A REVIEW OF
How To Read: Poems
By Thomas Richardson
Friendly City Books
Mississippi poet’s debut collection stirs with wit, wonder
By C. T. Salazar
Special to the Mississippi Clarion Ledger
USA TODAY NETORK
Equally full of reverence for familial genealogies and humor in seeing the South as baffling as it is, Thomas Richardson’s poetics are uniquely charming. “How To Read: Poems”, the first poetry title by the new independent publisher Friendly City Books, is a welcome contribution to the historic and ongoing canon of writers and artists in Mississippi.
Born in Raleigh, North Carolina and raised in Columbus, where he resides currently, Richardson is a writer and educator with degrees from Millsaps College, Vanderbilt University, and the Mississippi University for Women. The speaker in Richardson’s poems shares and contemplates through many of the poet’s own perspectives as an educator, a husband, and a father.
Each of the four sections that make “How To Read” function like tender instructions for the reader. Across the poems of “How To Read A Red-Letter Bible,” a practice of faith, family, and mourning is so intimate and honest, readers may find themselves enlightened anew despite whatever beliefs they approached the book with before. Even so, there are moments where the poet grants us his still-attentive light heart. “And All God’s People Said ‘Amen,’” begins:
When my grandmother died,
the preacher eulogized her coconut cake.
Somewhere between “Psalm23” and
he gave those packed in the pews at
Manly Presbyterian Church
a revival in confectioner’s sugar and full-fat milk.
It’s through moments like this we as readers learn how to read many things, and even if our literacy does not spare us grief, Richardson shows us ways to keep joy as the light we move toward.
One of the finest qualities among Richardson’s debut collection is the poet’s ability to inhabit a metaphor long enough for the simplest moment to expand into astonishing insight from what feels like a life-long meditation from the poet himself.
In “Inside And Out” the first image is a “you” unbuckling a belt for what may be discipline, and we drift with the poet through images of space satellites and finally to God: “so where will I find the father? / And why that metaphor / when no dad / worth the title / gets another chance / after a Katrina, / and a Middle Passage, / and boxcars, / and plague, / and Sand Creek / & Sandy Hook.”
Richardson’s approach to poetic form is ambitious and inspiring. How To Read contains poems with striking formal rigor such as the sequence of haiku that run through the collection, as well as sonnets, erasures, and pantoums (four-line stanzas in which the second and fourth line of the first stanza become the first and third lines of the next stanza with this wreathed pattern continuing to the poem’s end).
Thomas Richardson’s “How To Read” is a collection of poems that Mississippi and our world at large is well-represented within. From beginning to end, readers will be awestruck at the poet’s detailed sense of wonder for the everyday and fantastic as they become the same thing—as they so often are in the South.
Many of the lines deserve to be written down, and many of the poems deserve to be recited and shared with loved ones, students and teachers. Much of our past and present is entangled, and poets like Richardson make our histories and our present legible.
C. T. Salazar is a Latinx poet and librarian from Mississippi. His full-length collection, “Headless John the Baptist Hitchhiking” is forthcoming in 2022 from Acre Books.