Monday, April 7, 2008

Ancestral Radio, Book Review by Heather A. McMacken

Image Hosted by

Listen. There are poets…and then there are poets.

Ancestral Radio was written by a poet.

His name is Edward Haworth Hoeppner, longtime English Professor at Oakland University, whose first book of poems, Rain Through High Windows, published by New Issues Press in 2000, was a gorgeous and intuitive collection.

Aptly titled, Ancestral Radio is about family. The word radio suggests a frequency, a channel to impart the observations of one particularly awake man.

Ancestral Radio’s broken into four parts. The first contains the autumn season. These are poems of frustration and melancholy chaos; about problems like alcoholism and vacations gone sour. The setting is either far away in actuality (Italy) or in the mind. The speaker is lost, agitated. In “East Dakota,” the complaint:

There are too many stars
on the prairie tonight.
They are too much here
and there is nowhere else
to turn.

The second section is not a season, but a location: the past. It faces backward—staring intensely at deaths and endings. At this point, memory is either vacant or a traitor. “Private Property” summarizes the lifecycle in this bone-chilling way:

You go off like a flash-bulb,
and people rub their eyes.

Poems in part three deal with winter: this dry, white ship, slow cage (70).
There’s frostbite, snowdrifts, sickness, and talk of how Michigan winters suck:

…brain’s not propped up
well enough to handle being shoved inside a box
and left for long

The most enjoyable section is the last—it’s spring! Here Hoeppner fulfills our need for a happy resolution, for transforming grief to joy. The setting for most are near Minnesota, his birthplace. The last word of the book is home, signifying serenity.

Notice Hoeppner’s descriptional mastery in “Early Spring:”

…for this season made from small
bells, in which you step once more
across the planks, to a bobbing edge,
spread your hands as if to float
straight from out your clothing.

As a whole, Ancestral Radio’s mostly sober, with glints of hilarity. The speaker appears consistent, autobiographical, and incredibly honest. All the indecision, flimsy, and misperceptions of this person are center stage.

The book reflects the contradictions, inaccuracies of the mind. Quite often the speaker will say how something is, and then immediately say that it isn’t. There’s also a riot of double (even triple!) negatives. What impresses most, though, is the poet’s clear appreciation of the intricacies of systems: systems of thought, systems of nature, the systems governing human relationships and time.

This universe, all flecked
by things that move so quickly they are partly gone
when they arrive

Edward Haworth Hoeppner cannot be called a simple poet. He is not an Alice Walker or a Billy Collins. Ancestral Radio asks patience. It calls for meditation, for time to fight the bafflement. This book reminds me so much of Hoeppner’s biggest influence, John Ashbery. It requires readers to do as they do with Ashbery’s poems: to let go. To process with something more than brain.


Buy the book

Heather A. McMacken has worked with Marick Press on various editorial assignments. She received her B.A. in English from Oakland University. She writes about art and culture for Detroit’s Metro Times, Real Detroit Weekly and Gazette van Detroi. Her poems have appeared in Oakland County Beat, The Fairfield Review,, 3rd Muse Poetry Journal,, Slow Trains, Autism Advocate, and elsewhere. She is a recipient of a Liberal Arts Network for Development (LAND) poetry prize.

Contact Heather at

No comments: