A. E. Hines
Adam in the Garden
Charlotte Lit Press

Reviewer: David E. Poston

In Adam in the Garden, A. E. Hines uses the biblical tale of the loss of Eden and its repercussions to explore concentric circles of his own life experience. Looking through that archetypal lens allows for an achingly honest and emotionally vibrant exploration of the natural world and the microcosms of society, family, romantic relationships, and the self – both body and spirit.

The first thing one notices is how immediately a reader is immersed in the setting of each poem: a Carolina backyard, a South American garden, a beach at sunset, an operating room as surgery begins. By the fourth poem, Hines has taken us from that deceptively green, yet dying, South American garden to a beach where children shame their parents into helping them save dying fish and then back to Adam in the not-yet-ruined original garden.

Yet this collection is set in the fallen world, where one never escapes the knowledge of both good and evil. “Breakfast in South America” ends with

… It’s hard, this morning,
to see the fresh orchids, speckled yellow
and pinks bubbling up from the trunks, to see

this bird propped among the red-gold bromeliads
still fusing with the branches—to remember
this bright world, blue and green, is dying.

We are often immersed in plot. “On Monogamy” begins, “We were six gay men by candlelight / discussing fidelity.” As the wine is finished and someone suggests moving to the hot tub, the speaker relates how

… My husband
cleared his throat and then the dishes.
I followed him into our kitchen, and at the sink
wrapped my arms around his chest. The washer
beneath our counter was empty, but he turned
on the tap, and handed me a towel so I could dry.
And as the men undressed and slipped
into our jacuzzi, we passed dishes between us
the way we still handled each other—gently,
each chipped plate as precious as the last.

That closing image illustrates a major theme of this collection: with loss of innocence comes a fuller appreciation of the good, however ephemeral, in this flawed and fraught world.

“The Night the Lights Went Out in Moore County, North Carolina” pulls us into its story with

These must be dark times if you think
shooting up a substation and blacking out

the lights will shut down a drag show.
Have you ever been to a drag show?

Again, adversity leads to a fuller, stronger sense of self-worth: “We’ve labored in the night long enough / to know how to fashion our own halos.”

“Rain Myth” opens with a sentence that runs for three and a half stanzas, pulling us into primordial time “before the oceans, hot / and acrid dwindled” into their present state of distress. Another kind of engagement is created in “What I Wish I’d Learned in Therapy” by the cumulative effect of typographical techniques. The use of direct address, of double spacing and caesurae to command the entire page, of ambiguity created by line breaks and lack of punctuation – these techniques demand (and reward) recursive reading.

In “The Fall,” the indented second line of each couplet slows down the pace of the narrative to highlight each moment of the episode, the domestic microcosm of the Fall. In contrast, the progressively increased indentation of  “Adam in Another Garden” propels one’s eyes across the page, helping build the narrative tension that culminates with Abel screaming for his mother and Cain witnessing his father’s act of violence. The poem illustrates not only Hines’s command of craft but also how he has made the archetypal story a vehicle for expressing fresh perspectives. Similar fresh nuances inform “The Devil and the Bartender,” with its portrayal of God as a deaf old man.

Literary theorist Northrop Frye famously described the archetypal core of all story as our attempt to restore Eden. In “Naturalization,” Hines describes navigating a world where “badged women and men // berate brown men in shackles,” to bring home his adopted son. “After the Adoption” describes that beautiful home, where

… When my lover is asleep, the wax moon
lies cradled in the black pines, swaddled light
streaming through our windows, and I creep
back to the baby.

The speaker finds himself “awake on the edge // of so much happiness” that he fears “fate might intervene.” Though he is anxious as he watches his baby for hours through the night, those pink lips and round dimpled cheeks, those tiny lungs expanding and releasing, belie any notion of original sin.

The best feature of this collection is its stunning emotional honesty and remarkable emotional range, from anger and bitterness in “The Fall” to tenderness and vulnerability in “After the Adoption.” A different vulnerability, placing one’s life in a doctor’s hands, is described in “Cervical Stenosis.”

Set against those poems of domestic tenderness are poems such as “Security Deposit,” depicting the realities faced by a self-described “twenty-one-year-old stray” whose first roommate’s offer of sex is casually transactional. As he watches his roommate leave for work, he remembers

the previous night’s rain still dripping
from his eaves, the crape myrtles huddled
along his street nudging themselves
into color, as willing as I was to bloom.

There are also poems of joyful sexual exuberance, such as “Sacramento 1994.” After a neighbor calls the police, mistaking loud sex for homicide, the speaker asks

… Was it wrong? To climb the trellis
of each man’s body like a vine? I wanted to leap off and fly

the wide-open sky of my own body that summer,
to Peter Pan my way through every coffee shop

and light-dazzled bar.

After the officers bid the couple good day, the speaker leans out his second-story window and crows. In “Ghost Story,” the sexual joy is similarly exuberant but ethereal in its imagery as well.

Another significant emotional thread is empathy for the suffering of others. “Green Satin” addresses a dying friend laboring to breathe in a hospice bed like “a potter over clay spinning / and kneading the mud of yourself / into finer and finer pieces.” Along with that subtle echo of the story of Adam’s creation, the poem offers us in its conclusion the image of the natural world affirming the friend’s acceptance of death. A similar empathy is expressed in “Written for a Friend,” a poem which, like “Ocular Migraine,” treats the notion of blindness as a physical effect of overflowing emotion.

The emotional arc of the collection peaks with the audacious joy of “The Exhibitionist.” The ten poems which follow it, completing the collection, are a decrescendo, an ebbing coda of resolution and acceptance. “Winter Memory” recalls an Edenic moment with family, lost in the ripples of time. “Blizzard” explores a gentle resolution with death, while “On Leaving” treats acceptance of loss:

… Mostly, I think we want to stop
wanting: the past, our futures. For just

an afternoon to nap beneath the bark wings
of a magnolia, waking in the leafy gaps

to sun and a silver shard of sky. Wake,
and without looking back, walk away.

When we return to a backyard in “Some Quiet Evenings,” this backyard is the fallen world, far from the dangerous innocence of “Astronauts,” the collection’s opening poem:

Some quiet evenings I go out
to sit with them, all the men
I’ve been, and beneath
that same quilt of stars retrace
my path, the weak orbit
of every man to touch me.

Here the speaker, the Adam figure, plagued with the pathologies of body and family, with all the memories of past loves, can reflect on past sexual exuberance and daring, on transactions and interactions, on joy and pain, on where he has been and what he cherishes. As this collection presents its urgent contraries, moving from the frantic tumult of first love in its first poem to the reflective moment in the last poem, we are reminded of the flaws and fragility of this world, of our relationships, of our own nature. However, we are also reminded of the joys, both rambunctious and quiet.

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