Jesse Graves’ Merciful Days

In his third solo poetry collection, Merciful Days, Jesse Graves returns to the East Tennessee farm of his youth. The land Graves writes about is also his ancestral home. Sense of place is almost a requirement for Tennessee writers, but Graves’ abiding connection to place gives exquisite life and meaning to his work. Many poems center around the loss of the author’s father and brother. Those poems are poignant in their own right, but they speak to a larger theme that flows throughout the collection: that we as individuals are only a fleeting part of something much larger and more mysterious than we can fully comprehend. This idea is evident in “Mossy Springs” where the narrator revisits a watering hole on the family farm:

…you wonder at the bloodlines
that drank here before you,
dating as far back as time records.

Hunters from the original tribes,
trackers chasing game upstream,
farmers drawn over from the fields,

and now you, looking for the lost
kingdom of your ancestors,
their eternal thirst to be found.

For Graves, this big examination of generations extending “as far back as time records” is inseparable from his own personal experience. His life is tied to the past in ways that are not completely understood even though they are tangibly felt. “Come Running” depicts this, and it is perhaps my favorite poem in this collection:

Come Running

They amble across the field, drawn to shade,
sniffing for uncropped clover and sprout,
their slowness measurable by galactic tilt.
From a distance the calves look identical,
but watch closely, and the shadings around
white faces range from salmon to maroon,
and the little curls on their foreheads
twist in tighter and looser tangles.
If a baby separates from its mother,
she calls for it like a foghorn, the lowing
anyone can tell means “find me now.”
But listen closer, and a mother can signal
her child with the slightest grunt
from the other side of the field—
no other calf will move or even look up,
yet one comes running, summoned home.

In many ways, Merciful Days is simply about the idea of memory—how memory keeps the past connected to the present and the future, and how memory sustains us through loss and sadness. Merciful Days is an elegy, but it’s not a dirge. These poems are full of joyous moments, as well as of the deepest sense of love, the kind that only expands and grows.

Merciful Days cover

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