By Sherwin Eng, Courtesy Jack Straw Cultural Center

Robert Lashley Crams Mythology, the Bible, and Dozens of Dead Poets Into a Single Book

“Up South” takes on trauma, anger, and the literary canon without ever feeling showy.

Bellingham poet Robert Lashley is probably best known for his stage presence. He comes from the spoken-word scene, and is one of the region’s best readers; there’s a moment in every performance when he shifts from mild-mannered stage patter to the poet with that voice, and it’s always a bracing moment.

You can always tell when someone in the audience has never attended a Lashley reading, because they rear up when that voice makes itself known. When Lashley reads, he gets loud, and when he gets loud, he starts spitting truth all around the room. He reads poems about some “motherfucker at the club” who tried to start something with Lashley’s cousin, and his rage at the “Maxim magazine and Axe Body Spray” motherfucker is raw and real.

Lashley demands your attention. His performance style is part fire-and-brimstone preacher, part aggrieved literary nerd, part Captain America. You can’t help but be moved, to want to follow him wherever he leads. And it’s easy to get swept up in that voice, to forget the poet behind it, to lose sight of the fact that those words have a writer, and that writer is in fact very good at what he does.

Lashley’s second book of poems, Up South, is a reminder that he is a writer of poems, and more than just that voice. Even more than in his first collection, The Homeboy Songs, Lashley is showing us what he knows. Up South has roots deep inside the tradition of poetry. Lashley here evokes mythology and Biblical stories and classic poets—not in a showy way, but rather because he understands that no poet writes in a vacuum, that every poet is in conversation with every single poet who came before.

Read the rest of this review in Seattle Weekly’s print edition or online here at seattlereviewofbooks.com. Paul Constant is co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. Read daily books coverage at seattlereviewofbooks.com. books@seattleweekly.com

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