“Tamp” by Denton Loving

At the intersection of calluses and care, one finds Denton Loving’s poetry. In his latest collection, Tamp (Mercer University Press 2023), the author takes us into the pastoral reveries produced by his home state of Tennessee, but he likewise transports us into matters of lineage and love, writing of his parents (predominantly his father) with the intricacy of a new American Romantic.

Metaphors like “My heart is a boat with leaking ribs” are first to grab the audience’s eye, while Loving’s invented forms and controlled use of alliteration and assonance supersede the clever, ascending instead into enhanced meaning, even upon first read. Combining his use of poetic devices with authentic imagery of agriculture, the writer brings his regional identity into his artistry with seemingly easy style and technique.

Like Frost, Loving explores what it means to build boundaries and how such a task parallels life and death in poems like “The Fence Builder,” wherein the speaker compares himself to his father’s grave digger, both of whom “tamp” the soil they employ for different tasks. The language is rich as the land itself, and the subject matter warrants a slower, more reverent reading.

As one might expect, barns and hay bales appear in this collection, as do the other landmarks of agrarian life, but Loving handles them in a purely original way. For example, leaves become birds as science yields mysticism in “Balefire,” and a reflective elegy for cows soon leads the reader toward more loving, grieving tributes like “If there’s an angel of lost gloves,” “Learning to Drive,” and “The Sherpa Jacket,” all of which tenderly memorialize the speaker’s father and feature seminal, powerful last lines.

At times, mourning prevails in this collection, making it true and human with phrases like “…the same acre of ache.” And yet, through this sadness come beauty and history, inspiring the reader with diction both sensory and sensual. The landscapes of dreams merge with established archetypes, and the result is poetry that sings with surreal experience.

The collection’s concluding prose poem-essay, “The Topography of Tears,” finalizes a kind of contract that the author made with the reader throughout the book: It examines the role of crying in all our lives but finishes with an image of hope and departure.

Without reservation, Tamp is Loving’s finest work to date. It is worth reading and revisiting its bittersweet lines in an age where we wrestle with notions like expression, identity, and emotions’ role in those big ideas. Loving’s words shed light upon our current situation even as they sensitively excavate the past.

Denton Loving

Denton Loving holds an MFA in Writing and Literature from Bennington College in Vermont. and lives on a farm near the historic Cumberland Gap. He is the author of a prior book of poetry, Crimes Against Birds (Main Street Rag, 2015) as well as a co-founder and an editor at EastOver Press and its literary journal Cutleaf. His writings have recently appeared or are forthcoming in a number of prestigious literary publications.

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