Kerry Madden-Lunsford and Emily Sutton have written a story that I greatly enjoyed reading to my soon-to-be five year old daughter. The story is set in the Great Smoky Mountains during the 1940s. Written from a third person point of view, the tale is about a five year old girl and her pregnant mother working hard to maintain their family farm while the father is away at war. The young girl, Ernestine, is a hard-working, very determined little girl, who enjoys working alongside her very pregnant mother. Each time she faces a challenge, she says, “I can do it, Mama. I’m five years old and a big girl.” As a parent, those words symbolize a child’s transition from baby to big kid. In this delightful tale, Ernestine is shown milking the family cow and basking in the glory of a successful milking. Her mother, who understands the struggles of maintaining a family farm alone, volunteers to contribute milk to one of their neighbors. The young girl is charged with the task of carrying two jars of milk to her neighbor. Slightly intimidated by the distance, this brave girl is up for the challenge. As she embarks on the lengthy journey, she reminds her mother that she is five years old and a big girl. Thus begins the major narrative of the story.
Using the planets as her guide, this tenacious young lady embarks on her journey. Along the way, young Ernestine hears an seemingly ill-fated noise in the bushes and naturally assumes the worst. However, she meets this obstacle with bravery, reminding herself that she is strong and capable. As she descends deeper into the woods, she continues to hear very unsettling sounds, causing her to scurry. Fortunately, each unsettling sound proves to be nothing more than calm, docile animals. Confident of her abilities, she continues on the journey but, eventually, she accidentally drops one of the milk-filled mason jars. Feelings of disappointment overtake young Ernestine as she arrives at her destination. Ever so understanding, Mrs. Ramsay, welcomes young Ernestine and basks in the gift of a neighbor's milk. As the family celebrates this luxury, they thank young Ernestine and, soon enough, send her home. This young girl is able to prove that she is indeed a 'big girl.'
The infusion of figurative language brings to life each element young Ernestine experiences on her journey. For example, "She carried the jars in an old feed sack close to her heart while the mountains slept like giant elephants under a scattering of stars.” Madden's personification of the mountains as sleeping elephants further illustrates the sense of calm and quiet Ernestine experiences on her quest. Another example is the use of onomatopoeia to depict the sounds of the forest: “...she heard a fearsome grunta-grunta-grunta,” and, “...she heard a snuffa-snuffa- snuffa along the path.” The realistic sounds that you can make as you are reading further create a more compelling and immersive reading atmosphere.
In addition to the colorful language, vivid descriptions, and realistic depiction of life in the 1940s, the motivation to keep trying stands out. Even though Ernestine was faced with a difficult task to complete, she perseveres, even at her young age. My “soon-to-be" five year old daughter thoroughly enjoyed joining me in saying, “I’m five years old. I am a big girl!” She immediately found a connection with our main character. When selecting books to read to my young child I hope that she can make a connection to the text in a positive way. This book definitely provided me with that.
Ernestine’s Milky Way is a phenomenal, realistic depiction of a young heroine surviving her world with tenacity and determination. The young girl, Ernestine, demonstrates traits that kids of any age can relate to. Kerry Madden-Lunsford and Emily Sutton were able to infuse various educational and character building lessons in this carefully written book. Ernestine’s Milky Way will be a hit in any elementary school classroom.
In his debut collection of short stories, Nobody Knows How It Got This Good, Amos Jasper Wright explores the complications of existence in his home state, Alabama. No matter where you travel, every place has a cadence, a rhythm and melody interwoven with the sights, sounds, and people. Alabama, The Heart of Dixie, is a place of incredible soulfulness entangled with bondages, past and present, and Wright’s collection captures that. A Birmingham native, Wright shows readers the South as he sees it, from Walmart parking lots to Jaguar dealerships, suburbs to trailers, the book gives us a taste of what the South looks like today. In the telling of everyday moments captured with a careful eye, Wright reveals the funny, the absurd, the horrific, the human.
