Oregon Ferry Review of Books

T. Crunk. Biblia Pauperum. Lexington, KY; Accents Publishing, 2013. 978-1-936628-21-6, Softcover, 6" x 9" $15.00

crunk   biblia pauperumT. Crunk is a fabulist, a Minor Prophet from the last pages of the Old Testament.  James Dickey has called him a “true voyant” (a clairvoyant, a seer). The periods of the King James Bible echo through his work, and his voice in Biblia Pauperum is a cross between Tom of Bedlam and John the Revelator. Or perhaps between the preacher of Ecclesiastes and the mad slave-rebellion leader Nat Turner.

These poems are best read aloud. Forget the syllogism of the sonnet, the narrative of blank verse. Let the lush sound and imagery wash over you.

          up the white road

          a bat
          flake of night

          scaled off
          and sailing

          (Night [Studies] 3. Pastorale)

Note how the liquid (l, r) and fricative (f, s) semi-vowels balance with the assonance of the high frontal vowels (a, i) to render this short passage sensual in the mouth. And then there is the astonished delight of the image.

Or savor the rotund oratory of this passage:

          Great bird of iron
          born of crucible and anvil

          first creation
          of the forges of Tubalcain

          your feathers
          are strokes of black lightning

          (Crows 1. Encomium)

A biblia pauperum or pauper’s Bible was a Medieval picture book that functioned as an illustrated concordance of the Old and New Testaments. The book was arranged as a triptych, with an illustration from Christ’s life flanked by illustrations of corresponding events from the lives of the Old Testament prophets. Only brief texts were included. Such books were not intended for the poor but may have been used for instruction of the illiterate.

Crunk’s Biblia Pauperum is divided into four sections: “Parables” (from which the quotes above are taken), “Mysteries,” “A Theater of Fine Devices,” and “Revelations.” The “Mysteries” section contains, appropriately, three “Triptychs” or three-poem series: one from Genesis (the Cain story), one from the crucifixion and resurrection (called “Pièta”), and one called “Angels.” These are very strong, dark, and moving poems. “Triptych: Genesis,” for example, explores the origins of blood lust. It begins with the left panel “First Night” in which a figure who must be Adam hides in the tall grass watching “the tree where // those / he names // deer” eat of fruit he is forbidden to eat, then, under cover of the first-night darkness, tears an as-yet unnamed creature “open // with his hands”. The right panel, “A Morning,” shows us Eve, cast out, washing blood from her son’s garment, and the center panel “Of Blood” seems to be spoken by Abel

          Brother Cain

          is love

          and blood

          is never


          never says

Crunk’s extraordinarily short lines, his use of the two- and three-word couplet, and the absence of punctuation assure that we consider every single word. He is beyond laconic and yet in some sense word drunk. This section ends with a seven-part poem called “Purgatory (Studies)” that puts us back in the world of the mad seer

          the old thief

          the gambler

          lie waiting

          a blind spider

          the mouth of
          their stone crock


          whispering rosary

Three and seven are significant numbers in the Judeo-Christian tradition, the former being the number of the Trinity and the latter the number of the Sabbath, when God rested from his week of creation. “A Theater of Fine Devices” is a series based on the number seven: 14 poems linked like a chain, a word in one poem becoming the subject of the next. Thus the first poem “Of Salt” contains the phrase “only whispers / and dust” and the second poem is “Of Dust.”  The section closes with a seven-part poem “Of Hands,” the last couplet of which refers back to the first poem: “the salt forest / of desire.”

Crunk is fond of the multi-part poem; three times he writes a poem of seven parts, one in each of the first three sections of the book. Counting the “Triptychs,” there are eight three-part poems.

The final section, “Revelations,” contains a series of seemingly personal poems. Titles like “Suicide,” Insomnia,” “Annunciation” warn us that we are not to go gentle out of this book. Here we find, not a prophet, but a man lamenting his failure to be a prophet or even a believer:

          no burning coal
          yet touched

          to my lips
          no wheel

          inside a wheel


And from the last poem in the book:

          leaving only you and me
          now angel

          and even you
          I see

          are beginning
          to have

          trouble existing—


Thus we go out on an em-dash, indicating a thought incomplete, broken.

These are not all new poems. Parables and Revelations was published as a Finishing Line Press chapbook in 2005 and A Theater of Fine Devices by Blue Light Press in 2009. Brought together in this way, however, with the exquisite poems from the “Mysteries” section, the poems are given a new texture.

T. Crunk’s world is not easy but it is gripping.

Crunk bio:

Tony Crunk's first collection of poetry, Living in the Resurrection, was chosen by James Dickey as the 1994 selection in the Yale Series of Younger Poets. He has since published a number of children's books, as well as several additional collections of poetry and short fiction. He currently lives in Montgomery, Alabama.

— Sherry Chandler