Book Review

Poor Manners by Adam Halbur, Ahadada Books, 2009. $16.95. 

Reviewed by Linda Aschbrenner

Poor Manners, a strong first collection by Adam Halbur, features 35 poems printed on luxurious cardstock paper. Such heft: a good idea. This sturdily bound book by Ahadada Books will wear well and may be found in good condition in future years as Halbur, born in 1976, releases new works. One might be inclined to collect his entire oeuvre, beginning with this book.

Halbur, a Wisconsin native, was a Frost Place Poet at the Robert Frost homestead,  Franconia, New Hampshire, in July and August 2010. Read his witty account, “Letter from the Frost Place,” at Verse Wisconsin 104 online. Halbur writes, “I wouldn’t go so far to say the Frost Place is as good as all old things are, like wine, cheese, and the Mona Lisa. I would say it’s as old as a lot of good things are. There are a number of insects to squash. It’s been a bad year for earwigs, which gardeners say you can attract and drown with saucers of beer. I recommend a rolled up literary magazine brought firmly down on the offending bug, as you might need the beer later for drowning yourself.” 

Don’t miss his equally entertaining account of his return trip to Wisconsin from New Hampshire via Canada: “Poet’s conversation with border patrol” (with the refrain, “Poet obeys command”). Find this at his website.

Halbur recently served as Associate Lecturer at UW-LaCrosse where he taught English as a Second Language. He has taught English in Japan for ten years and is now returning to Japan to teach at Meikai University. Halbur has a B.A. in English literature and completed his M.F.A. in 2003 at Warren Wilson College in Asheville, North Carolina.  

Poets reading Halbur will think of the works of Todd Boss and perhaps Michael Kriesel. Topics in Poor Manners cover horses, cows, rifles, wells, deer hunting, digging up gas tanks, making hay, pitching manure, and poems about grandma and grandpa.  

Blurbs on the back of this book speak of “quiet desolation,” “rural America,”  “smallest places of the great expanse of the nation,” and the “American heartland.” To those of us who have lived in rural Wisconsin all our lives, these poems seem more about “home,” not “quiet desolation.” As Halbur says in “Home,” “This place is not/ named Nostalgia./ This place is not/ Simplicity./ It was my life.” (38)

Just as Robert Frost wrote dialogue poems, ten of Halbur’s poems include dialogue and two are entirely dialogue. “Making the Man” (7) has lines by Old Timer (four lines) and Doc (16 lines). The topic is deer hunting and a hunter’s death. “Brother” (10) is an exchange between Milton and Marvin as they recall when “Hitler had invaded Poland.” “Master of the World” (12) includes a conversation between a son and father. “Bud Grant’s Hair” (14) and “Grandfather at his Grandson’s Wedding Rehearsal on a Maryland Farm” (21) are monologue poems. Halbur’s use of dialogue as a poetic technique injects tension, conflict, interest, emotion, irony, and energy into the poems.
“The Drunk” is a narrative poem relating how the speaker and father dig out an old gas tank on their property. The first 12 lines are fairly matter of fact, slightly mundane as far as poetry goes. However, the next 20 lines, below, burst into a multitude of poetic techniques: imagery, alliteration, consonance, assonance, similes, personification, and smatterings of rhyme. And humor. This poem, like many poems in the book, speaks of experience, details, knowledge, work, the naming of things. One wants to go out and dig up a gas tank just to write about it. 

    “Try not to make any sparks,” dad says,
    and we start to dig. A foot down,
    our shovel tips hit tank top,
    and we keep excavating tainted soil
    from around its bulging belly of rust.
    By the time we reach bottom,
    we’re blistered, sweating, and dizzy,
    while the tank lies like a fat drunk
    who has fallen face first in a hole,
    his friends having given up
    on how to extract him.  
    It’s stuck. And it’s starting to rain.
    So we leave the scene till the next morning.
    when we find the tank floating,
    its bloated ass in the air like an embarrassment.
    We put our backs into it
    till it rolls down hill, past
    white pines and blushing berry bushes,
    before coming to rest
    in a nest of stinging nettles.   (16)

Another intriguing device: a list poem. “A List to Follow,” left by “Ralph’s widow, Dorothy, [when she] sold us the house” lists 21 items such as: “4. Uncover roses in fenced area with leaves when danger of hard frost/ is past.” (36) Poets will be inspired to create their own list poem. 

In fact, this entire book may be useful in a creative writing class: “Write a list poem. Write a monologue poem. Write a dialogue poem. See examples.” Other examples could be found within: a four-line poem, a poem about the sun coming up late, a poem about home, about a dog, a groundhog. Write a myth, an epilogue. Write about work, write from memory. The book is also a blueprint. You’ll have dozens of new poems following Adam Halbur’s structure and techniques. 

Mostly, these are poems to enjoy here in our own quiet desolation in one of the smallest places of the great expanse of the nation. 

Linda Aschbrenner is the editor/publisher of Marsh River Editions. She edited and published the poetry journal Free Verse from 1998 to 2009 which now continues as Verse Wisconsin