This is not a collection that is concerned with the absolution or salvation of a city with a disturbing legacy, but rather investigates what it is to be a city with a disturbing legacy. Wright tackles corruption, financial desperation, environmental disaster, the long shadow of Jim Crow and a host of other issues throughout the sixteen stories in the collection. The narration of all the stories but one are in the first person giving readers a wealth of perspectives. A black man with an Albino son struggles to raise him in an unwelcoming suburb. A chef making meals for the death row condemned grapples with spiritual epiphanies and loss. A city boy runs away from his past, taking up residence on an old rundown plantation that his sister attempts to rescue him from. All of the characters are untamed in some way, each of them an oddity born of the South.
One of the strongest stories in the collection, embodying the collection’s overall themes, “Birmingham Goddamn” centers around a man obsessed with the Civil Rights era. Having taken part in the violence against black folks, the former fireman becomes driven by a monomania to understand the philosophical and historical implications of the Civil Rights movement. The protagonist hopes to make a discovery about humanity. He longs to know that mankind is better than his worst mistakes, that others would have been stronger, would have chosen something different.
Wright relates the sixteen stories in Nobody Knows How It Got This Good with language that is soaring and grandiose. There is hardly anything about his writing that is quiet. In one particularly charged moment, he writes: “He uncapped the bottle of peroxide, dousing it on his holocaust chest, the words GOD HATES FAGS whitely working up a froth as his screams rose like lead balloons in the treetops and a mephitic smoke of birds poured from the branches.” Wright rarely uses a five letter word if he could use one with eight. This expansiveness of language breaths into his descriptions, giving the prose a deep sense of place. Throughout the book the language prompts readers to feel that they actually are somewhere, not just reading about being somewhere.
Wright set out to do something challenging and ambitious by taking on so many varied Southern issues and viewpoints. His writing is at times overwrought, failing to recognize the difference between when a word is necessary and when it is simply self-important. This isn’t because Wright is bombastic, rather he clearly wants his stories to be as full and deep as the people and places he’s writing about. Yet the frequent use of overly complicated words like “sanguinolency”, “anthropophagus”, and “borborygmus”, and phrases like “the echolalia of the fustilarian” at times take away from moments of real candor and warmth of the book. The diction of Nobody Knows How It Got This Good is full of risks, it’s just too bad not all of them paid off. It’s the work of an author still coming into his own, and its proof of a writer going someplace.
Andrew Mollenkof is a first-year fiction MFA candidate at The University of Alabama.
I want this country to inhabit the poetic splendor and formal innovation of Ashley M. Jones' dark // thing. I want everyone and their mother to read it, and no child left behind. But first, I want to thank the author, herself, for poeming the difficult space between blackness, americanism, and power, sparing herself no vulnerability, and clearing the landscape of ennobling lies we tuck into postcards and lullabies.
The poems in this collection are inhabited, lived from within the flesh, situated in the state of Alabama, as Ashley makes clear in "Red Dirt Suite":
"I was born in starry Alabama--
the night mixed me up a blue so sweet
I swallowed it whole."
She writes Birmingham as only the lover can write the beloved--from inside the space of intimate questioning. The poems circle around the power of stereotype to fossilize into known histories and received wisdoms.
The first poem, "Slurret," begins by listing racial slurs, and revealing their relationship to commercial culture:
"You a spade, a spook, an open-mouthed
black pickaninny. Ashy Aunt Jemima,
Americoon, you blue-gummed Beluga.
you cotton-picking jigaboo."
The poet's role in speaking to the past is often nostalgic, and Ashley does not abandon this role entirely. In the section entitled, "Side A: 3rd Grade Birthday Party" (a part of the poem "Slurret"), the poet positions her adult mind alongside her child mind with the memory of "that Blond Birthday Party in the suburbs". This juxtaposition of child and woman recurs in several poems and enriches the texture of remembered events by speaking the lived past into the present where Birmingham zip codes are still "chewed like a wad of gum" to establish one's personhood.
To nostalgia, Ashley adds the poet's crucial role in holding a mirror that enables us to see the parts of ourselves we overlook--like the mess in a room we know well. It is this reflective role of poetry that matters more in a world of clickbait, hot takes, and hashtag prayer chains. And it is this lens that feels so imminently personal and challenging, as in "Sunken Place Sestina", where she explores the price of gentrification "at the hipster food hall that fills Birmingham with gentrified spice", and concludes:
"We add spice--call integration equality; call gentrification progress,
reduce our brothers to pixelated dust, turn heartache into wine,
sink further and further beyond a blindingly bright sky."
