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Hard Rain: America in the 1960s, Our Decade of Hope, Possibility, and Innocence
By Frye Gaillard
NewSouth Books, 2018
$35.00 Hardcover
Genre: American Studies
Reviewed by Foster Dickson

Published in the year that constituted the fiftieth anniversary of the deaths of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, Frye Gaillard’s Hard Rain takes a voluminous approach to the jam-packed decade that brought both men to prominence. Loaded with facts, insights, and anecdotes, which are presented in a smooth-flowing narrative style, Gaillard’s look-back at the 1960s, comprised of seventy-two chapters separate into three sections, offers readers a thick but not overwhelming mixture of the well-known and lesser-known events and people that changed America.

Considering that a gracious plenty of qualified writers, journalists, and historians have written whole books on just one aspect of this turbulent decade – one politician or one movement – Hard Rain’s prospectus is a daunting one: to cover America in the ’60s. Looking at the physical object – the book itself – before I began reading, I could see that the author had certainly tried. Also before reading, its sheer heft caused me to do what most folks would do: I flipped to the end to see how many pages this one had— the actual text ends on 625, followed by sixty more pages of end notes and index. Yet, my initial apprehension about its length was eased when I started reading and found this goal in the preface: “As future generations debate the meaning (I also seek to do some of that here), I hope to offer a sense of how it felt.” If this book were a dense, heavily cited, academic work of the same size and scope, the slog through it could have been unpleasantly slow and arduous; but that isn’t what Frye Gaillard has done here. This one, by contrast, has humanity and warmth, two qualities that augment the historical substance and allow for smoother reading.

The first of Hard Rain’s three parts is titled “Possibilities” and covers 1960 through 1963. Gaillard begins with a somewhat inauspicious name, Franklin McCain, who, along with three other student-activists, staged the first sit-in in North Carolina. It then goes from zero to sixty in a matter of moments, shifting our attention next to James Lawson and the protests in Nashville, then in chapter two to the music of Sam Cooke, Elvis Presley, and Joan Baez, and the groundbreaking book Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin. In the chapter three, John F. Kennedy comes on stage, led by a brief discussion of Lillian Smith’s Killers of the Dream. Chapter four then describes the FDA’s approval of the “the pill,” Timothy Leary’s endorsement of LSD, Barry Goldwater’s insistence on conservatism, and the Supreme Court’s ruling on desegregating interstate travel. And yet, there are fourteen more chapters in Part I—which cover such dizzyingly diverse subjects as the Freedom Rides, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the suicide by fire of Thich Quang Duc, the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing, and the publication of The Feminine Mystique. Of course, the ending demarcation for this period of “possibilities” is the assassination of John F. Kennedy in Dallas, on November 22, 1963.

The second section of Hard Rain is governed by Lyndon Johnson and titled “Inspiration/Loss.” I began Part II with a deep breath, after reading the years on the title page: 1964 through 1968. Then Frye Gaillard’s words carried me through them like a panoramic guided tour. On the political front, the heart of the decade brought two distinctly different Southerners into national prominence – Texas’s Lyndon Johnson and Alabama’s George Wallace. On the musical front, the nation got Motown and The Beatles, as well as Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddam” and Johnny Cash’s “Ballad of Ira Hayes,” songs that Gaillard writes are “part of a musical canon in America intended to call attention to our flaws.” This was a time when the Civil Rights movement matured even further, resulting in 1964’s Freedom Summer and 1965’s Selma-to-Montgomery March, two events that foreshadowed landmark federal legislation those same years. Page by page, Gaillard introduces us to activists Fannie Lou Hamer and Allan Lowenstein, Conservative Phyllis Schlafly, author Alex Haley, martyrs Malcolm X and Jimmie Lee Jackson, evangelist Billy Graham, and communist leader Ho Chi Minh. As the narrative rolls on, Hard Rain apprises us of the complicated escalation in Vietnam, the resonance of The Sound of Music, the ascent of Robert F. Kennedy, and the emergence of Black Power. It was during these years when stark contrasts dominate, in the voices of educator Jonathon Kozol and TV personality Fred Rogers, in the imagery from the musical Hair and the film In the Heat of the Night. This middle section of the book is the most substantial and comprehensive, containing more than forty chapters, and with good reason: there’s a lot to talk about.

By the final section of Hard Rain, the narrative enters the Nixon presidency, and this shortest section of the book carries us out through the banner year: 1969. The opening chapter, titled simply, “President Nixon,” begins with his inauguration and includes this statement on the second page: “It was an ugly time in America, and the ugliest part was the war that felt like a nightmare with no end.” After nine years of protests, killings, experimentation, consequences, backlash, and war, Vietnam was raging, Black Power and feminist activists were speaking out, and the Stonewall Riots went down. There was the peace and love of Woodstock on the one hand, and the murderous lunacy of Charles Manson on the other. And who could forget the moon landing?

Though he does interject his own asides periodically throughout the book, Gaillard ends Hard Rain on a personal note, in the chapter titled “Redemption.” Here, he discusses his own journalistic work with Nashville’s Race Relations Information Center, where he volunteered to work with Native Americans. And as the main text of the book reaches its end, the author shares this, for modern readers to ponder: “History did not stop as the 1960s came to an end, nor did the great American schizophrenia, that cleavage in our national heart and soul that had come so painfully into sharper focus.”

Hard Rain articulates a great deal about the “decade of hope, possibility, and innocence lost” by framing this massive narrative within the experience of one young man who was raised as the son of judge in Mobile, attended Vanderbilt in Nashville, and became a journalist and author himself. The book’s holistic treatment does provide readers with a sense of “how it felt” to live through such an invigorating and exhausting decade. In the spirit of the Pete Seeger tune, “Turn, Turn, Turn,” which is discussed in chapter 31, there is a time for everything, and Hard Rain indicates that this must be Frye Gaillard’s time for reflection.

Foster Dickson is a writer, editor, and award-winning teacher in Montgomery, Alabama. His new book Closed Ranks: The Whitehurst Case in Post-Civil Rights Montgomery was published by NewSouth Books in 2018.

Land of Grace
By Mike Burrell
Livingston Press, 2018
Paperback $14.95
Genre: Elvis Fiction
Reviewed by Anita Garner

Since December 3, 2018, was the 50th anniversary of Elvis Presley’s television “comeback special” when Elvis’ dead career arose like a black leather clad phoenix from ashes reborn; and since NBC plans a two-hour primetime special tribute to the 1968 special sometime in the first half of 2019, now seems like the perfect time to take another look at mid-century modern Elvis. to discover some of the newer Elvis fan fiction. Mark Childress’ Tender is a great place to start to pique one’s interest, and Mike Burrell’s Land of Grace would have to come next.

First of all, the book is a wry, fun read, a burlesque novel that begins as a picaresque. Burrell claims the idea for the novel came years ago when the host of a party asked him to drive home a female guest whose ride had deserted her. Burrell says he drove until he felt sure he would be lost, trying to find his way back to civilization, and once they arrived at the woman’s home, she invited Burrell to come inside. After seeing many pictures of Elvis on the walls and a three-foot-tall Elvis statue with votive candles lit in front of it, Burrell tried to make polite conversation about Elvis’ death. The woman’s reply was to scream “Elvis is not dead!” The detail never left Burrell’s memory.

