In “Pupa,” the title poem in Samuel Piccone’s 2018 chapbook, the poet recalls that his “Boyhood was cornfields in swailing season/, charred redbirds jangling like field-pebbles/ in the gust of my father’s blow torch. He taught me/ sometimes people need fire more than water; nothing new can thrive if what’s damaged keeps on living.” Though his father’s crop flaming—the practice of using a kerosene burner to destroy weeds in corn and cotton fields—taught him an essential lesson about growth and impermanence, by night, his exhausted father “snored into a beer can/ and slowly dissolved in the television’s blue flame,” leaving the poet’s mother to whisper: “outgrow all this…the smell/ of naphtha and smolder and crop duster spray./ Don’t be a man who wakes before the sun/ wanting only emptiness to touch.” While this poem is placed toward the end of the book, it contains the poet’s character desire: to thrive, to stretch toward the sun a bit differently than the man who raised him, to “not breathe smoke,” as his mother warned.
Like in life, the desires that govern the book appear when we, as readers, are ready, rather than at the beginning when we want all the answers, as in childhood. After all, the definition of “pupa” is “an insect in its inactive immature form between larva and adult.” But this book is about more than bugs, though bugs and allusions to bugs appear in almost every poem. Pupa is the in-between stage—one not without growing pains that pit childhood against adulthood to see what can emerge from the flames. This, then, is where the poet positions himself in Pupa.
The third poem, “Things I Wish I Told My Mother,” transports the poet and his readers back to his childhood in Colorado, to “Clint’s trailer/ on the Wilhelm family junkyard/ out near the Uncompahgre River” when he was 8 years old, precisely to the moment when he became “afraid of the world/ and embarrassed to say so.” The poet remembers his introduction to the deliberate violence of humankind: “You were right not to like him,” his almost-letter says, “he traps junkyard crows. Keeps them in a silver cage…I think their song/ sounds so painful,/ like death is talking for them.” He writes of watching Clint torture them, of bearing witness to their suffering, their blue-black blood and tongues like “pink needles.” Meanwhile, “Estuary,” nestled alongside “Things I Wish I Told My Mother,” introduces another kind of suffering, one that is less deliberate yet still impactful. The teenaged poet is stranded in traffic due to a car accident involving a beer truck and Horsetooth Road becoming “flooded with Flat Tire,” and this triggers a memory of his road flooding with “runoff from the Poudre River” when he was 10, how “a man drowned in the night and floated up [his] driveway,” causing him to turn on his bedroom light which resulted in a swarm of moths flying in his window “desperate to blot the light.” The poet confesses that he is “still afraid of moths, what they sluice from darkness.” These early poems showcase the crux of human fear that often surfaces in adolescence, fear of the environment or of the world at large, fear of the self.
Though Piccone is concerned with stasis, with the paralysis of fear and the feeling of immutability surrounding one’s past in Pupa, he is also interested in the journey. “Father/Son,” which opens the chapbook, finds the poet seeking his father’s memory in the landscape he resided; the poet searches “past the ruins of Dearfield Chapel where he took me/ after his divorce and said some things never decompose.” But instead he finds himself “roaming the empty ocean of grass…out here,/ his roads atlas through me and I cannot let them go.” Similarly, in “My Pitbull’s Name is June Bug” the poet identifies memory through scent: “It was the summer I noticed Iowa smelled like a train slowing through a town—the air trailing behind like sweet corn…steaming rainstorms,/ grass so wet and thick it turned to cloverweed.” It is during this summer that he realizes his dog, June Bug, has been chewing her paws like her namesake chews leaves. Despite the horror of her chewing, “the pads peeled raw,” he “smoked cigarettes and scribbled out the butts in the spaces between her red/ footprints…as I waited for you to get home, kiss me, touch me.” This poem explores not only the journey from empty immaturity to something like maturity but also the give-and-take nature of love.
Near the end of the chapbook, “Pica” extends the metaphor of chewing and/or craving inedible substances. The poet uses a guitar to compose songs out of memories of his father, burns the strings in a gas fire, and then swallows them. Piccone writes: “He’s dangling in my throat/ like needles of a piñon branch./ When I try to spit him out,/ the cinders resound for miles.” This book is for anyone looking to cool the fiery path memories leave when they scorch us, and just like the cinders in “Pica,” Piccone’s own flame, his words, will resound for miles.