Many poems probe the difficult, inhumane options offered to black, citizened persons, whether to assume the role of monster or clown ("maybe we're all just shucking and jiving until our time to die") in the limited repertoire of received roles.
Ashley invigorates the ekphrastic form by placing the poet's eye on archival postcards. "Uncle Remus Syrup Commemorative Lynching Postcard #25" examines the once-popular southern past-time of the public lynching by recreating the scene in a chilling layered collage of language and voices. To read it is to know the monstrous depth of our state's socialization, and to grapple with our shared commitment to celebrate a history that teaches us to dehumanize of black men.
dark // thing's greatest contribution to poetics is not an aesthetic or a lyricism or a memorable love-bite--it is the use of poetry to unmask and reveal stereotypes. By harnessing language to experience in such a richly-textured way, the poet makes clear the power of stereotypes in authoring history, in normalizing oppression with "harmless" dehumanizations that limit what black Americans can imagine of themselves, or expect of their role as citizens.
"(Black) Hair" plays with the sonnet corona in a prose form that weaves through the poet's personal history with black hair, and ends on an encouraging note of self-acceptance. "Recitation" brings magic to the prose poem form by using its density and heft to offer an embodied experience of dressing as Harriet Tubman for a school poetry recitation. Ashley leads us through the cosseted feel of a body that struggles with adenoids and allergies, a throat whose breath betrays in sudden wheezes, a body she must believe but cannot entirely trust. "Imitation of Life" explores how we cannot avoid the tiny terrors, the minute complicities, the tangles of careless reactions that lead to the wreck.
For the poet, perhaps nothing signifies as much as what we do to the bodies of the dead, what we put in the mouths of those who can no longer speak for themselves, or raise their voices to refute us. Although I've found no quick formula for honoring other voices when asking them to speak inside a poem, I am inspired by the way Ashley enables the persons that she personifies and subjects to speak through epigraphs. The lengthy epigraphs quoting Harriet Tubman in "Harriet Tubman Crosses the Mason Dixon for the First Time" and "Avian Abecedarian" position the poems to speak with Tubman rather than for her.
In speaking alongside, or after, Walt Whitman, "Song of My Muhammad" is an absolutely beautiful, fiery testament to the black American experience, as sensed through the black body of Muhammad Ali. It is a hymn that subverts the harm of white supremacy. It is a paean not to the strength of the state or the nation but to the single human being who stands in a ring and readies his gloves.
At her reading in the Birmingham Museum of Art, Ashley prefaced the Harriet Tubman poems by addressing the ghosts in the room. She promised to read "in the spirit of powerful women." In this promise, one holds the spirit and legacy that infuses this collection. In chaos, poetry remains resilient as a source of truth and possibility. A poem is an algorithm of resistance against despair. This book is its pulse.
Alina Stefanescu was born in Romania and lives in Alabama. Her poems and prose are recent or forthcoming in DIAGRAM, New South, Mantis, VOLT, Cloudbank, Prairie Schooner, NELLE, and others. She serves as Poetry Editor of Pidgeonholes, President of the Alabama State Poetry Society, Publicity Chair of AWC, and co-founder of the Magic City Poetry Festival. Her first poetry chapbook, Objects in Vases (Anchor & Plume Press, 2016) won the ASPS Poetry Book of the Year Award. Her first poetry collection, Stories to Read Aloud to Your Fetus (Finishing Line Press, 2017) included Pushcart-nominated poems. Her debut fiction collection, Every Mask I Tried On, won the Brighthorse Books Prize and was published in May 2018. More online at www.alinastefanescuwriter.com or @aliner.
Thirty years after Mojo Nixon’s “Elvis is Everywhere” commemorated the tenth anniversary of the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll’s sad demise, the Big E is as ubiquitous as ever. In 2018 two stellar documentaries challenged stereotypes about his career and cultural relevance, Thom Zimny’s The Searcher and Eugene Jarecki’s The King. NBC recently aired an all-star tribute for the fiftieth anniversary of the still-electric’68 Comeback Special, and the latest RCA compilation, Where No One Stands Alone, proves the artist was as important to gospel as to the devil’s music.