To tell the plot of even the first fifty pages of Land of Grace is somewhat of a spoiler, and anyway seeing the story unfold through Doyle Brisendine’s eyes is the greatest delight of many in the novel’s first half. Doyle is a self-styled Elvis impersonator from San Angelo, Texas – a man with no family to speak of but decent good looks and a voice too much like Elvis’ to be a big success otherwise in the music industry. And as good as Doyle is at impersonating Elvis, his fan base is growing older and his work van is perhaps the only thing keeping Doyle from being homeless. When he gets an offer of six thousand dollars to perform at the AMVETS in Willow Dean, Alabama, Doyle shows up and gives the audience a solid performance. Even the reader most casually aware of the facts of Elvis’ life will begin to recognize eerie details. The man who shows up to manage the stage details is named Parker, Colonel Parker, in fact. As Doyle falls down the rabbit hole, we become aware that the part of North Alabama between Birmingham and the Tennessee River is the perfect place to hide a many-thousand acre Elvis-era Brigadoon.

Without revealing too many plot details, I simply will say that the reader has some hilarious burlesque characters to look forward to, not the least of whom is Mama, a woman who looks like Vestal Goodman in a housedress but can preach to her mega-church on Sundays like a fired-up Joyce Meyer—and she can write like a good imitation of one of the Apostles in a King James translation voice. We do not get Mama’s back story until several chapters after her introduction, but she is not the simple Gladys Presley wannabe she appears to be upon first glance.

And of course, for those of us steeped in Christianity Alabama-style, Burrell has not been unobservant of the multiplicity of Alabama religions. The mega-church, the Sunbeam Sunday school class, the Good News, the resurrection, the Ceremony of the Scarves, the King, God’s promise to unite the Children and take away all their sins: Burrell’s mash-up of New World Christianity and pop culture will keep the reader turning from one page to the next. The final third of the novel may offer some surprising directions, but the burlesque-cheesy quality never waivers. There is never a scene in which characters remove clothing that the reader will not be thinking, Please, please, keep it on.

By the end of the novel, you will understand a little bit more about this insane ruined beautiful bizarre illogical place called Land of Grace (and, by extension, what makes much of the State of Alabama tick.) This is a meta Elvis novel you will want to read and then share.

Anita Garner is Professor Emeritus of English and Creative Writing at the U of N Alabama and serves as Fiction Editor at MindBridge Press in Florence, Alabama.

Known by Salt
By Tina Mozelle Braziel
Anhinga Press, 2019
Paperback $20.00
Reviewed by Claire Matturro

With a grace that honors her roots, yet soars beyond, Tina Mozelle Braziel has written a singularly beautiful, intelligent, and accessible collection of poems in Known by Salt (Anhinga Press 2019). It’s no wonder she won the prestigious 2017 Philip Levine Prize for Poetry for the collection.

The poems are rich with images that speak of her native South—“the bottom where I once grew collards,” “glasses of tea sweat on the blue Formica,” “black-eyed peas and okra,” and “the clothes line between hickory and house.” While many poets use everyday images, hers resonate with a wholesome crispness that refreshes, like the simplicity of William Carlos Williams’ “plums that were in the ice box.” Yet Braziel’s images—like Williams’—speak volumes about human experience and evoke themes of loss, growth, bravery, and transcendence.

Braziel’s poems excel with their vivid images, but the language also shines with powerful verbs utilized in a manner which creates something unique out of the ordinary. For example, Braziel’s “cornbread exhales its golden brown,” her “wheels bloomed with rust,” and the scent of money is “musk muddled by thousands of hands.”
In “Housekeeping, a poem reminiscent in tone and sheer beauty to James Wright’s “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota,” Braziel writes gloriously:

Each morning, a hummingbird

whirrs to the window to watch

the glass bloom with its likeness.

And I recognize the house is not kept

by sweeping straw across floor-planks

and rubbing rags over shelves.

I’d do better to lie in the hammock all day,

lifting a finger to the breeze

sieved through screen,

listening to the cat purr as he strolls

from corner to corner, smudging

the house with his thrum.

With a narrative flow from poem to poem, Braziel tells a story about transcending limits in which the poet goes from being a child trapped in a trailer park to a young woman building her own home. Initially, in “Beneath the Trailer,” the poet, “wearing only Underoos/and clutching a near-empty bag of Wonder Bread,” is thwarted by the underpinning of a house trailer which

… kept me out and was meant to

                        keep me from dreaming my way west,

           from circling the trailers each night.

From this trapped child, with the “trailer park chip on my shoulder” referenced in “Trash,” the poet in “All Our Things are Resurrections,” writes of reclaiming “retired telephone poles,” “old church glass,” and “tongue and groove heart-pine ceiling” in building a new home with her husband. She concludes:

All our things are everyday

calling for me to wake

like water roused to wine,

like sand rousted into glass.

Yet as moving as the home building poems are, perhaps the most powerful and poignant poem in the collection is “Tornado Sermon.” Given that Braziel grew up in Dixie Alley, an area of the Deep South prone to violent tornadoes, she probably experienced first-hand the terror of a tornado. If not, she certainly writes with a precision that speaks of a personal acquaintance with the destruction.

        For three days now we have cleared rubble,

boarded windows, carried each other so no one sits

        like Job in the ashes of what was.

We’ve searched fallen oak and briers

            for chickens, littered fields for photographs.

We’ve seen ourselves in that mirror.

            Now we’ve got to search ourselves

like we searched broken planks

              and fallen chimneys for moan and movement

for someone we might save.

Braziel’s lyrical, captivating voice will no doubt only get richer and stronger as she continues to write. Yet, the young voice she has now is so fine, lovely, true, and strong. Readers can only begin to imagine what might come next from this rising star of modern poetry.

My Exaggerated Life: Pat Conroy
As Told to Katherine Clark
University of South Carolina Press , 2018
Hardcover $29.99
Reviewed by Alan L. Samry

Pat Conroy is blunt, beyond candid, and bordering on bombastic, and if you’re a Conroy fan already, My Exaggerated Life, an oral biography told to Katherine Clark, is a deep and honest look inside the man behind the persona of some of the south’s best autobiographic fiction.

Oral biographer and Alabama’s own, Katherine Clark, conducted more than 200 hours of conversations, mostly phone calls, before Conroy died in 2016. In My Exaggerated Life, Clark has masterfully culled Conroy’s tales of surviving childhood abuse, attempted suicides, and his lack of self-esteem into a voice, that arrives through the act of writing and years of therapy, with a greater sense of self. For Conroy this was a chance to let readers know the importance of telling his story, not letting other people censor his life and stories, and to tell stories that help writers.

Surprisingly, Conroy published his own first book, The Boo, through a vanity press. Even back then he was driven to tell his story, and it also helps him learn the ins and outs of publishing for his next book. Telling his story wasn’t easy, especially early on. The only time the beatings from The Great Santini stopped was when the military called. “I loved it when dad was called overseas...Carol (sister) and I used to pray for war every year,” is how Conroy tells it.

