I met Larry before I met him. The first time was at the famous Marfa Book Company in Marfa, Texas, on my way, also for the first time, to Big Bend National Park. I wanted some poetry about West Texas to read while in the heart of the West Texas wilds. His book, Where Skulls Speak Wind (Texas Review Press 2004), encapsulated the very vista I surveyed from the side of the mountain at the head of the Lost Mine Trail. I had found my West Texas poet, and I was not disappointed.
But although that was my first introduction to Larry, he is not limited to that subject matter. After inviting him to read at Blinn College and meeting him in person over a year later, I became more familiar with his works. Collections such as The Woodlanders (Pecan Grove Press 2002), set in the deep swamps of East Texas, and The Fraternity of Oblivion (Timberline Press 2008), featuring outlaw bikers, reflect the complexity of his subject matter. Still, like the scorching heat of West Texas days or the relentless bone-chilling cold of the desert night, he is always fascinated with the extremes of our dualities regardless of the backdrop – the good and the evil that reside in us all, the atrocities that can happen between the closest of kin or absolute strangers in turns, and the saint and the sinner in all of us. The dark corners are laid bare or dimly illuminated with his pen, at times a searchlight and sometimes a candle. Either way, he knows what details to focus on and how to implicate us in what he reveals.
I would not call Larry a West Texas poet, but he is. And I would not call him just a Southern writer, but he would do James Dickey, William Faulkner, and Flannery O’Connor proud. I would not call Larry’s work simple, but it is starkly complicated in its clean lines and sparse descriptions. In addition to these labels, I guess I would call Larry a humanist above all because even the most despicable acts are almost understandable from the perspective he grants us. Just as he loathes and loves himself, he knows we are deserving of both. There is love in the violence and there is respect in the fear of his characters just as there is a soul coupled with the mind, no matter how deranged or lucid that mind may be.
In Uncle Ernest, as in many of his other works, you will want to turn away. You will see how love can twist and deform the very ones it cloisters. In some of his other collections, Larry has shown us how open, dry spaces can lay bare secrets or be the perfect place to forget the past. Larry reminds us that the deep dark woods nurture secrets so dark the mind can barely conceive of them, even the minds of those who commit the atrocities. Too much distance from society twists and hones the taboo into normal, but even out there, there are still limits of what is acceptable; there is an inherent moral compass. Sometimes, those minds bend to envelope the deeds they’ve created, but sometimes they break. Larry reminds us that madness is the only option for some in order to cope.
In a blue expanse of desert sky, the blue moon shadow of an owl’s wing sliding across a clearing, or jars of sparrows’ hearts on a window sill, Larry shows us the delicious pleasure and beautiful pain of the weight of memory, real and imagined. I am comforted to know that Larry is there to remind us of the things we’re sorry we’ve forgotten and the things we wish we could.
Reviewed by Courtney O’Banion, San Jacinto College Central, Pasadena, Texas