In Alabama we’ve enjoyed not one but now two Elvis-centric novels. Following Mike Burrell’s Land of Grace, comes Philip Shirley’s The Graceland Conspiracy, an ingenious mystery that pirouettes between “Elvis is Alive” myths to the nefarious machinations of a government agency called the National Security Enforcement Office. NESO is as ominously Nixonian as an acronym can sound, conjuring up images of the espionage paranoia of James Grady and Richard Condon popular when the last two hits the Pelvis enjoyed in his lifetime, “Moody Blue” and “Way Down,” were gyrating (somewhat arthritically) up the charts. You could almost call this taut ricochet through Watergate-era conspiracy history Six Days of the 50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong.
As Presleyites might suspect, Shirley’s starting point is that bizarre Oval Office meeting between Elvis and Nixon in December 1970 (itself the subject of a recent movie). News of that intersection of politics and pop culture didn’t filter out for a couple of years (as the novel notes), and it was even longer—the mid-1980s—before the iconic photo of the odd couple was ever viewed, much less reprinted endlessly on T-shirts and postcards. For Shirley, Elvis’s ambition to be a DEA narc inveigles him with that other pivotal 1970s’ fascination, the mafia, ultimately putting him in the sights, literally, of NESO. “Who Killed Elvis?” was one of the great parlor games of the Carter/Reagan age, and the favorite answer was, “Nobody … because he ain’t really dead.” Shirley has clearly done his research into the far reaches of the Spotted-at-the-Kalamazoo-Burger-King urban legends that diminished the King’s reputation for decades: one of the joys of the novel is its reference to Gail Brewer Giorgio, the godmother of the Elvis-Still-Walks-Among-Us movement. Her bizarre 1978 sci-fi novel Orion first proposed that the King faked his death and led to a kooky bibliography of kitsch titles like The Elvis Files.
Not that The Graceland Conspiracy is a Woodward-and-Bernstein throwback. It’s set circa 1997, with a disgruntled Gen X’er, Matt Boykin, untangling the involvement of both his and his erstwhile girlfriend Kristine’s Howard-and-Dorothy-Hunt-esque parents in Elvis’s death. The timeframe makes for a double dose of nostalgia, taking us back to the early days of Googling, when people still used Yahoo and DVDs. And while Shirley masterfully weaves readers through Birmingham landmarks, large chunks of the book stretch convincingly to Mexico and Italy.
To pinch a line from Paul Simon, fans of thrillers and Elvis alike can have reason to believe their expectations will be well-received in The Graceland Conspiracy.
Let me propose here that Jake Berry’s new collection of poems, Trilogy: Kenosis, is both an eloquent argument for what remains possible on the page and a splendid exemplar of that very possibility. As ever, Berry’s essential project braids together philosophical sophistication, linguistic invention, and an old-fashioned delight in the work of poetry itself.
The first of three sections, “Scale,” is a kind of formal mediation on the spiritual poetics of postmodernity. At once theological, archaeological, and musicological, these seven gestures open an inquiry into the secret nature of our poetics. Like the poems of its brilliant dedicatee, Gregory Vincent St. Thomasino, “Scale” searches for, excavates, and claims (in the name of goodness and deep truth) certain unmapped spaces of hermetic lyricism. Berry’s capacity for poetic utterance is admirable indeed not least for the way in which it transmutes the received tropes of self-disclosure and torques the language of epiphany:
out from – sheltering
as the lungs
across the bed
toward zero (face to face)
This is our habitation
along the way
dust on our
a shoulder blade
inscribed in Greek
(as was the Orphic inclination):
body σῶμα soma
water ὕδωρ hudor
spirit πνεῦμα pneuma
an octave apart
a spike in the earth
There is, of course, an urgent human narrative here and indeed in the entire collection. Death and its attendant transfigurations haunt this book. We feel it as much in the line breaks and internal stresses as in the declarative aspects of the poems, which are nonetheless arresting:
with an essential,
more than knowledge
more than life
one step beyond
“A Second Octave” stages a further modulation of Berry’s philosophical-spiritual exploration. And if the turn here is more inward, it is perhaps also more emotionally explicit. It is among this fine book’s many high achievements that the confessional is never conventional but, rather, always framed inside the dual expressive motifs of a searching mind and a singing heart. I find here, a discernible invocation of Charles Olson’s lines “As the dead prey upon us / they are the dead in ourselves.” And as these are inscribed for yet another extraordinary dedicatee (and an important Olson scholar), I might point as well to the complexity and range of reference in Berry’s poems. Folks, here is a book informed by an architecture of formal design and the architectonics of metaphysical unity:
for Jack Foley
Out of death –
such abundant nothingness –
a fire is lit
in the imagination
(who understands this mysterious capacity?)