Only someone stricken with fear, shame, and low self-worth can write, “Emotion more than thought has ruled my life, and this is how I have screwed up my life.” Somehow he casts some of that fear and shame out with each book. Despite, or because of all these forces working against him, Conroy found and developed his writing voice, and Clark’s book is his exclamation point.

From his book The Water is Wide, or from his actual life, the lines are often blurred in this oral approach, he mentions the letter to Superintendent Trammel regarding the African American students he was teaching on Daufuskie Island, South Carolina. “You told me their schools were separate but equal. It’s the biggest lie ever told in the South,” Conroy points out, later adding he was fired for, “supporting black people and liking black people.”

As for The Lords of Discipline, or in other words, his time at The Citadel, he harshly concludes, “It was institutional brutality, a complete anarchy of abuse.”

Throughout the book he peppers readers and writers not to censor their stories or to be censored by others. Don’t be afraid, he says. “Everything is working against writers fully letting themselves flower unto themselves.” In other words, be brave. Or this gem about a letter he wrote to The New York Times, “If you make it better, you’re a good editor. If you make it worse you’re a bad editor. If you take out stuff that’s important, you’re a censor.”

Conroy started out as poet, but he became a novelist and unashamedly, an author of biographical fiction, memoir, and even autofiction. Yet he remained a champion of all writing, especially the screenwriter. “I think it’s good for a writer to do a screenplay, because you learn a lot.” In Conroy’s case, he earned a lot, not just writing screenplays but selling the movie rights for The Water is Wide and The Great Santini allowed him to continue to write more novels.

Conroy, the reader learns, was impressed with Clark’s two earlier oral biographies on Mobilian Eugene Walter and Alabama midwife, Onnie Lee Logan. Clark takes the elements of Conroy’s free-flowing and revealing narratives and effectively compresses all the drama in his life, the mad, sad, funny, shameful way he led his life, so readers discover an honest, compelling life with cursing and humor, mostly the self-deprecating type.

Readers, much like this reviewer, may wonder where Clark’s Conroy recordings will end up. Mostly likely, they will be archived at the University of South Carolina, with the rest of his papers. Since listening is the new reading for many, perhaps an audio version of the “fat rhinoceros-like man” is forthcoming so everyone can share Clark’s experience of listening to the stories of a mostly southern life, as only Conroy’s inimitable voice can tell us.

Whether or not an audio version emerges, we’ve not read the last of Clark, as she’s become adept in her genre. By capturing Conroy’s stories, she’s a resurrectionist, of sorts. Of shifting from a teaching career to writing, Conroy writes, “By not teaching, I lost something from my life.” Thanks to Clark, and unbeknownst to Conroy, readers and writers can still learn a lot from one literary man’s exaggerated life.

Southern Writers on Writing
Edited by: Susan Cushman
University Press of Mississippi, 2018
Nonfiction Anthology
Reviewed by Donna Estill

Southern Writers on Writing, edited by Susan Cushman, addresses the ever-present question of what it means to be a writer, and more specifically, what it means to be a Southern writer. The complex relationship of writer to place is further complicated in the South by its history of racial tensions and by the ghosts of literary giants like William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, and Harper Lee. The twenty-six essays in this book are divided into six broad categories: “Becoming a Writer”; “Becoming a Southern Writer”; “Place, Politics, People”; “Writing About Race”; “On the Craft of Writing”; and “A Little Help from My Friends.” Writers as diverse as the South itself take readers through the familiar and the strange in the way that Southerners like best: storytelling.  The glue that holds this collection together is love, sometimes unwillingly, for the South and writing—not a wide-eyed innocent crush, but a very grown-up love that acknowledges the problems yet is still committed to the relationship.

The dual nature of the South threads through the entire anthology.  For some, like Joe Formichella in “Consider Kudzu” and Sally Palmer Thomason in “How I Became a Southerner,” it means immigrating to the South from other parts of the country and discovering a land that is very different than frequently depicted in television and news. For others, it’s the challenge of living with a personal heritage; as W. Ralph Eubanks says in “The Past Is Just Another Name for Today”: “My lived experience has taught me that turning away from one’s personal history is a way of denying yourself and your very is the way Mississippi continues to embrace its myths that troubles me, yet it is the deception and denial of history that also propels my writing.”.

Writing, like the South itself, can be a bittersweet experience. Cassandra King describes her family’s ambivalence about writing as a career even as she herself is both immersed in it and fascinated by it in “The Ghost of Josiah King.” Jennifer Horne sees writing as a separation from the world, a way to view the South that is both beautiful and challenging from the sanctity of her space in “Where I Write.” On the other hand, Corey Mesler sees writing as an entry into a world from which he is isolated in “The Agoraphobic Writer.” For Wendy Reed, in “Lyrical Acts,” writing is the ultimate aphrodisiac, while for others, it is intimidating. Editor Susan Cushman shares how a group of supportive women writers helped her overcome her insecurity about writing in “Hard Labor: The Birth of a Novelist.”  In “A Woman Explains How Learning Poetry Is Poetry and Not Magic Made Her a Poet,” Jacqueline Allen Trimble finds that poetry isn’t magic but is hard work: “Most writers are not geniuses, and most of those who appear to be have created that illusion by the steady, consistent application of enormous sweat equity.” Suzanne Hudson, writing in part as her biting alter-ego RP Saffire in “That’s What She Said: The Sordid Business of Writing,” illustrates the divide between writing and the world of publishing and marketing.

The literary heritage that provides a strong backdrop for many of the authors in the collection provides both an entry into literature and a hurdle to overcome, as Katherine Clark’s “The Burden of Southern Literature” illustrates in trying to find her voice that is not “professional Southern,” as one of her professors puts it. The source of this literary heritage is, by consensus, the storytelling culture of the South.  John M. Floyd, in “In the Land of Cotton,” credits both the problems of race and politics and the storytelling culture that allows the South to deal with its problems. In “Dirt, Death, and the Divine: The Roots of Southern Writing,” River Jordan finds the strong elements of religion and storytelling as the source of Southern literature: “Southerners draw from a well that is a mystical blend of raw earth and our peopled history. From the storytellers that bore us because all those that came before us were storytellers.” Claude Wilkinson’s “All That ‘Southern’ Jazz” also acknowledges the storytelling ability of Southerners: “Now about the South, even the boys in my community who had never heard of a creative writing class, nor who were ever promoted as far as high school for that matter, were still master storytellers in their own right.”

For all the conflict, writing is the one act that allows the South to deal with its history and present.  Lee Smith shows in “A Life in Books, from Dimestore: A Writer’s Life” that writing “gives us the chance to express what is present but mute, or unvoiced in our personalities.” Julie Cantrell’s “Southern Fiction: A Tool to Stretch the Soul and Soften the Heart” looks at the beauty and ugliness of her native Louisiana and reflects: “When reading a nonfiction account of another person’s experiences, we tend to enter that story with our defenses high. We may think to ourselves, ‘Oh, I’d never do that.’…It’s easy for us to separate the real person’s life from our own, and therefore we convince ourselves we could never end up in the trouble they’re in…[F]iction tears down those walls…we enter the story with an understanding that is no threat to us because this situation is not real…Fiction builds empathy. Fiction is the truth teller. Fiction is the peacemaker.”

