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Sunday, April 11, 2010

POEM OF THE DAY: SOUTHERN FICTIONS

After hearing the Governor of Virginia announcing Confederate History Month (no mention of slavery) and reading John Meacham's op-ed in The New York Times this morning, I decided my sonnet sequence taking on this topic would be Poem of the Day. This also follows a long facebook "thread" begun by Marilyn Kallet about narrative in Southern Poetry. Regardless of poetic fashion, there are still stories that have to be told.

Southern Fictions

...human kind
Cannot bear very much reality.

T.S. Eliot, Burnt Norton
1.

My father drapes his battle-flag across
a back room window. If I tried to tell
him why I wish he wouldn’t, I’d have hell
to pay. Or else I’d end up sounding crass
and smug. It’s just not worth it. Let it pass.
I squelch my fury at this flag and all
it means, the stubbornness, the pride, the gall
of my own people trying hard to pass
the buck, as if what happened never did
exactly, or even if it did, it doesn’t mean
what “they” think: something awful-- racist swill
and all that liberal junk. I know the truth hid
out those days in silence, but, what does it mean,
this flag? Refusal to admit our guilt?




2.

I don’t know. I still can’t get it right,
the way those dirt roads cut across the flats
and led to shacks where hounds and muddy shoats
skulked roundabouts. Describing it sounds trite
as hell, the good old South I love to hate.
The truth? What’s that? How should I know?
I stayed inside too much. I learned to boast
of stupid things. I kept my ears shut tight,
as we kept doors locked, windows locked,
the curtains drawn. Now I know why.
The dark could hide things from us. Dark could see
while we could not. Sometimes those dirt roads shocked
me, where they ended up: I watched a dog die
in the ditch. The man who shot him winked at me.




3.

While good ole boys lit out with baseball bats,
I dawdled in the bathroom staring at my face
a long time in the mirror. Saw no trace
of beauty there, so counted zits. Sighed. That
was that. Another self-examination, the last
of that day, as it turned out. My father’s place
was empty at the table. My mother paced
the kitchen, and we worried until half past
when we heard his pickup churning over ruts.
He slammed the door too hard. He walked too slow.
We watched him mouthing words we couldn’t hear.
When he came in, he said Nobody had the guts
to say go home. He shook his head and told how
those boys with their bats had bullied blacks clear


to the county line, yelling don’t come back
again. My father drove home, in his head
the words he might have said. They aren’t bad
boys, he told us. Just misguided. The right tack
to have taken would be father-like and ask
them if they knew what they had done. Instead
he’d not said anything. He picked at bread
set out for sandwiches. The black
girl come to clean house stood outside
calling, Here I am. We pitched our voices low
and changed the subject. Cleared the table, let
her in. My father sat there for the longest time
still brooding. That was forty years ago.
I wait. This story isn’t finished yet.



4

When the feminist poet flew down from New York,
I drove her back to campus, an hour’s
easy drive. We chatted all the way there,
mostly politics. I liked her so much I shored
up my courage and told her of the work
those boys had done, the childish way they
bragged, how no one had the nerve to say
shut up. She misinterpreted my words,
assuming I had suffered in the midst
of bigotry, silently doing my very best
to row against the tide. It sounded so good
I kept quiet, ashamed to say I’d been no activist.
That I’d done nothing, joined no protests,
felt no guilt. Had seen no reason why I should.


5.


However poor we are, we aren’t black,
said a neighbor. That was bedrock, solid ground,
the core of our identity. The one unyielding fact
of life. As long as we had them around,
we had someone to look down on and that
was hard to come by those days when the sound
of insults on the newscasts made what
we’d become to outside eyes come clear: clods
from the bottom of the backwoods.
Does my voice shake when I read my verse
outside the South, for fear I seem a dunce
or worse? Yes, I’m ashamed to to say. I’ve stood
beside some famous poets and wished my words
could sound as if I came from somewhere else.



FIRST PUBLISHED IN CALLALOO (CONFEDERATE FLAG ISSUE)

17 comments:

Vagabonde said...

I like your poem. When Jimmy Carter offered a job to my husband I did not want to come to the south as I heard so many negative comments about it, but we came and that was decades ago. I wished we had gone back to Paris but not because we live in the south, but because the whole country has turned so conservative and over religious – the Tea Baggers, the Fundamentalist Rights, they are in Alaska, Montana,in the South and other states too. I tried to find out the history of the south and realized that it was not all black and white really. The beginning of the war was about states’ rights and over taxation and then slavery was added later mostly so Europe would not help the south militarily. It did not have to turn into war. Slavery is not mentioned in the north, but it was there too. I do not defend the south but I find that Americans who do not live here are not objective; they do not look at the whole picture. It is interesting to read how the African Americans were not helped by the government after the Civil War as they had been promised. The south was wrong, but the north was wrong too. And you know, there is still slavery in the world today. My first job in the US would have been with a black firm, but when they found out I was not black, they did not want me – where was this firm located? In San Francisco, California. (I think I’ll write a post on it in the future.)

Anonymous said...