Even the seeds we do not want
spring to life
when he was taken from us
even though we did not know
who or what he was
All those dead
But our sorrow
cannot prevent spring arriving
“Kenosis,” the titular and final section, is, in some sense not only the center out of which the whole book spins but also the singularity to which it finally returns. Dedicated to yet a third essential artist, David Thomas Roberts, the language here fuses the energies of the previous sections in a dramatic synthesis of stentorian pronouncement and oracular vision:
To surrender completely, utterly
To be broken
as the earth is broken
as the seed is broken
and surrenders its spirit
so the sky is broken
and the rain pours down
We have every reason to celebrate the courage implicit in the title’s meaning for contemporary poetics and the vanguard of postmodern spirituality. Moreover, we might also envy Berry’s willingness to investigate those originary forces and the ways they animate his work. I do not know what we must surrender or how, but my own intellect and faith tell me that Berry is showing us something we need to see. Withal, Kenosis is an elegant, daring, and beautifully honest work. Berry says that “memory is the past made sacred.” I believe this book does the same for the presence of language itself.
Carey Scott Wilkerson—a dramatist, Pushcart Prize-nominated poet, and author of four opera libretti—is Assistant Professor Creative Writing at Columbus State University.
Closed Ranks is a powerful and methodical memoir that captures a wrongful historical account of the untold murder of Bernard Whitehurst Jr., an African American man who was senselessly killed on December 2, 1975 by a white officer on the Montgomery police force.
Foster Dickson brilliantly presents the institutional corruption that had become entrenched in the South during a time that is now seared in our nation’s memory. His personal narrative reveals the countless acts of deception orchestrated by the Montgomery Police Department to mask police brutality towards an innocent and unarmed man mistaken for a robbery suspect.
During the period immediately following the peak of the Civil Rights Movement, several political antics occurred amongst the City of Montgomery councilmen, and within the purview of local law enforcement. Substantial evidence pertaining to the convoluted case was prohibited and never voluntarily disseminated to the Whitehurst family, which in retrospect, created a difficult time for the family to put in perspective.
Within this captivating narrative, Dickson illustrates the ways in which this controversial case came to be a conundrum of sorts, as he delves deeper into his research through interviews, police reports, and judicial documents. Through a laborious pursuit of the truth, Dickson meticulously uncovers the sobering, untold story on behalf of the Whitehurst family.
This astounding work recalls a time in history when racially charged comments and actions were far more prominent than today, and appallingly, taken as a matter of course in daily life. The Whitehurst family was at a disadvantage, to say the least, to seek justice against the perpetrator who left their guiltless loved one lifeless.
In addition, the family faced a further legal difficulty, that many citizens at the time considered unconstitutional. During the 1970’s, a law was permitted, the “fleeing felon rule,” allowing police officers to open fire on a “fleeing felon.” Protected by the judicial system, Donald Foster was never demoted, fired, or charged with a crime.
Bernard Whitehurst Jr., a husband and father of four, never received lawful justice, nor did his family receive compensation from the scandalous bloodshed that took place over four decades ago. The family finally received a formal and long-overdue apology in the summer of 2012. Despite the darkness and despair endured from such an inconceivable event, this gripping saga closes with the celebratory tribute that took place in 2016 to honor the life and legacy of Bernard Whitehurst Jr.
Throughout his text, Dickson vividly recaptures the shocking event, paying homage to the Whitehurst family. His unique and image-rich style will impel readers of all races and creeds to take an intimate look into a period of notorious inequality. Dickson delivers his content precisely, leaving the reader with a clear and well-organized interpretation of the events as they took place. The structure of the text itself allows the reader to easily follow the storyline of the case.