Southern Writers on Writing ends with a bit of advice for those who strive to be Southern writers. Clyde Edgerton’s “Three ‘One Things’: An Essay on Writing Fiction,” identifies three specific tactics for editing: look for one single most important identifying characteristic of a character or place; keep each character in a separate paragraph when possible; and let the characters’ dialog give information rather than using exposition when possible. Niles Reddick recommends in “Capturing the Essence of Difference” exploiting differences to open up perception. And the book ends, fittingly, with the most profound advice of all, urging perseverance as one pursues a writing career, in Michael Farris Smith’s aptly titled “Keep Truckin’.”

The South’s contradictory nature may be challenging, but in the end, for these authors it’s home.  Trimble expresses it, as all good Southerners do, with a story:  “A professor once said to me, ‘Southerners don’t transplant well.’ He was right. I lived outside the South for two years and hated every minute of it…When I re-entered Alabama after that long absence, I stopped my car, got out and kissed the ground…My poetry comes out of my quarrel with myself as I grapple with the dualities of my feelings about the South, my home, my lovely, dysfunctional home—pride and shame; joy and sadness—the place from which comes both the love and rage that undergird my work.” Telling stories in the beautiful language of the South transcends the everyday ugliness and provides hope. This soft melody of Southern voices rises from the page, saying, as Sonja Livingston suggests in “Stardust: An Essay on Voice in Four Parts”: Listen. Here I am. We are together now.

Hello the House
By Rupert Fike
Snake Nation Press, 2018
Paperback $15.00
Reviewed by Michael Blanchard

If poetry is a compass for us as readers to find our place in the world, it is necessary for the poet first to get his or her bearings in time and place. And, that is exactly what Rupert Fike undertakes to do in his newest collection, Hello the House (Snake∼Nation∼Press). The poems here are rich with memory, rumination, and images evocative of a particular place and culture. And, Fike’s imagination drifts easily and dreamily between past and present, flowing inexorably to insights gained or wisdom to share.

In highly accessible poems that are conversational in both tone and diction, Fike serves as an engaging tour guide through a region he calls home. Geographically, that land is a swath of the American South close to the Georgia/Tennessee line. Culturally, it is a world of AM-radio preachers; fried grits, grilled cheese sandwiches, and chicken cooked in bacon grease; and early-morning hunts for “rabbits, /doves, anything with a beating heart.” It is a world also where neighbors are served “a coke-cola on ice complete with tatted glass-holders.” And where family is close and death as familiar as the corpse of a “great aunt laid out/on the dining room table.”

More important than Fike’s eye for telling detail and gift for story-telling, though, is his moral/ethical compass, which guides him in staking claim to a territory all his own in this world, even if doing so lands him on the other side of the metaphorical fence from family and neighbors.

A literal fence figures in the collection’s title poem, a reminiscence about a youthful hunting trip with a hard-drinking father figure. The fence to be crossed here is a “three-strand” one of barbed wire. Symbolically, it marks a key divide in the poet’s coming of age:

He has waited too long to bring me out here.
I’m citified, beyond reclamation.
I will see the rabbit’s side of things
when it comes bounding past with great leaps.

“The Old Man. So Alone. Out in the Cold” provides another example of the poet’s moral awakening. Through memory, he feels a connection to an aging poet who struggled during the public reading of a poem against wind, cold, and glaring sun. The poet was Robert Frost; the setting, the inauguration of John F. Kennedy:

Years later I will have cataracts myself,
but that moment on the store floor was when
I first learned to feel sorry for someone.
For the old man. So alone. Out in the cold.
Who no one would help. And I felt sorry.
Mother wanted to move on, but I dug in.

“Georgia/Tennessee Line, Sunday” provides yet another example. In response to the message delivered by AM-radio preachers of the day, the poet concludes:

Even as a boy I couldn’t buy this,
though I could tell she really believed it.
Here was the first fault line I had noticed
in the great church of grown-up wisdom.
Not that I became a boy atheist,
it’s just that this was when I first knew
I’d have to figure things out all by myself.

If the 47 poems in Hello the House are a true indicator, it appears Rupert Fike has done a lot of figuring things out. And, for that, we are fortunate to have him as our guide.

Hello the House is the winner of the 2017 Violet Reed Haas Prize for Poetry. Fike’s previous collection, Lotus Buffet (Brick Road Poetry Press, 2011), earned him recognition as a finalist for the Georgia Author of the Year Award, the oldest literary prize in the southeast.

Small Crimes
By Andrea Jurjevic
Anhinga Press, 2015
Paperback $20.00
Winner of the Philip Levine Prize for Poetry
Reviewed by Mary Jane Ryals

Even the cover photo of Small Crimes tells a story--a homunculus clinging to an unclothed woman. The homunculus is a monstrous form used to express postwar anxieties about refugees, persecution of minorities in war and the adoption of minorities into a big world.

Yet this gritty and tender collection by native Croatian Andrea Jurjevic tells an intimate and personal story of survival in a brutal war that occurred in Europe only two-plus decades ago. Named the Croatian Revolution, a million people were counted in the dead, missing, imprisoned and displaced just across the Adriatic from Italy.

Jurjevic focuses, rather than on historical facts, on how the quotidian of regular people’s lives managed to help them keep their humanity in the midst of bombs, firing squads and loss. In “Sarajevo Cycle: 1992 to 1996” the visuals tell the death toll in ironically beautiful language:

past the fast-clacks through debris, clutched loaves of bread,
more Run or RIP signs nailed to posts, the cyclist not heeding

the sickle-shape of a couple’s legs on the sidewalk, or the child in a fuchsia
duffel coat with fingers curled in the red drool under her mouth...

In the poem “Small Crimes,” in contrast, longing, tenderness, and grace through the body come to two people in a car at a roadside shrine of the black Madonna:

I’d leaned towards you behind the wheel.

You stirred, semi-vigilant as I snapped the white buttons
on your shirt, undid the equator of your belt,

ducked from the eyes of people pushing cars
filled with cured lamb, corn on Styrofoam, cellophaned rye

And as the last sprays of sunlight slid down
the hood of the sky, you shielded my black hair,

your hands familiar with churned earth,
and what it takes in the tucked back of a parking lot

to absolve a peopled afternoon of a small crime
and keep it hidden, keep it safe.

In the last section of the book, “Americana: Threshold,” the book’s final poem, “Threshold,” the narrator describes cleaning a “Strange place I resist calling home.”

The descriptions of everyday domestics are angled by the vision of someone who’s seen too much: “Four blistered black mailboxes,” “faded spent debutantes,” and “I try to removed time from the worn carpet, / restore something in this house...”

Yet the mere fact that survival occurs seems a miracle as the end of the poem approaches:
...I think of how right now
someplace boats are leaving their docks,

how easily they move--like the lifting
of eyelids, the sound of dawn, like breathing.

This book of poems certainly earned the 2015 Philip Levine Prize for Poetry that it won, through voice, story, detail, scrutiny, understatement and love of language.

