Monday, March 15, 2010

Review of Tim Peeler's "Checking Out"

Checking Out, Poetry by Tim Peeler
Hub City Press, 96 pages

Aging can have certain surprising benefits: less hair to worry about, getting a drink without ID, and having enough knowledge and experience to forge meaningful relationships with those you admired in youth. Last year, I had the great pleasure of reviewing a book of poems by my undergraduate creative writing instructor, Paul Nelson, whom I hadn’t seen or communicated with in nearly 30 years. This year, I find myself reviewing a new book from another of my early “poetry crushes,” Tim Peeler.

I first encountered Peeler’s work about 20 years ago when I was still confused about what to write and how to write about it. His poetry then was about things that were very familiar to me--trailer parks, farms, small town Southern life--and it was written in a way that was approachable, observant, objective, and understatedly real. Those poems served as models to me, in a sense giving me permission to write in a certain way about certain things I had been wanting to write about and have been writing about ever since.

Today, Peeler remains one of my poetry crushes, and he remains as true to his poetic ideals as he does to his friends, family, and hometown of Hickory, NC. So, his new collection of poems, his fifth, entitled Checking Out, is as familiar and important to me as his poems of years ago. In fact, the details of his “Prelude,” which opens the book and mimics the ambition of Wordsworth’s poem by that title, could almost have been my own: “the barefoot child, / shirtless in overalls;” “the congregation of chickens;” “the sun [elevatoring] through / the maples beyond the meadow / where he’s seen angels;” “the forest floor . . . coated with crunch oak leaves, / broken branches, pine cones and needles;” following “the moonlit railroad tracks / out beyond town, skipping a tie, / toeing a rail, imagining animal eyes / in sinister bushes, thinking a poem / without knowing it yet.” This poem also introduces the setting for the rest of the book: “Four AM, the night audit finished, the motel silent / he wrestles the heavy notion of sleep.” One immediately suspects that, as in Frost’s “After Apple Picking,” this will be no ordinary sleep the speaker wrestles with.

Not surprisingly, the title of the next section of poems is “Place.” Over the years, Peeler has more successfully captured a sense of a particular time, place, and people than any other writer I know with the possible exception of Wendell Berry. And in these poems, he does it again, the more particular place this time being the small Southern town hotels he spent years working in. He begins, of course, at the beginning, with inspiration, the inspiration of the man who built the hotel, and the inspiration the hotel-clerk/speaker sought during long nights on duty: “What did he see when he / came out here past the town / after the dust settled on the war?” (II); “You wait for a face / long enough in a place like this; / it will come” (I). From there he begins to explore the memory of this place and time: “Once there was a three story motel building / with balconies that overlooked a drive-in screen” (III); “In the old days, / they’d leave a fourteen year-old boy / in charge of the motel / when they took an afternoon off / to drink some shine” (IV).

He continues, in the section called “Registry,” with the memory of people. He recalls “Stan” who “said he played at Notre Dame / then for the Sox,” but who it is discovered “had been lying / all along, magnificently, / profoundly, beautifully” (VII); and the “Rabb twins,” one of whom “could throw his voice; / the other . . . a mute” who “could / lip synch anything the other said” (X); and “the old men [who] sat for an hour each morning, / hashing and rehashing the past: a retired clerk, // an organ builder, an automobile dealer, a juke joint / entrepreneur, a retired English professor // till they died one by one, / sadly, all” (XIII).

In “Chaos,” Peeler characterizes the experience: “Chaos / when you are not war, / revolution, or murder / you are a Friday night / at a cheap motel” (XV). Then, he continues in this section to provide detailed illustration of the claim: “one woman had another / in a choke hold / pounding her dyed blonde head / against the gravelly parking lot” (XVI); “The night was busy, locals / rolling in off 64-70 / in a haze of marijuana / and George Dickel” (XXI).

Against this backdrop of place and people, a clearer image of the speaker begins to come into focus. In the section named “Swimming,” the reader begins to see that there is much more to the speaker than just his job. In XXV, perhaps my favorite of these poems, the speaker tells us:

I wrote a masters thesis
in a motel room, weekend
manager on duty, typewriter nights;
I answered complaints about myself.

Between check ins
I scribbled pieces of poems,
made up stories about guests,
. . . . . . . . . .

I can't remember how many times
I crawled under a motel building
at 3AM to change a fuse,
put the wheels back on a rollaway,
fixed a commode, walked through
pitch black, blessed by the moon.

I became the poet laureate
for the post office whores,
the random darling
of a small legion of fools,
the familiar of charming drunks,
a blundering father
in the no man's land
of the eighties.

When I dove into the pool
to clean the spot by the drain,
ten feet down, I felt
the dreamy pressure of the
whole world above me,
sensed that the water didn't
want to be there either.

And we continue to get these glimpses into the speaker’s deeper thoughts throughout the section named “Clerks:” “There is no afterlife” (XXVIII); “we thought we’d never grow old (XXXII). And, finally, we get an even rawer perspective on the business through the memorable serial character of “The Old Clerk,” in the section with that title.

At the end, like any good storyteller, Peeler brings it home with a poem that offers closure, in this case a satisfying perspective on the experience. In “I Say It Like a Prayer” (one of only two titled poems in the 52-poem collection,) Peeler tells us:

Some mornings I drive by the motel
where I worked for seven years, and
scenes come back to me in flashes:
. . . . . . . . . .

A man calls me one night
to complain about people talking
in the room next door. The rooms
next to him are unrented. Don’t
you hear all that? he shouts
when I get to his room. I listen
carefully to nothing, to silence.
You’ve got to do something about it;
you’ve got to stop them; it’s your job.
I walk next door, knock, turn the lock
and stare into the dark empty room.
You people shut the hell up I holler
angrily. I mean it damn it
I add for good measure. Thanks,
thanks the man tells me as I walk back by him.

Thanks, thanks I say to the motel
as I drive by to my boring safe job
which is rarely anything to write about.
Thanks I say to the ghosts that rise
with lead pipes and biker boots;
thanks I say to the vices and voices.
I say it like a prayer.


  1. I can't wait to get this book.

  2. now another book i have to buy! scott you make me buy a lot of books ;)