Potentially, the vast collection of political names and dates during the political period may confuse and overwhelm readers, possibly diverting from the narrative itself. However, Dickson is keen to present hard facts, and all “secondary” or supplemental materials is never less than helpful in clarifying this often-complex case.
Closed Ranks is an engaging and fascinating read thanks to Dickson’s meticulous research which incorporates a vast backlog of legal documents and reports. His resourcefulness and the care with which he handles his material goes to considerable, and admirable, lengths in affording Bernard Whitehurst Jr. the justice he did not receive during his life.
Mend is history – as with all history, the harshest aspects are either untold or fibbed about by the profiteer. Few moments of America’s past were recorded properly – especially in terms of effect on women, particularly black women. While Maples uses persona poetry to give voice to women in this collection, the tellings aren’t overdone or in any way fictionalized for excess. Instead, they are humanized and shown for more than bodies afflicted by fistula.
The women who speak in these poems were slaves who had their bodies loaned to Dr. James Marion Sims of Mt. Meigs, Alabama in the years between 1845 and 1849 for gynecological experimentation in an attempt to cure vaginal tears. They did not give their consent and of the eleven bodies which underwent wildly invasive and unethical surgical experiments, only three of the women in Sims’ autobiography, “The Story of My Life,” were named: Anarcha, Betsey, and Lucy. Maples allows their perspectives to be told with careful respect for detail and clear mining of any historical accuracy which could be researched. She delivers their memories in simple language that is colloquially true to the location and time period, as in “Mt. Meigs Arrival,” but also with a lyrical vibrancy that at times soothes before urging the reader to be enraged.
“It’s the most city I’ve ever seen.
When we ride up to the big-house,
the land has all the things I know:
unseen crickets off somewhere,
and the air is the same sweet I’ve known my whole life.”
Mingled in between poems are a few direct quotes by way of Sims’ autobiography; interestingly enough, they’re the only bits which seem molded for purpose. They work well in juxtaposition to the poems that follow.
”[…] and of course, her life was one of suffering and disgust. Death would have been preferable. But patients of this kind never die; they must live and suffer.” - Dr. Sims
Maples follows his coldness with the poem, “A Thousand Cats” – cats, a south Alabama slang used for ‘vagina’. The delivery of this poem hits at a needed time early in Mend, showing the women possess not only resilience, but that they also see the doctor for what he is: less interested in curing their ailments, but eager for the title he’ll receive for doing so.
One of the most interesting aspects of the book is Maples’ choice to write in voices that are under the influence of opium – given to the women for pain management, but also caused both confusion and memory loss. This manifests believably in the sequenced sonnets, aptly titled “What Yields.”
“We nod off like pine trees as you
stitch. Always sighing, you hover
over us. Fool, we know you will never
be done, […]”
It would prove difficult to point to favorite pieces in Mend, as all are important and build upon each other phenomenally; however, I’ll say I was most drawn to the sonnets. These occupy the purest reflections of Anarcha, whose straightforward but stunning language give the collection its fiercest strength. Lines such as “Bodies above virtue are never black” jarred me and have stayed with me long after finishing Mend.
Rotting fruit is the take-away image in these poems. Referenced several times across the book, it’s a pertinent way to see the flawed value these women held to science; they were to be used for a white man’s professional sustenance, rather than willing contributors to a broader understanding.
“We are rotting fruit, yet our bodies yield.
How easily we yield to you, for you.
We slide into our poses, blossoming.
You examine our stalks for blight, mildew
and rust. One morning your eyes examine
the field and we are ripe.”
Maples ends the above poem with Anarcha saying, “We must yield, even if you lie to reap.” The calm reserve, layered with pre-implied anger and trauma, amplifies that which the women know they can’t escape but will survive. Before the book leaves you to your thinking, the notion of joy as resistance appears: a reminder that not everything can be taken for another’s use.
With Mend, Kwoya Fagin Maples is equal parts teacher and poet: releasing a part of history that needed to be told, she’s brought dignity and light to the women of Mt. Meigs; further, she’s urging readers to learn and listen, to not repeat the ugliness hidden in our white-washed past. This is a must-read book for anyone, timeless and worth any praise Maples may yet garner for it.
