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(photo credit: Melanie Young)

Part Six: Blues for Caliban; “The New Black”; Frederick Barthelme and Kunal Basu (et encore); The Best of the Barefoot Muse; “Be Not Afeard . . .

About twelve months prior to “Notes on the State of Southern Poetry”’s initiation, Poetry Daily published Spaar’s dazzling, lyrically penetrating commentary on The Tempest’s “Caliban’s Song,”*; thus when I re-read the biographical note and realized that Lisa Russ Spaar was a long-time faculty member at UVA, knowing its symbolic stature as the epicenter of Southern learning, I realized that I had an initiating poet as well. Moreover, I had a title—adapted from Jefferson’s—“Notes on the State of Virginia,” and a locale: Charlottesville. Though “Notes on the State of Southern Poetry” ended in its original home after six sections, I attempted to cover many of the writers in a piece David Lehman excerpted as “The New Black” on the Best American Poetry site: Lehman was unconcerned that either the series or the piece—though to most others, I was, to use Kunal Basai’s phrase—insufficiently “client-based.”

Basu’s term is a hard one to shake; and it’s akin to “currency,” a word deployed with witty feminist cynicism in the following poem by Anna M. Evans. Born in England and educated in that same “northernmost city in the South,” to repeat Michelle Boisseau’s description, I first came upon Evans’s work—for free—on Ernest Hilbert’s E-Verse Radio and promptly put the poem I read—and re-read and re-read—on my list of Pushcart nominees. If the anthology she edited, The Best of the Barefoot Muse, carries a small price tag, it exceeds my sternest criteria for such collections: “Is this book genuinely useful? Am I learning about new poets, new poems, new thresholds, new anatomies? Does it resist being ‘client- based’?” Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, and yes: The Best of the Barefoot Muse, originating with an online journal intended to address the paucity of such venues for formal verse, contains some of the most interesting work I’ve read in the past decade. Don’t be put off by the emphasis on form if you’re an unregenerate writer and reader of free verse, for the approaches are as individual as the poets themselves. Anna Ashley McHugh and Quincy R. Lehr will appear later; here’s Evans’s “On Realizing I Have Never Used the Word Commerce in a Poem Until Now”:

I guess where men see Commerce, I just don’t
think Commerce. Example: running
late for a poetry reading on Chestnut Street
I press the wrong button in the parking lot
elevator, and emerge surreally
into the heavenly vistas of Macys.

But, as I negotiate the gleaming pearl
and gold aisles, I don’t think, Commerce;
I think, Purses and Handbags—a smorgasbord
of edible colors, citruses and olives, garnished
with the silverware of buckles and zips—
then I exit into what one of the male poets

soon calls the Bladerunner night. And later
I think how much I prefer the ambience
of Macys to the industrially carpeted stage
of Robin’s Bookstore, with its turquoise
shaker piano, instead of thinking that both places
are actually also about Commerce,

albeit on different scales. Then, while the third
male poet is reading yet another poem with
words like unemployment and Capitalism,
I imagine all the men must be nodding like politicians,
thinking, Commerce, Commerce, Commerce,
while I am thinking, Purses and Handbags. Belts.

Fetters and fetishes: the Bible condemns men to earn bread by the sweat of their brow, and women to earn men, tricked out but finally enslaved—or handcuffed, as Dwayne Betts might put it—“by a name,” and usually not their own, before finding themselves “barefoot and pregnant,” a phrase with which Evans niftily plays in her introduction to The Best of the Barefoot Muse.

In the poem I’ve just quoted, however, both genders are “nodding” and “thinking” and “thinking”—the second word works as a chiasmus—of commodities. Is that what the blues have become, an adjunct to catfish, crack, and casinos, their neon lights strobing the night horizon?

* Lisa Russ Spaar’s Poetry Month Pick, April 3, 2009, Poetry Daily. “Caliban,” from The Tempest, III, ii, 148-156, by William Shakespeare.

Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises, sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not. Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments will hum about mine ears, and sometime voices that, if I then had waked after long sleep, will make me sleep again; and then, in dreaming, the clouds methought would open and show riches ready to drop upon me that, when I waked, I cried to dream again.

