Tornado Drill. By Dave Malone. (Kelsay Books, 2022, 100 pp.)
Reviewed by Paulette Guerin
Dave Malone’s seventh poetry collection Tornado Drill offers a landscape of everyday people working and living, of sunrises and sunsets, of old lovers, of wrens who “drown the sky in flight.” With grace, but without sentimentality, Malone’s poems follow these currents through the Midwest.
The collection is divided into five sections, Growing Up, Town, Memory, Quarantine, and Finning the Deep. The opening poem, “Tornado Drill,” tells us about the speaker we follow in many of these poems: while his classmates huddle beneath their desks, he “scramble[s] to the glass” for a better view as “the earth roars and the sky paints / the classroom windows cocoa.” The excitement of seeing outweighs the risk, or maybe he doesn’t yet fully understand the consequences of recklessness, a truth he will learn in later poems.
The tornado makes other appearances. In “Confetti” we are told the widow at the recycling plant lost her husband to it the year before, and the phrase “after the tornado” frames another poem. We see indirectly the aftermath of an event people will talk about for years to come, possibly the most noteworthy thing to happen in a long time. Even when there is no tornado present, the clouds on the horizon may do damage or press a person in. One exception: while in quarantine a woman prepares her cheap backyard pool and chases off a storm, a wonderful moment of imagined power during a helpless time.
The poems in Tornado Drill pay close attention to sound and are a pleasure to read aloud: “Dust motes float and sparkle / above the tongues of our sneakers”; “Blue heron babies / small as saplings / flap up from the shore / and crash into cedars / on the bluff”; or this excerpt from “The Nuisance of Nouns”:
The katydids and cicadas
whir and scratch
while the bass
fin the deep.
If you stay long enough,
between you and them.
Malone’s poems remind us of a youth spent outdoors, whether it’s burying a beloved dog or hitchhiking to a lake forty miles away. In “Recalling Light” Malone contrasts the education one receives indoors in church versus outdoors, presenting outside as a child’s true place of learning and religion: “I remember now / the gospel the instructor ignored— / how the cypress floor danced / with golden dust in its hair.” As the speaker approaches adolescence, priorities shift. “The 9:15 to Memphis” opens with one of the many characters populating the manuscript, the neighbor who gave tomatoes to the kids to take home—which they instead “used for fastball practice”—but ends with the gardener’s daughters, signaling a new preoccupation.
The townsfolk are at times part of the background, at others, sharply in focus. We meet the schoolteacher putting her laundry out to dry, the pregnant mother trying to rest in a hammock, the neighbor running her leaf blower while the speaker tries to meditate. There are also portraits of elementary school classmates, a cashier who walks to the river on her break, and a hairdresser with moonlight pouring from her eyes.
In “Middle School Swimming Lessons” we open with an “Ozark summer sky” that “rippled like worn denim” and the teenage instructor inside calling the swimmers with “a shrill whistle [that] pierced ear to elbow.” Halfway, the poem pivots and admits, “there’s not much to remember,” an understatement but also a truth about fragments of memory. The poem ends in a dreamlike setting, underwater, “inside the impenetrable boggish fog / then the thud and fade of heartbeat.” Also dreamlike in its reverie is “Youth Camp,” in which the boys leave their tent “to hunt / the early morning light,” but instead find “a lonesome doe / in the dark woods,” “the hint of presence, / of blueness, / of breath.” They go deeper into the woods, their footing unsure, finding “a cemetery of moss,” the boys’ eyes “blind like the dead” as they feel their way forward to higher ground. The hill shakes “with the stomp of the unknown,” perhaps the doe flitting away, but with echoes of resurrection or rite of passage.
Soon, the speaker is old enough and has seen enough to know loss—and be wary of it. For example, at fifteen he finally has a seat at the table to play Pitch, teamed up with an uncle whose missing fingers remind the speaker that some loss is forever visible. The poem ends with him “scared / to bid five tricks to win the game, / fearful of that hand, of what [he] might lose.” Other people in the collection face loss as well. The mother in “Easter Egg Hunt” waits for her soon-to-be eighteen-year-old to collect the chocolate she’s hidden in the yard, but as “the nearing storm wails, she knows / he won’t make it home in time.”
Later poems recollect romantic relationships, some good, some bad. We meet a lover who loses the rent money at video poker, another who helps the speaker toss their mattress in the dumpster. In “We Don’t Check Our Phones,” a couple escapes both the virus and cabin fever by unplugging and heading to the woods. It could be idyllic, but they quibble over flower names, a very human thing to do—a modern Adam and Eve having a spat as they try to reenter Paradise. In “Pencil a Venn Diagram with an Intersection of Sets,” we learn about the separate lives of two people and where, after meeting, they begin to overlap: their discovery that
they don’t like to talk much on Sundays
and love the final light of day weaving the woods
in ribbons of color, the smell of upturned earth
on the farm in March, the pluck of the two-lane
that leads into town and how it swoops like a skirt,
how the truck tires rattle and boom like horns.
If many of the middle poems are character portraits, the final section spends more time in nature. We see, too, Taoist influences with references to awareness and consciousness. A return to a cave, an abandoned farmhouse, the memory of laundry once hanging on the line. A place where “even the cicadas lash out in rhythm.” Or the gift of a tree root tripping the speaker so that he becomes “Awake!” Without being didactic, these poems show what we can learn through close observation of the natural world.
In Tornado Drill Malone privileges normal people living everyday lives. Place is important, and people are important to a place. Malone’s poems also look for moments the Romantic poet William Wordsworth would say were “bathed in celestial light.” Or as Malone would put it, “the air is cold and crisp with wonder, / and you can’t be dead.” If in Tornado Drill there is destruction, it is counterbalanced with the lives people have built and rebuilt, and the resilience of moving forward.
Dave Malone was born in Rolla, Missouri, and grew up in Kansas and Missouri. He received an undergraduate degree from Ottawa University and later a master’s from Indiana State, where he worked with poet Matthew Brennan. He is the author of seven books of poetry, and his most recent poetry film, Remember, with Isaac Protiva, was featured at the 2021 Downeast Flick Fest in Greenville, North Carolina. Dave sends out a free monthly newsletter and can be found online at davemalone.net or on Instagram @dave.malone.
Paulette Guerin is the author of poetry collection Wading Through Lethe and the chapbook Polishing Silver. She is a graduate of the MFA program at the University of Florida. She lives in Arkansas and teaches writing, literature, and film. Her poetry has appeared in Best New Poets, ep;phany, Contemporary Verse 2, and others. Her website is pauletteguerin.com.