Rachel Nix is a poet in north Alabama and serves as an editor for cahoodaloodaling, Hobo Camp Review, and Screen Door Review.
Alabama is a river state. That simple statement becomes abundantly clear in showing how Alabama’s history, ancient to modern, connects our rivers to who we are and where we are going. Forces of nature and human activities have profoundly shaped our rivers, and whether or not we appreciate it, our rivers are now shaping us.
So declares author Bill Deutsch, near the beginning of the enchanting — and, to anyone who professes to love Alabama, downright essential — Alabama Rivers: A Celebration and Challenge. Retired from a long career as a teacher, aquatic ecologist and professional proponent of the economic and cultural value of Alabama’s most ubiquitous resource, Deutsch knows whereof he speaks.
In hands less intimately engaged in the subject matter and a voice less engrossingly knowledgeable, this book might have been a pedestrian recitation of facts and statistics, dressed up with a sprinkling of anecdotal garnish. But Deutsch places Alabama’s rivers in compelling context as the point of connection for every aspect of the state’s history and development, from the arrival of the first humans more than 12,000 years ago to the present day. His joyously-earned expertise, along with a deep and abiding love of his home state, infuses the book’s every sentence.
And it’s not just history. Alabama Rivers takes in the geography, geology, topography, hydrology and biodiversity of the state’s major river basins — the Alabama, Black Warrior, Cahaba, Chattahoochee, Coosa, Tallapoosa, Tennessee and Tombigbee, the Coastal Plain and the Mobile Delta — which comprise nearly five dozen rivers and well over 300 creeks, forks, prongs, branches, bayous and bogues.
Nor does Deutsch neglect the tremendous economic and cultural significance of Alabama’s rivers. People divide, water connects, he writes, culminating an overview of the role of rivers in the evolution of commercial activities, population growth, flood control and the development of hydropower, recreation and tourism and public health.
On the cultural side, Deutsch notes that “[Alabama’s] art, music, and folklore depict rivers in a variety of ways, from transporting goods to being baptized.” In the section of the book titled “Celebrating Alabama’s Rivers,” he singles out “native sons and daughters” who have distinguished themselves nationally and internationally, including civil rights icon Rosa Parks, renowned biologist and conservationist Edward O. Wilson, baseball legend Willie Mays and a host of others, from Helen Keller to Hank Williams.
Finally, Deutsch writes compellingly of the environmental and ecological challenges, both natural and manmade, affecting the present and future of the state’s waterways. Documenting the necessary interactions of government, the free market and civil society, and the positive and negative impacts of those interactions on politics and policies affecting Alabama rivers, he strongly encourages readers to become personally involved in river-related work, which he divides into the categories of awareness and education, protection and restoration, and advocacy and policy.
The economic benefits of Alabama’s rivers are growing, Deutsch asserts. The challenge is to keep rivers healthy by protecting water quality and quantity for both humans and aquatic organisms.
Ultimately, the thread that ties together the impressive breadth of subject matter in Alabama Rivers — that keeps the current of information and entertainment flowing, so to speak — is the author himself. Deutsch has a companionable style that draws the reader in and allows the writer to casually deliver facts of sometimes startling import. To wit:
• Alabama is the most biodiverse state east of the Mississippi River, and leads the nation in the most species of fish, turtles, mussels, freshwater snails, crayfish and caddisflies.
• Up to 250,000 Native Americans may have been living in Alabama prior to the decimation of as much as 90 percent of the population by diseases — measles, smallpox, chickenpox and various forms of influenza — introduced by explorers and early settlers.
• Alabama receives the third-most annual rainfall in the continental United States.
• All seats of state government in Alabama history have been in river towns: St. Stephens (Tombigbee), Huntsville (Tennessee), Cahawba (Cahaba), Tuscaloosa (Black Warrior) and Montgomery (Alabama).
And those are just for starters. For anyone who wants to know more about Alabama, and especially for those who care about its human and natural resources, its past, present and future, Bill Deutsch’s Alabama Rivers is a treasure and a delight.