Blue Etiquette
By Kathleen Driskell
Red Hen Press, 2016
Paperback $17.95
Reviewed by Tina Mozelle Braziel

If you have ever smarted from a condescending boss or a dehumanizing job requirement or someone acting as if they are better than you, read Kathleen Driskell’s Blue Etiquette. Like me, you will revel in how Kathleen Driskell takes up class—a topic Americans loathe to examine—and how clearly she represents the emotional labor and social costs it exacts. As she says in “Oyster Fork” “what {she’s} after / is…/ an honest presentation— / for once— / of what it is / and what it wants.” In this well-crafted collection she does exactly that by introducing us to the service required of parlor maids, nursing home attendants, drivers, maitre d’s and others.

Driskell’s poems are georgic in how they emphasize the hard knowledge born from labor. Yet they complicate the georgic tradition by questioning the necessity of some work. For example, in “The Oak Room,” waiters are required to hold up a table cloth “curtain” around a heart-attack victim so other diners can enjoy their meals undisturbed. As Driskell leads us “down the dark tunnel of truth,” we come to realize that it is more nuanced than simply indicting the powerful. Instead, we are prompted to consider how many times we used etiquette to veil others (and ourselves) from the struggles of our fellow human-beings.

For me, the poem that hit closest to home is “Evolution.” It begins:

Aspiring to college
I set out
to evolve more quickly
than the finches
and tortoises
I’d read about and more
quickly than the coal miners
and factory workers
I’d come from

As a first generation college student, I am delighted by this surprising comparison that elevates the speaker’s position. As the poem continues, I identify with her, her work as a waitress, and why she would treat the beautiful young women dining with older men with “haughty distain.” When the poem makes its final turn, when it concedes that that these young women were also determined to evolve, I’m again surprised, shocked, in fact, into recognizing how easily I slipped into a similar elitism. This is the genius of Blue Etiquette, how it works to keep all of us honest. In time when the chasm between the haves and the have-nots seems to grow ever wider, this collection is all the more necessary.

Tina Mozelle Braziel, winner of the 2017 Philip Levine Prize for Poetry, directs the Ada Long Creative Writing Workshop for high school students at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Her collection, Known by Salt, will be published by Anhinga Press in 2019. Her chapbook, Rooted by Thirst, was published by Porkbelly Press in 2016. She and her husband, novelist James Braziel, live and write in a glass cabin that they are building by hand on Hydrangea Ridge.

How It Is: Selected Poems
by Neil Shepard
Salmon Poetry, 2018
Genre: Poetry
Reviewed by: Claire Matturro

Reading Neil Shepard’s How It Is: Selected Poems (Salmon Poetry 2018) is akin to a meditative walk through the lush inner terrain of a man who sees and senses all too much. Vivid, evocative, and varied, the individual poems cross time lines and geographic divides to form a compelling whole. The aggregate impact shows Shepard is not only well traveled, but also fascinated by just about everything—as a great poet should be.
The poems in How It Is include works previously published in books ranging from 1993’s Scavenging the Country for a Heartbeat to Shepard’s most recent 2015 Hominid Up. Given this span, How It Is offers readers a quarter of a century of Shepard’s writings to be savored.

And savored these poems should be. Shepard is an exceptional and emphatic writer, with a sharp eye for the telling detail, a deft hand at conveying truth, and a musician’s gift for hearing the melody in words. His images and language can startle our senses and wake us to mystery, as he does in “The Bell Bird.”

I smell lemon everywhere,
lemon-air and lemon-earth and lemon-trees
and long-leafed eucalyptus. When I arrive
at the canyon’s rim and peer down a thousand
feet to the dusk-silent canopy of trees,
suddenly the Bell Bird sings,
its song almost human, a glissando
across the empty space. It wavers
on the edge of sunset, circling
along the rim or far down
in the gloom or far above
in the temperate air—it’s impossible
to tell where the song comes from.

While some reviewers have compared him to Robert Frost, perhaps because of shared geography as well as their quiet genius, Shepard stands on his own as a valued and singular voice. His rhythmic phrases and the sheer grace of his poetic acumen mark him as an American treasure. He also appears to be having fun with his words, as illustrated in the opening lines from “Oh! on an April Morning.”

Oh! on an April Morning
I’m ready to murder the flowers.
The all-night word-fest left me
in some indeterminate schwa
of sleeplessness, neither long on yawns
nor persnickety and testy,
but stunned, stoned, seemingly
systematically taken apart
by human sounds—

While the collection offers richly textured works of homage, personal insights, and social commentary as well as a poetic travel guide, Shepard truly shines in his nature poems. A Vermonter, Shepard divides his time between New York City and his native state. Yet his lush “Atchafalaya November,” set in a Louisiana swamp, is as true and vivid as if he had been born and raised a Cajun.

We quiet the motor,
loop rope around a cypress stump,
and drift in the pirogue.
Snowy egrets circle out at dawn,
widening the compass of the known,

Soon we must give in
to the butterflies, like roses pinned to darkness,
landing on your hair and mine, give in
to the small tongues and tendrils
of the world that prey on us
with such tenderness.
Then we will look North
and hear it coming,
and not be afraid.

Shepard’s poems not only traverse from Atchafalaya to Corfu and beyond, but they range from when he was “twenty, ripped jeans, rucksack, cervezas and chasers” to being “of late middle age.” The daughter that was “centered in a cradle” in “Birth Announcement” is now “singing Madonna in the shower.” Thus, in this fine collection, readers are invited to join Shepard in his journey and in the maturation of his vision. Thank you, Neil Shepard for inviting us along. It’s a great, glorious trip to take.

Out of Speech
by Adam Vines
Louisiana State University Press, 2018
Paperback: $16.95 Kindle: $9.95
Genre: Poetry
Reviewed by: Barry Marks

The Dancer and the Dance:

A Review of Out of Speech by Adam Vines

It is easy to dismiss ekphrastic poetry. Long favored by middle school creative writing classes and poetry workshop challenges, it is tempting to exile the ekphrastic poem to the ignoble and ignorable province of light verse.

Then someone mentions Auden’s “Musee de Beaux Arts”, Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn” or William Carlos Williams’ “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus.” We remember that in poetry, as much as any art form, the chasm between the pedestrian and the brilliant is wide but there is room for both.

At its best, an ekphrastic poem does much more than tell us about a painting. It zeroes in on what the artist was doing (perhaps unintentionally) and through that, may tell us even more about the world and ourselves than the original work alone. This often requires the poet to get very personal with the artwork.

In his artful and often surprising volume of poetry, Out of Speech, Adam Vines comes at his subjects from a variety of angles and often achieves the most we could ask of ekphrasis. In fact, these poems beg to be read on a standalone basis, without first viewing the subject works. To do otherwise might cause the reader to underappreciate the poignancy of lines like

I, too, see the pages left blank
in the books I left open
the night before.

I, too, can’t bear my foot
toeing into the light.

or the cleverness of
The buses exhaust

themselves on the curb
noses sliming
the windows like slugs

The visual art on which the poems are based ranges from the familiar (Wyeth’s Christina’s World) to the more obscure (Tanguy’s Les Vues) to the unexpected (the statue of Rocky outside the Philadelphia Spectrum). Vines’s subjects are primarily 20th Century paintings, including those by Rothko, Picasso, Rauschenberg and Warhol. These works, some of which represent the psyche rather than visual objects, lend themselves to the varied approaches he takes.

