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Believe What You Can

Marc Harshman is the current poet laureate of West Virginia, a prolific author of children’s books, and a 1994 recipient of the Ezra Jack Keats/Kerlan Collection Fellowship from the University of Minnesota for research on Scandinavian myth and folklore. In this collection of poems, Harshman creates poetic/folkloric myths around the “ordinary” lives of everyday people. But as C.S. Lewis once wrote in The Weight of Glory: “There are no ordinary people.”

Marc Harshman is the current poet laureate of West Virginia, a prolific author of children’s books, and a 1994 recipient of the Ezra Jack Keats/Kerlan Collection Fellowship from the University of Minnesota for research on Scandinavian myth and folklore. In this collection of poems, Harshman creates poetic/folkloric myths around the “ordinary” lives of everyday people. But as C.S. Lewis once wrote in The Weight of Glory: “There are no ordinary people.” All of us are stalked by happenstance beyond our control and a common mortality that makes our lives ripe for narrative interpretation, like the young girl in Harshman’s poem “Where No One Else Can Go,” who has heard:

everything there is
to know about evil,
about the disguises people wear
to trick you into thinking like them, to imagine
you are invisible
just because they know
how to make you disappear.

Most of the poems in Believe What You Can are about not letting people (and their stories) disappear, whether they be grandmothers, returning military veterans, barflies, or traffic accident victims. The latter are the subject of one of the most flawlessly constructed poems in the book entitled “Vehicular.” The persona in the poem rounds a blind curve in his car and discovers a couple standing in the middle of the road with their disabled vehicle. Then:

The seconds divide themselves slowly at first, offering time
   its true nature.
The drunk boyfriend, cell to his ear, continues to stand,
   back to the action.
The girl straightens her shoulders and then, wide-eyed,
   slow-mo, she runs…
runs the wrong way on the wrong side
of that wrong road on that wrong day.

Death, change, and unlucky days make an appearance throughout the pages of this book in a variety of guises. At least three owls show up in these poems (owls being harbingers of death in many Native American traditions) and less permanent kinds of death in the change of seasons or the change of day into evening, as in the poem “Late September” where: “Night begins her slow walk over the next hill / carrying under her purple skirts / the book of chances.”

But any overt sense of foreboding in the subject matter of these poems is more than counteracted by Harshman’s naturally sympathetic voice as a storyteller. He is never in a rush nor does he try to beat the reader over the head with a firmly concluded or heavy-handed moral lesson. Instead, he ambles gracefully in a roundabout way to gain perspective and poetic purchase on the transitory nature of time and the inevitability of change. In both his prose poems and the poems arranged through lineation, the rhythm and voice of each piece remains consistently unhurried, welcoming, and conversational. In the poem “Postcard” he writes that: “the arrow doesn’t always find the heart it’s aimed for.”

More often than not, Harshman manages to get to the heart of the matter in this collection—less like an arrow though and more like a mountain stream—winding its way through the Appalachian Mountains to the source of the music.

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