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Hearse Verse 

Southern-gothic poet Forrest Hamer brings to light chilling memories

In Forrest Hamer's first collection of poetry, 1995's Call & Response, he writes in a prose poem called "Uncle" of a great-uncle who returned from WWII "different--/he kept to himself, paced the dirt streets at dusk/and he begged for work in the graveyards... he began then to talk back to the dead/still living alongside him... pleaded that they leave him alone/and that they return."

The native of North Carolina has a knack for recalling moments from his youth that brought the scent of death or sex near, in what might fall under the heading "Southern Gothic." In his recent collection Middle Ear, the rhyming poem "Crossroads" imagines a battle with death and the devil that could easily become a blues song or gospel hymn. In "Exorcism," a poem that casts a spooky spell, a group of six or seven church ladies try to free a woman named Berniece of her demon. In "Goldsboro Narrative #33," Hamer remembers Mr. Joe, a man who sang off-key in the men's chorus in church but was tolerated because "he had gone away but come back." When families heard his disturbing warble on Sunday morning, mothers fixed their sons with looks implying that they'd better not stray from the path of righteousness or they'd get messed up, too.

Hamer, who teaches psychology at the University of California-Berkeley, has also written several pieces about his relationship with his taciturn father. In "Moving On," his dad finally speaks about his Korean War experience, telling the story of how his life was saved by a white man who turned out to be a leading figure in the South Carolina Ku Klux Klan.

Poet Ruth Ellen Kocher's first book, 1999's Desdemona's Fire, won the prestigious Naomi Long Madgett Poetry Award for excellence in a manuscript by an African-American poet. She teaches writing and literature at Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville.

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