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The Poetry of Craftsmen

The Poetry of Craftsmen

A Review of Tom C. Hunley’s The Loneliest Whale in the World'

In that time before banned books and woke taxonomies, poetry proved a most efficient portent. Late aughts graduate school in the humanities was a blur of Thursday nights in the basement of a bar on life support listening to variations of the same awkwardly inflected poems about child trauma and birth control come out a revolving door of MFA candidates’ mouths.

But, unlike other artistic mediums, poetry’s status as a culture war early adopter has diminished its stature in the popular imagination. Little air is left between the type of stuff we’ll spend the next seven months listening to at anti-Trump rallies and the Instagram stylings of terrible infant Rupi Kaur, the type of popular poetry Vice’s Shivani Dubey so eloquently described as “shitty maudlin poems that scan like Live Laugh Love for the TikTok generation.” 

The only issue is that, whether self-inflicted or not, the stature of poetry in our cultural climate leaves a gaping hole, sowing the seeds of a utilitarian anti-intellectualism that just doesn’t bode well. Jordan Peterson and Tucker Carlson don’t belong to the bard, but, for many, they are the closest figures those left behind can identify with as the arts become less accessible, more antagonistic, and, ultimately, less central to our social fabric. But fortunately, there are still those practicing writers hellbent on keeping the bridges from crumbling as they maintain an uneasy relationship with the direction of poesy. One of them is Tom C. Hunley.

Originally from the Pacific Northwest, Hunley moved to Southern Kentucky decades ago, bringing along a grunge-fueled energy cut with a working-class sensibility that long ago ceased to define his home region. Such is why the press he founded, Steel Toe Books, openly celebrates its blue-collar affiliation. Hunley has remained a fixture of the poetry community’s every facet, publishing seven previous books, serving as a perennial presence at the Southern Festival of Books, and training hundreds of aspiring wordsmiths in the creative writing programs at Western Kentucky University just north of Nashville. And with his eighth book, The Loneliest Whale in the World, Hunley makes a case both for the enduring relevance of poetry and the decline of the institutions that for so long have quelled any voice they couldn’t exploit. 

Hunley’s greatest gift has always been his ability to write candidly about his own life in a way that channels the universal without ever succumbing to the navel-gazing trappings of his contemporaries. Written as he was firmly entering middle age, The Loneliest Whale in the World finds Hunley directly engaging his anxieties about a son with autism and his adopted teenage daughter entering a world where the utopia of rules blunts even the most sincere human touch. 

As he writes in the poem “Dirty Looks: “In my son’s wide eyes I can see / the steeple of the church we left / after one too many dirty looks— / mosquito bites that you can’t scratch / and soothe—when we couldn’t shush him.” Likewise, in “The Man I Hoped to Be,” he comes to terms with the seemingly unbridgeable gap between parental figures and children wounded by the systems purported to support them:  “A student says I don’t know how to teach. / A student says I don’t know how to teach. / Our wayward daughter’s on the road again. / Our wayward daughter’s on the road again. / I don’t know how to teach our wayward daughter. / A student says On the Road again?” 

Hunley is a self-effacing enough writer not to position himself as heir apparent to Kerouac and his Beat brethren, but he’s also experienced enough to know that the boundless America and counterculture energy they channeled during the American consensus has withered away in the Post-COVID, always online world when the radicals bow at the feet of Big Pharma and the outspoken Right would rather meme than read. 

Consequently, he assumes the position of a unifier grasping to put the pieces back together. He expresses empathy for the dad who castigated his son in a movie theater during a film about accepting those with special needs: “By the end of the movie, I felt bad / for the man. He didn’t know / about my son and we don’t know what he might live with: his father / newly-dead, like Malcolm Young, at age 64, / unable to remember the songs of his own heart, his job just lost…” (“The Last Time I Took My Son to the Movies”). 

Generous to even those who hurt him and his family the most, Hunley displays an enviable ability to understand the most vulnerable moments of others–whether egotistical ministers or former rock stars. “Meanwhile, David Lee Roth, / formerly of Van Halen, / could show up at your door / to set up your DISH TV satellite / and you wouldn’t even recognize him, / now would you? Or you’d recognize him, / but you’d yawn and he’d yawn / to hide the fact that he’s crying inside,” he writes in “People Yawn When Other People Yawn.” 

In a book of poems that acknowledges our brokenness while remaining optimistic about our enduring ability to connect, Hunley heralds the power of culture-making. It is not the agencies and organizations which want us to believe they will save us that will do the job, but the power of the movies, the frankness of the Silver Jews, the unflinchingness of Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son, and the universal sadness of Leadbelly. Hunley likely wouldn’t consider himself among those greats, but as The Loneliest Whale in the World proves, he’s doing his own part.

The Loneliest Whale in the World is now available.