SY HOAWAH’S Ancestral Demon of a Grieving Bride

Connection and Contrast in Sy Hoahwah’s Ancestral Demon of a Grieving Bride: A Review By Erin Wedemeyer

I’ve always loved nature—from the smallest ant to the most ancient sequoias. And what isn’t there to love? Beauty, growth, energy, warmth. Life. In his latest collection from the University of New Mexico Press, Ancestral Demon of a Grieving Bride, the poet Sy Hoahwah makes his recognition of the beauty of nature plain, but with this recognition comes a complicating dose of darkness. Defying the organic correlation between nature and life, Hoahwah places the natural world and death side by side. Severed fingers and skulls dot the landscape of his poetry as he drives the hearse, guiding the reader through the Ozarks and central United States, Charon covering the toll on I-44.

Hoahwah is the author of three collections of poetry, Ancestral Demon of a Grieving Bride (University of New Mexico Press, 2021) Night Cradle (USPOCO Books, 2011), and Velroy and the Madischie Mafia (West End Press, 2009). In 2013, Hoahwah was a recipient of the National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship; he's an enrolled member of the Comanche Nation of Oklahoma, who received his MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Arkansas. He resides with his wife and daughter outside of Little Rock. 

Ancestral Demon of a Grieving Bride details family, history, nature, memories, and land through the lens of grief. There are typhoons, tornadoes, and lightning, which “has sympathy for no one,” pine trees that stand “in twos like pallbearers” and “a lone pecan tree,” which is all that remains of the “family’s 160 acres.” As I read, my intimacy with nature bleed into an intimacy with death and the afterlife.

My acquaintance began with a funeral procession down logging trails and the “line of barbed wire [that] marks the boundary between this world and the next” on Mt. Scott. As I encountered fox skulls, baby opossum skulls, fish bones, and the ancestors living “beside the fort that’s neither on the maps of heaven nor of hell,” my acquaintance developed to closeness.

Not all of the encounters were eerie; sometimes they were fun, like when the snakes, trees, and whispers of the dead taught the speaker how to read plays from the opposition's huddle as they played football in a cemetery. After my closeness became intimacy, I was lead to the final poem, a five-part journey wherein the speaker travels through Hell’s Acre in Arkansas with a skeleton and where “the bones ask, ‘When are we not in a dream?’”

As is often said, life without death is meaningless. Worth cannot be truly understood without contrast, without opposites. Ancestral Demon of a Grieving Bride breathes the fiery tension between these poles. For every snake there is a dove. For every fire, snow. When darkness is comforting as “night is the church” and the father’s house tells stories in the dark, light is detaching, the speaker’s name “forgotten in the morning light.” The sun is related to blood, while the moon is associated with bone. And much more.

But this collection isn’t just about contrast. It also showcases various cultures and beliefs: a grandfather buried with his Bible, an unashamed Comanche moon, mourner’s cut hair, and a horse-shaped headstone. Ancestral Demon of a Grieving Bride is a place where legends, deities, practices, music, and much more reside together, from Mupits to Zeus and Lucinda Williams to Jesus.

The complexities of this collection reflect the complexity of life, of grief. Every time I reread a piece, I find another layer of connection and contrast. I'm left haunted by echoes soaring through the Ozarks, the image of pine trees silhouetted by the moon stuck to my mind like a butterfly in a spider’s web.

Intimate, distinct, and haunting, purchase Ancestral Demon of a Grieving Bride on the University of New Mexico Press’s website or read the e-book on Amazon. To read Hoahwah's poetry in Miracle Monocle, visit Issue 11 of the journal

ERIN WEDEMEYER is a genre editor of Miracle Monocle. She studies English, Creative Writing, and Spanish at the University of Louisville.