Poetry that Refuses to Settle: Denton Loving’s “Tamp”

In the final poem of Denton Loving’s moving new collection, Tamp, the speaker explains, “As a boy, I cried despite my father’s warnings — I was too old, boys don’t cry, crying does no good, it solves no problems.” This prose poem, aptly entitled “The Topography of Tears,” provides a beautiful encapsulation of the elegiac tone of this book, centered on the speaker’s reflections on his father, and the almost overwhelming pain that has accompanied the older man’s death. As the speaker states later in the poem, “My loss was like a seed waiting for the proper condition to break open.” Tamp, as a whole, provides “the proper condition,” and Loving is a poet up to the task of balancing his personal loss with the universality of grief.

Loving writes of the solitary nature of these emotions in “Maelstrom,” where his speaker wonders, “Where’s my mother in this vortex of grief?” Ultimately, it doesn’t matter because, though “we bob along // on the surges,” the speaker’s pain is “wholly my own.” Similarly, in the final prose poem mentioned above, he “remembered how to cry only after the others left — the uncles and cousins and well-wishing neighbors. Their well-meant memories muddled the silence I needed to re-envision my world.” The privacy necessary for the outpouring of emotion is matched by the need to remember the father independently of others’ “well-meant memories.”

As a result, Loving often reflects on his childhood. In “The Sherpa Jacket,” it’s the eponymous jacket that “jolts me back to 1981 / and one just like it my dad wore.” This memory leads to a brief rumination on the loss of the father, “twenty-some years since he wore it last,” before returning to the past, to the speaker’s own childhood. He would “crawl inside the jacket, get warm, fall asleep” while living in a Kentucky mining camp. Ultimately, the father was haunted by his forebears the same way the speaker’s father haunts him, whether in recollection or dreams: “We left after that winter, / his parents’ ghosts too much to live with.” Readers get the sense that though the speaker sympathizes with the father’s reaction, for his part, he seeks to keep the memory of his father — his ghost — close by.

“There is a barn” captures this sense beautifully. This portrait of all that has happened in a barn “built by men / a century ago” is really about one particular man’s relationship to the structure. While some men used it as a place to cure tobacco or hang horse tack, the barn also served as a home for calves and their “womb-locked mothers.” This poem does more than supply a description of a barn, however. Loving shows his skill with endings and his ability to turn the poem toward something larger, something universal:

Perhaps the barn’s color doesn’t matter
except to me because that man was my father.
God alone knows if it makes any difference
the hay was wasted by all but the mice,
always burrowing through the past.

Even though this is only the ninth poem in the collection, it’s no surprise that the man who owned the barn previously, who “stacked square hay bales as tight as mice, / though the hay was thick with thistles,” is the speaker’s father. What is unexpected, however, is the return of the mice in the penultimate line, those tiny, industrious creatures who live on after everyone else is gone. They remind the reader, and perhaps the speaker as well, that the past has a physical, corporeal body, symbolized by what is left behind, just as it remains in our minds, like the “ghosts” of “The Sherpa Jacket.”

This knack for extending meaning outward is on display in “Blue November” as well. The speaker opens by insisting, “There’s no blue like the sky in the eleventh / month.” By the end of the poem, however, once the speaker has described the flora and fauna of the woods in the time before Thanksgiving, darkness arrives, almost: “The moon is low and round, the third / this autumn — a blue moon, a harvest / moon.” This returns the speaker’s attention to the sky, where it remains throughout the poem’s conclusion:

There’s no blue like lonesomeness
when the wind blows cold on your bare
arms reaching for help from Heaven.
Moonlight, especially November’s
variety, is the falsest light.

Perhaps the awareness of this “falsest light” is due to the presence of that extra full moon, or it might be, as the speaker declares, “knowledge / [that] is within you.” Regardless, this assertion leaves readers with more than mere images and descriptions to reflect on. We are brought into the poem through not just the speaker’s confident narrative voice, which is evident throughout the collection, but through the meaning he assigns to this rare natural phenomenon.

As a title, Tamp echoes throughout these poems but is nowhere more poignant than in “The Fence Builder.” This poem invites another character into the work: the gravedigger who will bury the speaker’s father. He is proud of his technique, especially in comparison to other, lesser grave diggers: “Some people just push their pile of dirt back in. / But I tamp the dirt at every level.” This is the reason he can declare, “My graves don’t rise or sink.” Rising and sinking are what the speaker’s emotions do throughout these poems. Whether writing narrative or lyric, based on lived experience or a photograph from the Ekphrastic Poetry Project, these are poems that refuse to settle. For this and many other reasons, Denton Loving’s collection is one readers will want to return to.

By Denton Loving
Mercer University Press
Published April 4, 2023