While some poems describe and interpret specific works, others use the work as a touchstone for poems that, if no painting were mentioned, would satisfy. Resort to the visual inspiration only heightens the effect, as the reader sees that Vines is giving us at once his personal interpretation and following the direction of the artist to something universal.

Still others use the reactions of viewers to delve into the meaning of the painting. “The Iconoclasts” uses the reaction of four boys at a museum to Indiana’s “American Dream #1” to amplify exactly the view of America the painter had in mind. Unimpressed with Rauschenberg’s Rebus the boys take out their frustration and boredom by pretending to “dump banana clips and drum/ magazines” into the bullseye-like icons on Indiana’s painting. The recent flood of school shootings make this poem almost unbearably timely and true.

Some of the best poems blend the personal and confessional with the subject, as when the poet describes himself as a viewer. Responding to Hopper’s evocative Cape Cod Evening, Vines begins with pure description, but places himself in the poem by simply noting “but as I move closer/he isn’t….” This brief first person interaction with both the painting and reader becomes meaningful when we see what the speaker sees on closer inspection, ending with the observation:

…She will not
talk tonight. He hasn’t
talked for years.

Mr. Vines is an assistant professor at UAB and editor of The Birmingham Poetry Review. Out of Speech is the rare work that should satisfy both the demanding academic and the avid reader of poetry. While it may not make the reader a fan of ekphrasis, it is an example of what can be done when remembering to include the viewer in what is being viewed.

Barry Marks is a Birmingham attorney, a past President of the Alabama State Poetry Society and a member of the Board of Directors of the Alabama Writers Forum.

The Marriage Pact
by Michelle Richmond
Bantam, 2017
$27 Hardcover
Genre: Fiction
Reviewed by: Anita Miller Garner

Followers of Michelle Richmond’s career will be happy to discover this latest novel by the author has a good chance of being made into a film. All the more reason to read the book now so that you can make up your own mind about its mysteries, its plot twists, and mainly envision your favorite ending.

Like the author, the female lead character of the novel, Alice, is a native of Alabama who has left the Deep South for California. But unlike the narrators in most of Richmond’s earlier work, this time the narrator is not the female but rather her husband Jake, a rather dull psychoanalyst whose main purpose in life is to eat French toast, drink hot chocolate, and adore his brilliant, striking, high-powered, hot, attorney wife who was once an up-and-coming rock star and now has many lingering adoring fans. Awkwardly, Alice also has a lingering adoring song-writing partner from the now defunct band, a temperamental man but one with whom Alice still shares the creative ability to synch souls and write exquisite songs, such as deeply moving love song duets. What Alice shares with her husband Jake is something quite different: the Pact, sometimes which manifests itself as just a small blue P in the corner of their cell phone screens. The Pact is the marriage police Big Brother. Like the omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent God, the Pact can detect when one is even thinking about adultery before the adultery even happens. And what happens to adulterers of the first degree in The Pact, one does not even wish to imagine.

How Alice and Jake get tangled up with this cult is part of the appeal. They were in California and were not paying attention. It seemed like a good idea at the time. Around the date of Alice and Jake’s wedding, Alice had handled a case involving a famous Irish musician and song writer. This celebrity in an offhand remark said he loved weddings, and Alice handed him a spur-of-the-moment invitation. The celebrity and his wife showed up, and the wedding was an afternoon of love united forever and happy golden California sunshine moments—and of course a mystery gift from the celebrity couple, a puzzle box of sorts that when the purpose is revealed—to strengthen Alice and Jake’s marriage and make it everlasting—the young bride and groom sign on the dotted line. Alice and Jake then receive a rulebook the size and thickness of the old paper San Francisco phone book. Alice is an attorney and Jake has a PhD and even they cannot make it through that document.

But as anyone who has ever been married or observed a marriage can tell you, the offenses expressly forbidden by the Pact start building for Jake and Alice at an alarming rate. Jake forgets what the date is and realizes too late that he did not buy Alice a thoughtful gift that calendar month. And he also runs into an old acquaintance from college at the first Pact dinner party Alice and Jake attend. Jake and JoAnne had had classes and job assignments together in graduate school, so when JoAnne finds him at the party to tell him she wishes she could have warned him never to join the Pact, Jake and Alice suddenly get a very bad feeling about what they have signed up for, and the alarms that had already been ringing in the backs of their minds take on a more ominous tone.

Part of the fun of reading The Marriage Pact is of course playing in one’s mind the dialogue for each character through which Hollywood actor you would like to see play that part. (I will say that Orla, the grande dame and inventor of The Pact, is a small role that would be deliciously ironic played by Jane Fonda or best ever played by Vanessa Redgrave.) Richmond’s writing style also engages the reader as she uses that same type of realism laced with the surreal that, in manner, lulls the reader into perceiving stories such as Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” and certain stories by Shirley Ann Grau as straight realism before the real world starts sliding off the icy road like a car into a dangerous ravine. Richmond’s expertise as a short story writer carries over to the plot of this novel with no extraneous details and gratuitous side plots, no unplanned characters popping up late in the action, those details having been so meticulously planted early on that we are not even aware. And Richmond fans who loved the way coffee became part of one of her previous novels will love the way facts about marriage (of course!) thematically grow the plot of this one. Did you realize that the third year of marriage is statistically the happiest? Jake and Alice have not made it six months in, and you will question if they will still be alive come their third year.

The sad truth is that when Alice and Jake are spied upon so easily via their cell phones and when every small detail of their lives is available for dissection, speculation, and punishment, this does not even seem an exaggeration of what we now accept as reality in our own day-to-day lives. If The Marriage Pact does nothing else, it forces us to realize that, yes, marriage is hard, but also wonder if marriage is even harder today with all of the 21-century’s relentless technology and obsession with staying plugged in. Richmond does symbolism very very well. You will be thinking about this one for a while—or at least until the cast is chosen for the movie version and the ending they choose is not the one you had imagined.

Anita Miller Garner is professor emeritus of English and Creative Writing at the University of North Alabama, publishes short fiction, and edits fiction and nonfiction at Mindbridge Press.

The Myth of Water
By Jeanie Thompson
University of Alabama Press, 2016
Paperback $19.99


Reviewed by Melissa Dickson Jackson

With her recent collection, Jeanie Thompson has attempted something both ambitious and historic: to bring alive the interior monologues and musings of an international hero, Helen Keller.

In The Myth of Water, the complicated thoughts of an ordinary woman thrust into extraordinary circumstances amplify and resound as Thompson wrestles with her own inevitable formal challenges. How, for instance, does one wield the unique tools of poetry when one’s speaker can neither see nor hear. All the luscious skills of sound, all the descriptive and imagistic prowess of the poet at labor must be subsumed by an integrity to subject and cause. Fortunately for Thompson, Keller, with her remarkable capacity to shape language, often operates as a co-creator through her letters, journals, and published works that sometimes serve as found poems or found lines, and more often give Thompson unique insight to Keller’s private voice.
Indeed, readers find here a Helen Keller who is not whole, crystallized and enrobed in the cultural myth that glorifies and, perhaps, diminishes her, but one who is broken by a keen self-awareness, tragic losses, loneliness, doubt, and fear. Thompson’s splendid chronicle of Keller’s life brings the mythic Alabama native down to earth while reminding readers that her journey was even more complicated and angst-ridden then they might have realized.

