By: P. T. Paul; Foreword by Frye Gaillard
Reviewed by: Jim Murphy
Negative Capability Press, 2010
The familiar magic of jubilee on the Alabama coast, that sudden inversion of the natural order of things in the water that depletes its oxygen and sends its life forms scrambling onto the shore, is a guiding metaphor for P.T. Paul’s To Live and Write in Dixie. As on a jubilee night when strangeness and wonder mingle on the beach, and the ocean’s secrets are visible for all to see in profusion, Paul’s book is a wildly diverse, entertaining collection, intertwining accomplished literary poetry and prose, autobiography, historiography, cultural studies, and good old fashioned yarn spinning to create a vibrant, intertextual engagement with her central concerns: What does it mean to be both of and apart from the South, working through all its contradictory wonders and tragedies?
This impulse to “tell about the South” is of course nothing new. And in truth, Paul is most successful when she attempts less to tell and more to show, through clear and penetrating images, the realities of her slice of the South (Alabama generally, Whistler near Mobile in particular). Consider this passage from “Or What’s a Heaven For?” “My father longed to find the jar of coins / his father buried behind the house — / coins that shamed him by making themselves / precious in his eyes. // This memory, kudzu covered, / belonged to no man’s map, / but burned holes in his dreams / and fell into the substratum of myth.” Here, as in many places in the book, we see Paul’s particular gift for drawing rich psychological and imaginative resonance from the simplest materials, as a jar of coins becomes a totem of loss, and lost generations. Elsewhere, a citrus rind becomes an emblem of struggle and survival (“How To Peel an Orange”) and the atmosphere itself a heavy hand of oppression (“Always, There Was the Heat”).
From a technical standpoint, Paul’s approaches are as diverse as the South she engages. She moves deftly from meditative, expansive free verse to the rigors of the sestina and other repeating forms (well-suited for her subject). But perhaps the most surprising and immediate of all these are the prose passages that appear at regular intervals across the book’s four sections. Within these, she dives into the essence of crucial turns in her own life, and in the life of her community. Take, for instance, this penetrating passage on the World War II generation’s priorities as she saw them, growing up in Whistler: “Their mantra was ‘never again’—never again to be separated by oceans or acts of Congress, never again to fall asleep alone one night wondering if the stars would fall from the sky and incinerate their dreams....” Or this, on a hushed family secret, and those who presume to understand it: “History is a vineyard neglected and tended by everyone at once, everyone planting and pruning and harvesting, everyone minding what each one thinks of as ‘their’ property. When the harvests pile up and the back begins to bow, there are always plenty of gardeners eager to tend another person’s plot.”
The rich ground P.T. Paul tends in To Live and Write in Dixie has without a doubt been turned over many times. But here, through a dazzling display of technical skill, through a nuanced understanding of her subject matter’s people, places, and things, and, most of all, through the generous and clear-eyed vision of community she puts forward, we are fruitfully returned to this land. Sept 2010
Jim Murphy is chair of the English Department at the University of Montevallo. His latest volume of poetry is Heaven Overland.