Lisa Russ Spaar comments:

For me, Shakespeare’s poetic genius dwells in the plays. In profoundly rich, subjective, and psychically riveting monologues, asides, and exchanges—often delivered in the mouths of underdogs, villains, the marginalized, the Fool—we discover that “the lover, the lunatic, and the poet / Are of imagination all compact.” How forget Edgar’s mad speeches with Lear on the storm-concussed heath:

Poor Tom; that eats the swimming frog, the toad, the tadpole, the wall-newt and the water; that in the fury of his heart, when the foul fiend rages, eats cow-dung for sallets; swallows the old rat and the ditch-dog; drinks the green mantle of the standing pool . . .

or Iago who, at his most diabolical and ambiguous (“But I will wear my heart upon my sleeve / For daws to peck at. I am not what I am”), rivals Othello at the height of magnificent, blank verse eloquence: “It gives me wonder great as my content / To see you here before me. O my soul’s joy! / If after every tempest come such calms, / May the winds blow till they have wakened death!”? The Tempest, arguably Shakespeare’s most poetic and song-charged play, is full of music, and some of its most lyric speeches are given to the inhuman Caliban, a native “monster” of the island that Prospero & Co. attempt to orchestrate by magic. Caliban, no saint (at one point he readily acknowledges that, had he not been prevented from doing so, he’d have had his way with Prospero’s maiden daughter Miranda and “peopled else / This isle with Calibans”), admonishes his Master: “You taught me language, and my profit on’t / Is, I know how to curse.” And curse he does, in a voice vital, inimitable, and sensuously particular: “All the infections that the sun sucks up / From bogs, fens, flats, on Prosper fall, and make him / By inch-meal a disease!”) But he is equally capable of awe and rapture, as these lines from Act III attest. Caliban’s touching passage “Be not afeard / the isle is full of noises, / Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not” betrays a wonder beside which the abstract “brave new world” uttered by the inexperienced Miranda (whose name means “wonder”) pales. The oneiric, pre-Lapsarian cri de coeur of Caliban’s textured “poem”—its yearning for the lush bed of sound and oneness prior to wording—eight lines of rife, replete blank verse broken only to wake and “dream again”—is a harbinger of Prospero’s closing speech, which “want[s] / Spirits to enforce, art to enchant.” Just as Prospero, almost relieved, acknowledges that “Now my charms are all o’erthrown, / And what strength I have’s mine own,” so Caliban in this passage recognizes, as from the great distance of consciousness, the polyvocal voicings of his birthright—the keen and cry, the weeping and laughter that suffuse and inform all poetry.


from Part Eight: Blind Men, Beau Brummel, “Bunga-Bunga,” “It’s Business,” Blue Hours, Braverman, Barthelme, and (of course) “Except the Blues”

When the interviewer Donald Hall asked Eliot for advice about Oxford, his next stop, the purchase of long underwear was advised. Eliot’s droll humor is largely ignored, but I can easily see him spending an evening with Quincy R. Lehr, at least if he did a bit of preliminary study by reading Lehr’s recent essays for Contemporary Poetry Review, especially on the absurdity of attempting to sell books and book readings, and, even better, the importance of sartoriana. They’re full of wit, serio-comic fashion-consciousness and well-placed obscenities, as are his poems; his most recent manuscript, Heimat, even features Tiresias! Surely you’ll want to read more, and once again, this is made possible not only by Lehr’s two previous books—first, Across the Grid of Streets, which Fiona Sampson, writing in the estimable Irish Times, proclaimed showed “much energy and narrative talent”; then the just-released Obscure Classics of English Progressive Rock (both by Seven Towers)—but also, if you prefer a small sampling for starters, give thanks to Ernest Hilbert at E-Verse Radio for making a small anthology available. Leave space, however, for the superb Hilbert / Lehr interview you’ll also find at the site.

A former Oxonian and author of Sixty Sonnets, with a forthcoming second collection entitled All of You on the Good Earth (Red Hen), Hilbert has described his partner-in-crime as a “New York satirist and modern-day Beau Brummel,” but both possess varied, plentiful, if pointed—so to speak—gifts. “Bunga-Bunga,” with its “chieftain’s spear” and references to harems and ledgers could have been lifted straight from Eliot’s desk drawer, or the King Bolo poems; and as for the “fetching secretary,” could she be the typist who engages in loveless sex with “the young man carbuncular” in The Waste Land? Lehr’s complexion looks spotless, as the Brits say—at least from what I can tell in the tiny picture I’ve seen of him—and he has digested thoroughly all of the influences he names, sampling and mixing as only a double-threat poet / musician can. I.e., “he do the police in different voices,” but sounds like no one else, as readers should be able to discern from “It’s Business,” especially

. . . The same old fix
against the rednecks from the sticks

still operates behind the bleachers,
with club ties hidden under sweaters . . .