Thompson’s exemplary research and commitment to a poetic but fact-based narrative frame the document. She begins with a brief essay describing the project and then laboriously cites the facts and events of Keller’s life with a seven-page detailed chronology. Readers are frequently reminded that the poems emerge from a life closely studied as Thompson also includes notes at the bottom of several poems documenting and explaining the poems’ origin stories. Thompson has made every effort to put Keller first with a reverential and respectful thoroughness that sometimes threatens to interrupt the narrative and poetic flow. It is a sacrifice that readers are compelled to respect.

While imagined and fictionalized, the poems strive to create a genuine presence reflective of Keller. Just as the speaker in “Prologue” determines not to “overtax [her] listeners,” Thompson seems determined not to over-poeticize her subject. The voice of Keller remains pragmatic, sensible, compassionate, and careful. She knows doubt, but it’s not simply the existential doubt of navel-gazing elites. It’s also the doubt that speaks to a fear of failure to serve, failure to communicate, or failure to fulfill one’s essential mission. And there is also a yearning to find liberation from the bonds of her disabilities, her gender, her era, her earthliness. In “At Wrentham,” the speaker bemoans a world that “scatters like leaves/torn by storm from the trees” but “believe[s] a woman could be free at Wrentham.” Just as Keller emerges from the chaos of her early silence, Thompson’s speaker emerges from the chaos of her body’s betrayal, from the desolation of a lover’s abandonment, and from the recurring motif of mortality.

It is, however, the death of Anne Sullivan Macy that most grieves Thompson’s Keller. In “First Entry, After Midnight,” the speaker confesses a “sorrow” that “cannot be/ shaped into a metaphor as [she] tries cheating sharp grief.” By the end of the poem “[w]ords crumble into chaotic sticks. That place before a word taught” Keller “to know” Sullivan, and through Sullivan to know a world she loved deeply and people she internalized through her own fingertips and theirs. Sullivan is not simply her mentor and teacher but the figure that brought language, meaning, knowledge, and humanity to a child who had only known an inner primal silence before Sullivan’s diligent attentions. In the poems that follow, readers find an emergent Keller essaying into the world with her own words “explod[ing]/like river birds.”

If Thompson’s task was to “give a sense of Keller’s simple humanity and great heart,” as she states in the introduction, she’s overshot the mark with a document that serves to re-examine the life of an extraordinary person while creatively expanding the miraculous and globally influential persona of Helen Keller. Thompson’s poems never overtake Keller, but respectfully underscore and elevate the humanity of a woman too-often lost in myth.

Melissa Dickson is a poet and mother of four. Her work has appeared in Shenandoah, North American Review, Southern Humanities Review, Literary Mama, and Southern Women's Review. She holds an MFA in Visual Arts from SVA and an MFA in poetry from Converse College and teaches at the University of West Georgia.

American Happiness
By Jacqueline Trimble
New South Books, 2016
Paperback $21.94, Kindle Edition $9.99


Reviewed by Foster Dickson

The experience of Jacqueline Allen Trimble’s recent poetry collection, American Happiness, begins not with the poems, nor with the prose preface, not even with the table of contents. It begins with that bright yellow cover, headed by its handwriting-font scrawl of the title and below its elementary-style graphics that mimic cut-outs: on a gingham tablecloth, we have a red flowerpot supporting a black plant with a large black bloom whose blue interior petals show the author in various stages of youth. However, I got the sense, the first time I saw it, that the stark and unsmiling little girl in the flower’s yellow center was the one I was not to ignore.

And it is that stoic-looking who we first meet, in Trimble’s preface: “How My Mother Taught Me to Write Poems.” In it, Trimble describes how her mother, “who was actually [her] stepmother,” raised her in the late 1960s with a strong sense of both civil rights and irony— both of which appear as running themes in the collection. By juxtaposing social justice with sarcasm, Trimble makes her point that the idea of happiness, that much sought-after ephemera, might have as many definitions as there are people who seek it.

American Happiness is divided into three sections of relatively equal length, with twelve, ten, and twelve poems, respectively, making for a slim volume to hold in one’s hands. Ironically, we begin with “Closure,” whose opening poem, “Everybody in America Hate the South,” declares to us the poet’s comprehension of the complex scenario in our native region, while also making sure that we understand her sense of humor about the whole thing, by juxtaposing the “ghosts of lunched boys” with “crazy Aunt Hazel who runs naked / through a house full of company shouting / all the foolish things we think but can’t say.” The section continues with equal dimension, reminiscing on the death of her father and the passing of time, while also wondering out loud about our abilities and inabilities in “Did Jean Paul Sartre Ever Ask Simone de Beauvoir to Go to the Winn Dixie?” Trimble navigates the surly world of “Church Women” and deciphers the difficult emotions in an enigmatic image in “Family Photograph: A Conjugation.”

In section two, “The Geography of Passion,” the tone . . . shifts slightly, not into light-ness but perhaps further into humor, further into the longest-known realities of life, further into what we seek by going further into what we struggle against. (After all, the word from which we derive our English word passion means “to suffer.”) Here, we start with Cinderella entering a third, comfortable marriage and soon we glimpse Ingmar Bergman in Cleveland, Ohio. Following those culturally rich, allusive poems are more, as in “So Much That Fascinates Is the Blood,” in which the fate of Julius Caesar is likened to that of the here-nameless Michael Donald, a 1981 lynching victim in Mobile, Alabama. Trimble reaches into our human geography, into those spiritual places that we only dare to finger gingerly. In the Langston Hughes-like rumination, “A Woman Explains the World to Her Children,” she writes:
The world does not owe you
indigo, the quiet charm
of purple love. Lie down and see.
Manna will not fall
to fill your anxious bellow.
and ends with: “Go on and sing while you’re at it. / Might as well.”

In the final section, Jacqueline Allen Trimble addresses present and recent past. We recognize the subjects these sometimes-long titles, which reference the Klan and Selma, No Child Left Behind, even Barbie. Here, Trimble shows us to ourselves, and it is impossible to be pleased or flattered. With a wry sense of humor, the poet’s deft sense of nuance and irony puts together a jagged portrait of “American Happiness,” using media clips, modern slang, and current events as her raw materials. We see the mistreatment of African Americans and of women then and now, and we survey the cultural significance of oft-played imagery that has resulted in the racial profiling of young black men, a gas-station shooting prompted by loud music, the violent abuse of black students in schools, and re-imagined Barbie dolls too buxom for their packaging. These poems drop the pretense of politeness and say what is necessary to say.

The lack of heft in the physical book, American Happiness, may belie its depth of content. As with all good poetry, what is held within it supersedes the physical object. Jacqueline Allen Trimble’s book is well worth the time it takes to engage the poems in side. I read once that “travel is the only thing you buy that makes you richer.” I disagree. Poems like Trimble’s do that, too.