These are wonderful. #2 is my favorite, just sublime. #6 strikes very close to home. Well, they all do, don't they?

In admiration,
Mike

Lorenzo — Alchemist's Pillow said...

When we come across more reality than humankind can bear, to go back to the quote from T.S. Eliot you use at the beginning, the only way forward seems to be to take ample doses of the kind of raw honesty that courses through these verses.

Together these six very powerful vignettes say so much more than any flag ever has or ever could.

Charlotte said...

My lord, Kay. This is shattering, and true to so many of our experiences of a time and place. You are brave to take it on, head-on.

Vicki Lane said...

Wonderful, Kay! I know that feeling of 'why didn't I notice right away how wrong it all was?'

Very powerful sequence!

Kathryn Stripling Byer said...

Vagabonde, your comment is worthy of its own post and reminds me of why I admire your blog so much. You are able to bring a slightly different perspective to this issue, and I thank you for it.

Kathryn Stripling Byer said...

Thank you, Lorenzo. I wrote these a few years back when I was in a cast with a broken ankle. That gave me the time to plumb these memories that I'd wanted to write about for a long time. I found the sonnet form helped me rein in the material that had hitherto proved so unmanageable.

Kathryn Stripling Byer said...

Thank you for stopping by, Mike, and leaving your comment. These events hit so close to home that it took me years to have the courage to write about them.

Kathryn Stripling Byer said...

Charlotte, I have a suspicion that these poems helped earn me a rejection just recently from a NY state press. They form the middle section of the manuscript and I have a hunch they are part of what the editor called "poems that have not reached their secret subjects."
Secret subjects? Well, I'll take head-on when it comes to these stories.

Kathryn Stripling Byer said...

Vicki, as a novelist you know well how humans swim in their own cultural milieu without asking much about it. That's one reason why I think all Southerners should spend some time outside the region. Not just Southerners. And I wish more Americans traveled outside their own country. I long to go back to Europe, myself. Like Vagabonde I am dispirited by the rightwing drift in this country. Terrified, actually.

Anne Barnhill said...

Kay, I just love these sonnets--it's one of my favorite forms and these are so honest, so brave and so in touch with what's going on int the country---so starnge where we live!
I tried to comment before but I hope this one comes in. REally nice work.

glenda said...

Kudos, Kay. You tell it like it is or was when I was growing up. So many good people looked the other way or tried to tell themselves there was nothing they could do.

Jessie Carty said...

what a sad but amazing weaving of narrative. sonnet was the perfect format for this!

Vagabonde said...

I am back on this subject. I heard Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour on CNN commenting on Virginia’s governor not mentioning slavery in his Confederate History Month. Barbour said “that the whole controversy doesn’t amount to diddly.” That shows very little understanding and knowledge. As I said there were many points to study about this war, one being that the financial centers in the north obtained their money from the cotton trade, and that trade would not have been successful without slavery. The war may have started about states’ rights but quickly slavery was involved. To say that it does not amount to diddly is terrible. It is not something that current Southerners did, but as you said in your poem, it is a fact to acknowledge, with humility. The slave trade was one of the horrors of humanity (as well as genocides and the Holocaust) and its repercussions are still felt in this country today. It is not something to ignore.

Kathryn Stripling Byer said...

Vagabonde, of course Barbour would say this; it's all part of the right-wing strategy in this country, to trivialize subjects like slavery, the Native American genocide (which is what it was), indeed anything that disturbs our American conscience. It's a racist statement, and unfortunately the deep South still allows such comments to be tolerated. Alas, much of the rest of the country, including the main stream media does too.

Angie said...

Thank you
You asked a lot of questions that I have also had swilling around in my brain for a while.

Charlotte said...

I'm glad to see this back--for the poem, not for the reason.

Sadly, the assertion that "Slavery is not mentioned in the north, but it was there too" is an excuse I heard countless times in my childhood, to somehow attempt to explain or defend an abominable practice. This from Wiki: "Through the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 under the Congress of the Confederation, slavery was prohibited in the territories north west of the Ohio River. By 1804, abolitionists succeeded in passing legislation that would eventually (in conjunction with the 13th amendment) emancipate the slaves in every state north of the Ohio River and the Mason-Dixon Line. However, emancipation in the free states was so gradual that both New York and Pennsylvania listed slaves in their 1840 census returns, and a small number of black slaves were held in New Jersey in 1860." Quite different from the large-scale slave trading going on in the South at the same time. When President Washington left Virginia for the capital (Philadelphia then) he kept his slaves in rotation, because after 6 months any slave living in Pennsylvania was automatically free.
States Rights issues--as today--are often cloaked in racism. Again, Wiki:" Supporters of slavery often argued that one of the rights of the states was the protection of slave property wherever it went, a position endorsed by the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1857 Dred Scott decision. In contrast, opponents of slavery argued that the non-slave-states' rights were violated both by that decision and by the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. Exactly which—and whose—states' rights were the casus belli in the Civil War remain in controversy."
This is way too much for a blog post. Nothing is "black and white" but the shades of gray are not as subtle as one might think.