“Tour of a Lifetime: Glenamaddy to Gomorrah” by Thomas Rabbitt

When Thomas Rabbitt’s first acclaimed book of poetry, Exile (1975), won the prestigious Pitt award, he was a relatively young man. At that time, he was charged with starting a Masters of Fine Arts in creative writing program at The University of Alabama, a program he led to national prominence before retiring in 1998. Rabbitt’s poems in Exile were fierce, complex, often allusive, with an edge and current of anger—and they were rather glorious. As reflected by the title, those works were not the words of a poet who felt at home in the time and place he found himself. Of course, poems are not necessarily autobiographical, and it might even be improper if not imprecise to think them so. Still, poems in Exile vibrated with a sense of unease and dissatisfaction, of a man not comfortable in his environment. And Rabbitt, a man born, raised, and initially educated in the Boston, Massachusetts, area, might well have felt a disconnect—a kind of cultural shock—when he arrived in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, in 1972 to begin organizing the MFA program at UA. In fact, in an interview in storySouth in 2004, he remarked that “Exile, my first book, wasn’t so much set in its environment as set against it, my reaction to a culture in which I felt more alien and rootless than I usually do.”

Subsequent collections of Rabbitt’s poems, such as The Booth Interstate (1981) and American Wake: New & Selected Poems (2005), continued to win critical acclaim and contained works of discerning depth. Now in Rabbitt’s newest collection, Tour of a Lifetime: Glenamaddy to Gomorrah (Pine Row Press 2022), his poems still contain much of his early fierceness. Often brilliant, sometimes disturbing, occasionally brilliantly disturbing, Tour of a Lifetime is an intense collection, heady in spots with the same sharp sense of unease first found in Exile. Yet, somehow, these poems collectively seem to be less immediate and more meditative, as befits the title, though no less commanding. Neither gentle nor light reading, these are poems which still ring with force and remain every bit as glorious as those in Exile. Time has not weakened this poet’s power or talent.

Tour of a Lifetime contains works wrought from a luminous, classically educated mind traipsing across a myriad of topics, leaping between exploring, explaining, and remembering. The poems take readers on a journey in which the destination might be Paris, Ireland (where Rabbitt lived for a while), mythology, priests, gay sailors, the horses he raised, birds, shame, or a childhood movie theater. In many of the verses, the poems seem to be working toward a kind of reckoning. The back cover flap does note “Rabbitt leads the reader through aspects of a life—fiction and autobiography—where he weighs the emotional and intellectual freight of gay relationships, religious trauma, cultural ancestry and the Romantic heritage.”

The sixty poems collected in Tour of a Lifetime are intricately constructed in the strict sonnet format of fourteen lines, rhyme, iambic pentameter, and a volta, or turn, near the end. Given the demanding structure of a sonnet, one can conclude Rabbitt is a poet of great discipline. However, as he admits in a lengthy storySouth 2004 interview, he is a bit “loose” with his iambics. In that interview, he stated: “Fourteen lines – roughly 140 syllables – isn’t a lot of breathing room, so I tend to punch holes in the form, to avoid the sealing couplet, to keep all the delightful appurtenances of poetry as light as possible, to keep the bondage and discipline relatively painless.”

Within these sonnets, childhood surfaces in several poems (whether memoir or fictional is unknown) such as “Films in Black and White.” In that well-crafted sonnet, Rabbitt writes of an incident at a movie in which “Weekend matinee: Tarzan’s loincloth slipped / And showed what boys and girls weren’t meant to see.” Ultimately the boy in the focus of that poem has a realization that could count as a reckoning of sorts. In “Tropical Fish,” the narrator states, “I can best recall misrule / And mayhem all abuzz inside my head. / Tied to a chair for thievery at school…” Further, in “Some Souls Run Naked,” there is “a twelve-year-old boy, / Too ignorant of Man’s desires to try / For their fulfillment” who nonetheless is asked “Can you feel on the bare skin of your thigh / The rough caresses of a grown man’s hand?”

Haunting images abound in the sonnets, including “The Old Collector,” whose “use by date went passed” and now “Like the old witch who kept Hansel for pleasure / He had a cage in the basement and chains / To ensure that one of the boys might last / More than a night. One might endure his pains.”  Sometimes Rabbitt uses a shocking, haunting image to create a counterbalance in a poem, such as the line “A lover’s face inside the burning car” in what otherwise comes perilously close to being a sweet, nostalgic poem in “Cross Country in a Volkswagen Bus.” Similarly, in “Audubon’s Music Box,” he weaves the disturbing image of “Audubon / Who painted life studies of murdered birds” into what starts with dogwood blooms and the lovely songs of bird.

Singular lines in some of these sonnets could stand on their own, though enriched by context. For example, “All of us are murderers by the end” from “Nous Sommes Tous les Assassins” and “For those who do not look true love must live  / Forever out of sight” in “The Boreen in Snow.”

The poems with their various threads form a kind of literary tapestry in which these senses evoked through words create a textual richness. These are sonnets which require—no demand—more than a casual reading and even more than just a second or third reading. Indeed, with each subsequent reading, something new and vibrant appears like a kind of alchemy, which is of course the joy and treasure of fine poetry. And make no mistake, the sonnets in Tour of a Lifetime are very fine poems.

The inside flap of his collection in American Wake describes Rabbitt as “A formalist, traditionalist, modernist, post-modernist, outsider, scholar, and critic. Rabbitt is all and none. The only safe assumption one can make about this gifted writer is that his poems, as Rabbitt said, ‘disturb the universe just by being.’ ” That might well be said of the poems in Tour of a Lifetime—that they “disturb the universe just by being.”

Of the sonnets collected in Tour of a Lifetime, “the publisher, Hank Hudepohl, says these are “new work that he had written in the recent past 5 years or so. He said he wanted to write more openly about the topics in these poems and that the sonnet form just seemed to work for him.” In an interview at his publisher’s website, Rabbitt says of his poems: “Already I have enough to build a few more books.” Let us hope to read “a few more books” of this poet’s grand, intricate, and intense work.

Thomas Rabbitt

Educated at Harvard College, Johns Hopkins University, and the University of Iowa, Thomas Rabbitt taught at the University of Alabama from 1972 until 1998. His first book, Exile, won the 1974 “Pitt Prize” (the United States Award of the International Poetry Forum). His other books include The Booth Interstate, The Abandoned Country, Enemies of the State, Prepositional Heaven and American Wake: New & Selected Poems. Individual poems appear in such prestigious magazines and journals as the Nation, Esquire, Poetry, Shenandoah, The Gettysburg Review, and Black Warrior Review, and have been reprinted in a dozen anthologies, including Best American Poetry 2000 and The Pushcart Prize XIX. He now lives in Tennessee.


This is one of the sonnets in Tour of a Lifetime and appears here in its entirely with permission.

Audubon’s Music Box


I hope that you can hear this lovely song

Of a bird I can’t identify. Spring

At last. Dogwoods bloom. Men go mad for love.

Thus far I’m not. I won’t. I breathe the notes

Into the box I’ll send. I know I’m wrong

To think a melody caught on the wing

Can survive such transport. The mourning dove,

The common loon push through their throbbing throats

Some haunted sounds, but not the song I fill

This carton with. All praise to Audubon

Who painted life studies of murdered birds.

Thus this Nashville warbler, a barn cat’s kill.

Not our singer, but here for us at dawn.

Therefore I send it too. With all these words.


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