Foster Dickson is a writer, editor, and teacher who lives in Montgomery, Alabama. Foster’s work has centered mainly on subjects related to the American South, the arts & humanities, education, and social justice. His most recent book, Children of the Changing South, was published by McFarland & Co. in 2011. This edited collection (with Foster’s introduction) contains memoirs by eighteen writers and historians who grew up in the South during and after the civil rights movement. The Alabama Writers Forum’s review of the book stated, “Besides being a great read, this collection provides a valuable new perspective on Southern history. ”His book about the Whitehurst Case, a police-shooting controversy in Montgomery, Alabama in the mid-1970s, is forthcoming from NewSouth Books in the summer of 2018.

The Witches of Moonlight Ridge
by Ramey Channell
St. Leonard’s Field, 2016
$12.95, Paperback, $1.99 Kindle Edition

Southern Fiction

Reviewed by Chervis Isom

Ramey Channell has written the most delightful story I’ve read in many years. The story is set in a mountain community in central Alabama and features Lily Claire, the most precocious young girl you would ever want to meet. She is the narrator of this tale and also the protagonist. Her cousin, Willie T, who is the same age as Lily Claire, is her playmate and co-conspirator. I would judge them to be about 10 or 11 years of age. Their curiosity for the unknown leads them to explore parts of Moonlight Ridge that their parents would have forbidden, and, in fact, they did forbid, but curiosity had taken over and urged them on.

The dialect of these two kids from perhaps the 1960s rings true to me, as I too originated in the Alabama hill country. While the dialect of the Alabama hill country folk is Southern, because it originates in the South, it is not the syrupy ”Gone with the Wind” Southern accent normally associated with the South. The accent is more Appalachian in character. And it is a pleasure to hear these kids talk as they go from one adventure to another, oftentimes accompanied by their schoolteacher, the curious and inquisitive Erskine Batson.

At first, their adventures on Moonlight Ridge were innocent enough. There was some indication that there might be witches somewhere on the mountain, though that seemed far-fetched. But then the reader learns about Moor’s Gap Road on the mountain where at one time long ago, a man owned an inn at the stagecoach stopping place. That inn had been closed for many years and was thought by many locals who lived on the mountain to be a haunted house, because of the murder by a posse of lawmen of a highwayman who had come to visit the innkeeper’s daughter, in a chilling story reminiscent of Alfred Noyes poem, “The Highwayman.” The famous poem written over a hundred years ago was well known to local people who recognized the connection. An interesting aspect of the tale was the ethnic background of the innkeeper, and his daughter. They were thought to be Moors, a dark people from the north of Africa, who conquered the most of Spain some seven hundred years ago.

The children cannot stay away from the ruins of the old inn which they believed was haunted by the innkeeper’s daughter who was in love with the highwayman. The story comes to an end, and some aspects of the mysteries were solved, but the big question remains: Was there a witch, and, if so, was she truly a witch or was she an angel. Some mysteries are never solved, and in a novel, the mystery must remain.
This is a delightful tale of adventuresome children, but there are more serious aspects as well, including racial prejudice and the efforts of some in the face of prejudice to live by the Golden Rule.
Ramey Channell has done a fine job of drawing and defining her characters, particularly the children. I recommend this book for adolescents and for adults alike.

Chervis Isom is a lawyer in Birmingham, Alabama, and is the author of The Newspaper Boy: Coming of Age in Birmingham, AL, During the Civil Rights Era, a memoir in which he tells stories of his emergence from the narrow world view of the Jim Crow South through the leadership of a kind couple on his newspaper route.

Meteor Shower
by Anne Whitehouse, 2016
Dos Madres Press, 2016

$17, Paper


Reviewed by John Vanderslice

For several years now, through a series of thoughtful and quietly beautiful books, Anne Whitehouse has proven herself to be among the most astute and substantial poets working in the United States. It is difficult to think of another writer who is able to combine delicate, pitch-perfect lyricism with such urgent personal material. Whitehouse’s talents and her gentle wisdom are on full display in her latest collection Meteor Shower, a book that may be her most personal yet—and her most affecting.

Throughout Meteor Shower, Anne Whitehouse proves herself to be that rare poet who is unafraid to be emotionally straightforward, who eschews the glitter of fashionable wordplay for something far more necessary and more lasting: a connection to herself and to the reader. It is as if, in her later years, Whitehouse does not feel she has time to resort to the kind of opaque gimmickry of which younger poets have long been fond. Her material is far too pressing for that. And she wants too badly to do justice to that material. By no means does this result in a poetry that does not sparkle on the page. Whitehouse’s poetry not only sparkles but it illuminates; and not only does it illuminate but it evokes wonder. It is difficult to count the number of lines in this book that will bring a reader to a dead, whispery stop, repeating the lines to himself, relishing their power and their turns of phrase.

In the book’s opening section, Whitehouse revisits herself at younger periods in her life; demonstrating not so much skepticism as fascination and profound acceptance. Indeed, often what she emphasizes is how much of the past is not even past—to paraphrase Faulkner—but eternal. In the title poem of the section she says, with appreciation and even awe,

I was a girl who fell in love with an island.
Each time I’ve left here,
something of that quiet, introspective girl
has lingered behind and never left.
On visits when I come across her
she has never gotten any older.

This slurring of past and present is apparent in other poems too, notably “An Afternoon Nap,” which starts as a harmless rendition of the writer sliding into sleep while vacationing by the sea. Unexpectedly she hears a voice calling out “Mama,” directly to her, “through the green summer, / “across the long years.” Instantaneously, she is thrown upon her life’s history as a mother, its struggles and its delights. The poem finally resolves with the confidence that, however fraught an experience motherhood might have been for her, the speaker can move on now, content that she did her best. The last lines ring with an unavoidable double meaning.

In contentment I lay, not wanting to rouse,
in delicious reverie, as if drunk from lovemaking,
languorous and mellow, ready for the fall.

In other sections, Whitehouse reveals that her past does not always, or even usually, bring to mind sensations of sweetness. Indeed, she suggests a variety of extended traumas: the failure of a friend's marriage, and the charged atmosphere of her childhood home, one ruled by an embittered, isolated father. At the end of the poem “A Backward Glance,” in which the speaker has been reviewing old family photographs, she admits that she finds the photographs not reassuring but frankly misleading:

In these captured moments
everyone is always smiling,
and yet I want to weep
for what will happen to us,
for what has happened already.

And yet, the clear project of the book for Whitehouse is the working through of exactly all that “has happened,” the admitting to it all, both good and bad, and in the process to relieve herself and us of the burden of that past, neutralizing its sting. As she urges in “Delete, Delete”:

Delete the urge to suffer
that twisted me in knots,
delete the need to be right,
to have the last word,
to have my own way.
Knowing that I cannot choose
the way my life will end.

Readers will be comforted to know that Meteor Shower ends with the assertion that the struggles of her past have done Whitehouse and the world and her poetry good. Similarly, it can only do a reader good to pick up this eloquent and nourishing book, to read it slowly, to appreciate its wisdom, and to linger over its delicious lines.

John Vanderslice teaches in the MFA program at the University of Central Arkansas. His historical novel The Last Days of Oscar Wilde is forthcoming in 2018 from Burlesque Press.

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