grace within poetry, one of the most potentially insidious kinds of language traps, in the arc of this book. Lynn writes his speakers with a deep sincerity as they navigate a world full of scars in its landscape, of old wounds that echo the new ones.

His series of eleven elegies, that follow a narrative of the speaker’s personal trauma in conjunction with variations on the metaphor of fire as addiction, greed, memory, anger, etc., begins with the title “First of Ten Elegies for Fire and Oxycodone” and ends with the “Eleventh of Ten…” These titles cleverly imply both the seeming predictability of its subjects and the limitations of that predictability. The “Eleventh of Ten” implies more than the series can contain, more than the trap can catch. Like with a shared flame, this isn’t a loss to the poem. It’s a gift to the reader. Near the end of the book, the Mothman, looking back, explains:

Still, it’s you I miss
Never those days before I knew grace
was a fire. An apology. Another thing
I could give away without having any less.

Mothman Apologia
by Robert Wood Lynn
Yale University Press
Published March 22, 2022