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The Singing of the Wheels
J. Brian Long
Wind Publications, 2004, $14.00

Reviewed by: Amy Unsworth
Book rating: 8 out of 10 stars

View three poems from The Singing of the Wheels here


The narrator of J. Brian Long's The Singing of the Wheels: Poems from Somewhere Not Far is on a journey from a life that has taken unexpected turns. This book of free-verse poems follows a loose narrative that explores a man's relationship with himself and others through the vehicle of a road trip. The speaker sees himself and his personal circumstances reflected in the world around him. He is sometimes wry, sometimes self-accusatory, and often humbled by his experiences.

Tender and captivating, these poems show a skillful attention to the craft of poetry. Long's ability to combine sound and sense into a fluid whole is most admirable. His work, at times, includes phrasing that is similar to kenning. He introduces word combinations that are unusual but perfectly expressive in the context of the poem. These two traits, sound play without sacrificing sense, and the ability to create new and expressive phrasing, make Long's work a pleasure to read and especially, to read aloud.

There might be a few too many images of moths in this collection; images that I feel have been over-employed in recent times and have lost some of their effectiveness. Otherwise, the imagery in the poems is a blend of both urban experience and the speaker's relationship with the natural world. The road and the highway figure prominently, as do the people and countryside along the way. Everything the speaker sees becomes a touchstone to turn over in the hand and explore: wild dogs, rivers, even the people populating the bars and gas stations.

Long enjoys exploring the capacity of the language, his work often plays off several meanings of a word so that the two senses add subtle depth. For instance, in "Mile 212" and "Tyger", two poems that speak of crossing the Tyger River, the imagery Long employs encourages the reader to envision the river as a cat, "below the willow sash / she seems a cache / of secret moods/ . . . / with sunglint eyes / that flare and wane". "Mile 44" plays with ways of seeing and expressing, using homonyms, words that sound alike but have different meanings, to describe both a man and a shoe beside the road. He also is adept at incorporating line breaks and "pivot" words that can be read with either the first line or the second and add to the meaning of both.

He has a knack for incorporating "found" material into the poems: wording from highway signs, from the neon of a bar, from the gauges of a car. Long takes these snippets of language and, while acknowledging their source, incorporates them to suggest the speaker's emotional state.

Unlike confessional poetry, which treats the reader as voyeur, these poems offer ways to identify with the speaker. Several poems directly address the reader as companion, as friend, and even as lover. The intimacy of these poems allows the reader to be a traveling companion, seeing what the speaker sees, listening to his comments and complaints, and sharing a common experience. "For Her" addresses the reader as lover, but also explores the way that poems unfold. It investigates how a reader becomes speaker, and the way poems entwine poet and reader as "close as the next vain word".

The book also explores the sense of duality in life, including an understanding of human nature as at times fine and at other times, base. He addresses both the joy and the pain of life and relationships. His beautifully rendered " Her First Love" is a celebration of change and letting go. The speaker reminisces, "You must have / fathered many sorrows, but only one daughter, / and remember her small in the bend of your arm". Other poems, such as "A Guy Thing" are darker and exemplify the unpleasant side of human nature: cruelty, pettiness, doubt, and jealousy.

For a first book, this collection is both coherent and cohesive. The poems work together as a whole to tell a poignant story of a man as he struggles to make sense of the direction his life has taken. I wholeheartedly agree with Ron Rash's assessment of Long's work as "memorable language and sophisticated sound-play" and his description of The Singing of the Wheels as a "striking debut by a gifted poet".

View three poems from The Singing of the Wheels here

Poet's Biography:
  Though born in South Carolina and, as a child, having taken up residence for extended periods of time in both Florida and Texas, J Brian Long has spent most of his life in eastern Tennessee. A hotel manager by trade, he also serves on the board of directors for the Knoxville Writer’s Guild and edits the poetry section of The Christian Guide. He is the proud father of two sons, Nat and Tad, and keeps house with his life’s love, Merrie, to whom he has been wed since 1988.

Among other things, he enjoys traveling, tennis, and sitting on his porch swing with pen and paper in hand. J Brian Long began writing in earnest in 1992, and has spent a great deal of effort since then honing his craft through independent study, flagrant imitation of poets he most admires, such as Sandburg, Naomi Shihab Nye, Jill Alexander Essbaum, MacLeish, and Peter Ackroyd, and has come to his first book as a result of the careful critique and guidance given him by others more wise and experienced than he. Though his work has appeared in various magazines and literary journals and has now found a home with Wind Publications, he is not at all satisfied with his poetry, and, in fact, does not consider a single piece he has written as being “done”. He admits to a great deal of uncertainty when it comes to his own poems, and even more so to those written by others, but holds to the belief that he will one day “write words that shake the earth.” In the meantime, though, he attempts going about it one poem, one reader, at a time.

The book can be ordered directly from the press:
Wind Publications
600 Overbrook Drive
Nicholasville KY 40356

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© 1999 - 2003, by the poets featured herein.