Mark Kelly is a Birmingham-based writer whose latest book, Back to Nature: A History of Birmingham’s Ruffner Mountain, will be published early in 2019.
Grandeur of the Everyday: The Paintings of Dale Kennington
Edited by Daniel White, et al
Trade Cloth $29.95, E-Book $29.95
Reviewed by Jason Gordy Walker
In Grandeur of the Everyday, contemporary realist Dale Kennington captures transformative moments within seemingly mundane scenes, giving her audience access to the overlooked intimacies of daily living. The book covers the major works of her career and features an introduction to the artist by Daniel White, a lively interview by Kristen Miller Zohn detailing Kennington's idiosyncratic process, and an engaging essay by Rebecca Brantley discussing this American master's background, her greatest motifs, and inspirations, such as Parisian café culture and modern architecture. Kennington paints human subjects with an objective yet sympathetic eye, aiming for the accuracy of photography while simultaneously inserting her own subjectivity. Many of her works, especially those depicting one or two human subjects or an unoccupied space, recall the atmospherically lit scenes of Edward Hopper. Indeed, like Hopper, Kennington presents the mysteries of the quotidian without falling into banality, and her success relies as much on her love of local and global communities as it does on her technical prowess.
One of Kennington's best paintings, Passing Ships, presents a vision of the ideal café, one where everyone shares the same physical space despite the fact that each person is on a different path in life. The painting presents a life-affirming frame around the stories that each of these café people represent. The emotion in their faces and their postures suggests the possibility of rich inner lives. Kennington conveys a lightness in tone as she accurately paints rays of sunlight over the tops of a table, a beam, a chair. However, the artist lets the viewer decide what each café person represents; it is such fruitful ambiguity that helps Kennington persuade her viewers to finish the painting, so to speak, for her. Admirers of Passing Ships will also find similarities of theme and tone in A Little Time and Space, which considers the pleasure of privately reading while sharing space in public with a stranger.
Kennington's passion for painting public scenes reaches its zenith with Friends and Neighbors, a photorealistic piece showing the Ku Klux Klan in full uniform during the daytime. The artist's use of light is telling; the effect being that many of these terrifying racists are otherwise so-called normal people, perhaps the neighbors we greet at church on Sunday morning or the teenager who walks our dog to earn cash for the weekend. By showing with honesty the racism present in her time, Kennington directs us to consider the destructive impact that racism has had on our current version of America, forcing even the most casual viewer to feel a flurry of emotions including anger, grief, outrage, or sorrow.
In her later period, Kennington began painting with oil on large wooden panels, juxtaposing quiet architectural scenes on the verso with busy, human-filled pictures on the recto. For example, in Ritual for the Dead, the viewer experiences the foreboding silence of an empty, snowy graveyard on the verso before they are lost in the crowd of well-dressed funeral attendees on the recto. Beware of the Dog continues this ironic approach as it presents a lone black dog who seems to be immersed in the art on the wall of an upper-tier museum; meanwhile, on the other side of the frame, a large crowd mingles at the museum's entrance. The whole piece acts as a critique on art culture, suggesting with a wink that an innocent dog knows more about art than the beautiful people do.
In Grandeur of the Everyday, Kennington's major works speak for themselves. Her knowledge of place--the Deep South, as well as Europe, particularly France--informs her every creation. She produces accessible and refined art, juxtaposing interior and exterior spaces to produce myriad tones and undertones. Many of her paintings are based off of her own photographs, and any serious fan of realism ought to find something to admire in them. Her attention to anatomy is astonishing, too, as exemplified in the few nudes included in the book, not to mention the imaginative portraits scattered throughout the volume. Likewise, no detail is spared when she paints objects such as lamps, posters, tables, chairs, towels, vehicles, and so on. The state of Alabama is lucky to have Kennington as a model artist--and, with this book, her legacy is confirmed.
Jason Gordy Walker's poems and stories have been published in Measure, Confrontation, Monkeybicycle, Poetry South, Hawaii Pacific Review, Broad River Review, Town Creek Poetry, and others. Recently, he received scholarships from the West Chester Poetry Conference and Poetry by the Sea: A Global Conference.
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.
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 Ruth, 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.
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
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
Genre: 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 existence...it 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
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.