Erik Ekstrand

Omnidawn, 2015

In the belated Christian empire of the American south, Eric Ekstrand sets his debut collection Laodicea. Between the “fake Parthenon” and concert halls of Nashville and the lush campus of Wake Forest University, the poet finds inspiration and boredom. Ekstrand’s lyric persona has great expectations, which are sometimes frustrated by the people around him. When occasionally his expectations are met or exceeded, he transforms banality to legend.

Take, for instance, “The Legend of the Musk Deer,” a long poem that opens in thrall to an animal on a Narcissus-like quest:

…he smelled

an odor, beautiful, drift
from beyond the compass

of his deer mind
and became bound
by the thought

he might possess its source

Ekstrand recounts the deer’s forest journey with uncanny precision—past the “seclusionist sage plants” and the “daffodils’ shockability,” before resolving the legend with the deer’s sad demise. And then the poem pivots to declare, “This will be a poem / about how parties are like that.” The poem opens again, midway, into a celebration of unexpected friendship, as the poet discovers Hannah, a kindred spirit:

You and I

are similar germs.
Two laughs
arm-in-arm down
the stairs.

The musk deer, the poet, and the reader are bound by discovery.

“An Exultet Roll” luxuriates in the eroticism of college life, where “The athletic sweaters are wrestled / out of and whipped across / single shoulders,” and “The boys, strong / in unpresuming post-war / builds, are so sexy / they are creative.” Even this familiar scene is elevated through Ekstrand’s mythologizing: “every girl imprecise in her lightness” “rested at her earthly spot, / she knows that every word / has its ancestor.” There’s almost no scene that the poet’s desire for intelligent discourse cannot rescue.

Except when Ekstrand’s boredom gets the best of him. In “A Few Creams” he observes the “spineless” residents of Winston, who “relax in their // unblushing banality.” Ekstrand inexplicably aims his ire at an unnamed woman, notable only insofar as “her dress is / cream her skin // is cream her // creamy mind is fine / and her life will / end finely” by concluding, “She / isn’t wicked; but, also, / she destroys the art of her life.” The poem stands out not for the ostensibly artless woman at its center, but for its failure to imagine her inner life.