The Myth of Water
By Jeanie Thompson
University of Alabama Press, 2016
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.
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
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.
by Anne Whitehouse, 2016
Dos Madres Press, 2016
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.
By Brad Watson
W. W. Norton, 2016
Reviewed by Don Noble
It was 1996 when Brad Watson published Last Days of the Dog-Men, which won the Sue Kaufman Award; 2002 for his novel, The Heaven of Mercury, runner-up for the National Book Award; and 2010 for the story collection Aliens in the Prime of their Lives, a finalist for the 2011 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction—an average of seven years between books. William Styron’s books, such as The Confessions of Nat Turner and Sophie’s Choice, are spaced about the same way. Although this is not how a writer becomes a household name, Watson doesn’t let them go until they are right. There should be more of this. Read the complete review…
By Carey Link
Mule on a Ferris Wheel Press, 2016
Reviewed by Harry Moore
A Fairer House Than Prose
I dwell in Possibility—
a fairer House than Prose—.
The thirty-eight free-verse lyrics of Carey Link’s Awakening to Holes in the Arc of Sun probe a world of ambiguity, tension, struggle, and pervasive beauty. Beyond all else, the poems affirm and celebrate the transforming power of poetic imagination. Read the complete review…
Reviewed by Anita Miller Garner
Lee Smith published her first novel The Last Day the Dogbushes Bloomed forty-seven years ago. Since, she has published thirteen novels—more than one making the NYT bestsellers list—and four collections of short fiction. The fifteen concise, artful essays in Dimestore are her first book-length collection of nonfiction, and the glimpses they give us into her life, the writing process, and the American South are in turn artful and funny, poignant and prophetic. Read the complete review…
Reviewed by Ed Reynolds
Willie G. Moseley, senior writer for Vintage Guitar Magazine, has recently written an excellent history of Peavey guitars. In Peavey Guitars: The Authorized American History, Moseley presents guitar aficionados with a detailed study of the evolution of the Peavey Electronics Corporation, focusing primarily on the company’s line of guitars and bass instruments. With a background working in his father’s music store in Meridian, Mississippi, in the 1950s (his father did not like electric guitars, instead preferring acoustic instruments) and playing guitar in local combos, Hartley Peavey began his company with an $8,000 loan from his dad after graduating from Mississippi State with a business degree in 1965. Peavey earlier attended Ross Collins Vocational School before entering seventh grade, receiving an age-waiver because his great-uncle—the fellow who invented hydraulic lifts for automobiles though failing to get it patented, thus missing out on a fortune—was an instructor. The kid studied mechanical drawing, radio repair, and how to operate milling machines and lathes. Read the complete review…
Reviewed by Tina Mozelle Braziel
Reading Lauren Goodwin Slaughter’s a lesson in smallness reminds me of Jane Hirshfield’s statement about poetry: “…true poems, like true love, undo us, and un-island. Contrary, sensual, subversive, they elude our customary allegiance to surface reality, purpose, and will.” The poetry in this lovely debut collection are true poems of this sort. They immerse the reader in stunning water imagery and thrill her with peeks (three poems!) inside the life of the Barefoot Contessa. More significantly, this collection raises essential questions about the nature of our personal lives: Who are we within them? How do we reconcile our expectations for our lives with what we find to be our reality? It is the examination of these questions that reveal Slaughter’s poems to be as emotionally astute as they are beautifully crafted. Read the complete review…
There is a good case to be made for not writing biographies until the subject is dead. Feelings are inevitably hurt. The subject’s family and friends may learn things they don’t need to know. Coach Nick Saban may not like being the subject of this book, but the question most asked about Saban is “What is he really like and how did he get that way?’’ and Monte Burke’s book makes the best attempt yet to answer the question and in a pretty responsible way. Saban did not authorize this book and sit for hours of interviews, but neither, it seems, did he actively try to squelch it. Read the complete review…
Reviewed by Jim Murphy
“Why do I love such a city / as this?” asks the observant and bemused speaker of TJ Beitelman’s “Why I Love a City” from the Birmingham author’s just-published second book of poems, Americana. The thought continues: “Do mosquitoes have thumbs? They / should. Where is Carl Sandburg when you / need him? Who are my hog butchers?” Here, and in so many ingenious and surprising places in the volume, Beitelman carefully observes and good-naturedly questions the dreams and realities of Americans and their lore, mindfully engaging all the earnestness and kitsch of the culture in the best traditions of America’s great city poets. Walt Whitman, Frank O’Hara, Elizabeth Bishop, Kenneth Koch—and of course, Carl Sandburg—are all present here one way or another, and their collective influence is put to fine use in conversation with Beitelman’s own distinct, contemporary voice. Read the complete review…
By Rex Burwell
Livingston Press, 2015
$17.95, Paper; $30,Hardcover,
Reviewed by Ed Reynolds
With a title like Capone, the Cobbs, and Me, (and featuring photos of Al Capone, Ty Cobb, and Cobb’s drop-dead gorgeous wife Charlene on the cover), the reader is intrigued right off the bat. The story told within doesn’t disappoint, either. The “Me” hanging out with Capone, his thugs, and the Cobbs is a Chicago White Sox catcher named Mort Hart who quickly falls in love with Cobb’s wife. Hart is second in hitting percentage in the Roaring ’20s when a knee injury places him on the disabled list. Hart also happens to be the only major leaguer with a law degree. The ballplayer’s life suddenly catapults into spellbinding adventure when Baseball Commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis needs someone special to investigate Capone’s fixing outcomes of ballgames using Cobb. Read the complete review…
Reviewed by Don Noble
Birmingham writer Kerry Madden is fond of saying, in fiction for young people the writer should run her protagonist up a tree and then throw rocks at her. One assumes none of these rocks will hit her in the head and kill her. Gin Phillips follows this pattern. Her heroine, the eleven-year-old Olivia, has just moved with her mom from their home in Charleston, South Carolina, to downtown Birmingham where they moved in with Gram in her condo. Read the complete review…
Reviewed by Don Noble
Among the Swamp People is a combination of memoir, nature writing and personal essay. Key, raised in Point Clear on Mobile Bay, writes of his nearly life-long fascination with the Mobile-Tensaw Delta at the north end of the bay. This is the Lower Delta, not to be confused with the Upper Delta. The Upper, he tells us, has more high ground and taller trees. The Lower is swamp. If you are thrown from your boat, or capsize—and you might as there are numerous stumps, submerged logs, and boats with no lights—or are lost overnight, “it will be almost impossible not to come across an alligator or, worst of all, a cottonmouth…cottonmouths are aggressive and extremely poisonous snakes. There are thousands of them….” Read the complete review…
Reviewed by Don Noble
T.K. Thorne’s last novel, Noah’s Wife, published in 2011, is set in northern Turkey, near the Black Sea in 5500 BCE. The book is the story of Na’amah, a young woman with unusual powers. Thorne has done, once again, a prodigious amount of research in Jewish and Islamic texts. The novel convincingly recreates the dwellings, utensils, food, business practices, and religious beliefs of the age. Although based on a few Bible verses people are familiar with, this tale is fully imagined and takes great liberties with the Bible story. Lot, for example, is not the virtuous fellow Genesis makes him out to be, not at all. Read the complete review…