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Uncle Ernest by Larry D. Thomas article




What Life Might Have Been: A Review of Larry D. Thomas’ Uncle Ernest

(Chicago: Virtual Artists Collective,, 2013 55 pages, paper)



            If a poetry collection is done right, it should be a work of art. Uncle Ernest, by Larry D. Thomas, is a work of art. The front cover, the editing and of course the tense lines that depict the named character for which the collection is named all work together to engage the reader in a work of art. Uncle Ernest is beautiful and it is thought-provoking, thus offering the two main claims that true art makes.

            Before readers open the book, they are confronted with the cover design. Black, blue and gray allowing only restricted opaque light, the cover (designed by Regina Schroeder) is foreboding yet curiously inviting. As poet, Thomas wishes to take readers into the dark, largely unexplored and the unexplainable. Society puts people like Ernest in asylums, but the poet seeks to take readers into the very misfirings of a human soul that causes deviant behavior. So the subject matter is troubling but the lyrics are beautiful.

            It is not surprising that Thomas has produced such a work. Previous collections of his such as Stark Beauty, Where Skulls Speak Wind, Amazing Grace and The Woodlanders, to name a few, prepare us for his honest, terse introspection. Again and again Thomas demonstrates the ability and the willingness to take the painful and present it carefully, almost reverently. Like a boy holding a weak bunny in his hands up for a parent’s approval, Thomas upholds the weak, the vulnerable, the enigmatic, the dangerous, yes, even the downright disgusting, and readers are confronted with a fuller understanding that truth demands.

            In Uncle Ernest, Thomas returns to his ancestral pines of East Texas, to a distant family member locked in an institution for the criminally insane. The courage that Thomas exhibits in this book is profound, but readers are not overwhelmed. They are guided by a reassuring voice that seeks understanding, that wonders what life might have been, that dares try to see a human from a God-like perspective. All this without arrogance or wimpy unaccountability or violation of that which we hold sacred and just. Instead, the artist wants us, for just a moment, to walk with him through the reservoir of unbridled humanity.

            The first poem of the book, “The Worshippers” sets a haunting mood:


Late at night

he would steal away

from his bedroom

to that secret place

in the woods,

just to watch them.

His heart would shake

his whole chest,

and his breath would jerk

like a trapped rat.

He would watch them

through the dark leaves

clasping black crosses

as their chants

rose and fell

in the warm glow

of black candles.

They would kneel

at their bleating,

black animal

as hands Ernest knew

were not their own

grabbed candlelit knives

to quench the bloodlust

of their very

human ritual.


              I think of “Young Goodman Brown” by Hawthorne; readers will no doubt make other associations. This opening poem sets a dark mood before Thomas selectively retraces the life of Ernest, lyrically following significant experiences that affect the development of Ernest from rather innocent, but awkward boyhood to his violence to his eventual institutionalization. It is worth repeating, the combination of lyrical power mingled with the uncomfortable subject makes this book a piece of significant art. McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, famous for its mesmerizing lyrical quality despite its violence comes to mind. The exception to Thomas’ poetry, though, is the evidence of the poet’s tenderness. The violence is not gratuitous. Gore and damning God is not the issue in this poetry. At stake in Uncle Ernest is the poet’s attempt to move readers to artistically wonder about that which is often relegated to the oblique realms of sociological data that quantifies deviance, but fails to fully consider the mystery that is humanity.  Consider another very moving poem:


Ernest Whispers


The word gull,

and in its saying

takes to the wing,

his beak opening

for the hearts and minds

of little fish.

He whispers soar,

and splits the bowels

of bluest heaven,

freeing light to fall

in sibilants

of warm gossamer.

His lips sheathed open

with the rose membrane

of Gulf morning,

he chants in silence

each fresh syllable

of his name.


            Readers remember that once the most beautiful angel fell, many have followed. Surely the meaning of the Judeo-Christian tradition (and other religious systems as well) is not simply to point out good vs. evil, but rather, religious mythology moves us to the very core of existence: the mystery of human effort that simultaneously rises to glory even as it stumbles on the smallest stone.

            But I keep thinking of another human when I read this book– the poet, that is, the man himself, not just the artistic voice. Thomas is more than a detached observer. In such an endeavor, his own life is reflected, albeit implicitly, yet bravely and truthfully. One wonders if it were at times an acidic experience to write this art, for like Hawthorne, he too had to take a path to rediscover truth he could have easily left alone. And for this, we admire, and we tremble. 




Reviewed by Ken Hada

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