By: Sean Hill
Reviewed by: Bruce Alford
The University of Georgia Press, 2008
The cover illustration of Sean Hill’s debut collection is a striking detail from a watercolor, circa 1939, by Frank Stanley Herring. A crowd of “colored” people, leaning on trees or sitting on benches, blends into a storefront. The buildings are copper-colored and deep red. Shades of red, from strawberry to rich rust, dominate. This is Milledgeville, Georgia, the setting of Hill’s book. Specifically, this is McIntosh Street—as red as a McIntosh apple—named for a Scottish clan whose tartans were chiefly red. “McIntosh Street the sign reads,” writes Hill in the poem entitled “Nigger Street 1937.”
Black people have settled here and transformed the place into something that surpasses the single shade the street sign implies. Now the street is red like:
redeye gravy on grits
at Gus’s or red like stoplights
but they’re also green and yellow
like apples in Allen’s Market
on the corner and red like
those powders and syrups kept
behind the counter at Doc’s
pharmacy . . .
Hill uses such details to show how the music, food, and rituals of African-Americans have transformed Milledgeville.
This is poetry as history. We learn that in 1833 a slave saved the State House from being burned to the ground. We see how the desegregation of Baldwin County schools in 1970 affected a black fifth grader, and we learn of the 1946 lynching of two young married African American couples.
This history is conveyed through a varied range of forms—from relatively loose prose to more formal, complex structures such as sestinas (poems of six six-line stanzas) and aubades (poems celebrating or greeting the dawn).
The selections chronicle a history usually missing from textbooks that focus narrowly on events, movements, and important figures.
For example, the poem “Aunt Flo and Uncle Phineas” captures the relaxed feel of a southern summer afternoon:
Sitting around the kitchen table
sipping moonshine—a taste from
their youth to take back North
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Relaxing on the screened-in porch Florence’s smoky voice
scratches my back like the back scratchers
they brought down that we duel with.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Sitting on the porch steps outside the screen, the old
earshot, I eat watermelon and spit seeds . . . .
To use the poet’s words, these poems are snapshots “for portraiture and preservation.”
One of the more valuable moves Hill often makes is to invite us to compare our lives with those of his characters. In “Auspice,” Hill juxtaposes a bucolic image (wind in treetops, crape myrtle blossoms blushing, mockingbirds singing) with the foreboding violence of World War I (pilots in training): “For the first time under Heaven / men fly over Milledgeville / . . . . They will soon go to war.”
This kind of side-by-side placing invites contemplation of our lives, and their possible trajectories and, in turn, invokes “a cascade into a tomorrow.”
This ability to preserve while projecting is a valuable function of poetry. It makes Blood Ties & Brown Liquor an important book, one of lasting significance. May 2010
Bruce Alford is an assistant professor of creative writing at the University of South Alabama.