What and who else am I hearing? Larkin? Randy Newman? Elvis Costello? An “obscure classic of English progressive rock”? An off-shoot of a Black Statues song? I know only that I like it, like it, yes I do. And so would, I suspect, my favorite member of Red Crayola, if I may take another color from my little box. (See previous disclaimer, please.)

That chieftain is mindless, inexplicable death, and he’s always had his eyes on us, dancing and stamping, to revert once again to Plath. Further connections were scarcely avoidable when I learned the title of Joan Didion’s latest memoir, Blue Nights (Vintage): Plath wrote famously that Ariel’s London poems were composed in “that still, blue glassy”—and very cold—hour before the milkman’s arrival. Plath and Didion not only won coveted positions as collegiate guest editors for Mademoiselle, but also lost husbands. The sharp and unsparing nature of Didion’s sentences have always reminded me of Plath too, each stretching words out to a certain length, then using periods as devices to draw each unit of meaning wire-taut.

. . . “What makes Iago evil? Some people ask. I never ask,” begins Didion’s first novel, Play It As It Lays, which, like Kate Braverman’s Lithium for Medea and the Barthelme brothers’ Double Down, cuts with a card-sharp’s hand, winner take nothing. As Christopher Hitchens agreed, and in blue ink, two months before his death, staring mortality straight in its hideous, inevitable face. Writing of Blue Nights, Hitchen’s wit, his gift for verbal laceration, his incalculable learning, even the reams of poetry he had by heart, are dropped for something much richer; and still I was shocked to read prose that soared above his usual “contrarian” stance to the level of lyric—even the blues:

Didion, here slightly syncopating in the Bob Dylan manner, has striven with intense dignity and courage in Blue Nights to deepen and extend the effect of The Year of Magical Thinking, her 2005 narrative of the near-simultaneous sudden death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne, and the onset of the fatal illness of their daughter, Quintana Roo Dunne Michael. In the course of setting it down, she came to realize that she could no longer compose in the old style: the one that she had “supposed to be like writing music.”

And what kind of music could this have been, except the Blues? But blue is more than the shade of a symphony. It is where the “bolt” comes from, as Didion mordantly notes. It can register the transit of an entire evening, from the first, faint translucent gloaming to the near-inky cerulean black.

“Except the Blues.” Should this have been the subtitle of We Tell Ourselves Stories In Order To Live?


“Be good, my bad-time Blues, and hold more still,” pleads—or invites, caressingly—the first line of Anna M. Evans’ translation of Baudelaire’s “Meditation,” which reminds me, respectively, of Eliot’s words on his French forebear—“it is better, in a paradoxical way, to do evil than to do nothing: at least we exist”—then Donald Justice’s villanelle, especially its “blue horn”; David St. John’s splendid version; and finally W. C. Handy, who wouldn’t have hated to see that evening sun go down had he not had to sleep on the street, presumably like Justice’s “Unknown Poet,” who, to me, at least, will live forever because of his villanelle.

Evans honors her Bad Boy antecedent by admixtures: classical form and streetwise subject matter; high and low diction, even slang—“come here and chill”; and imagery—“vintage gear” followed only three lines later by a shroud, not unlike that John Donne wore to preach his last sermons! Evans knows as surely as Lehr, her aforementioned co-editor at Raintown Review, the effect of appropriate attire for such occasions. Jeans, whether “distressed” or, once again, blue . . . Didion, who worked also at Vogue, would have been, dare I say, “appalled”? The congregation of St. Paul’s wouldn’t have heard Donne’s final homilies like Robert Johnson’s “goggle-eyed perches” but, instead, dead shrimp.

. . . You wanted evening: here’s it’s coming down:
A sense of darkness drapes around the town,
bringing peace to some, to others ill.

While the masses seek their addictive thrills,
soon-to be sorry—hedonism’s known
for punishment, whip pitiless as stone—
my Blues, give me your hand, come here and chill.

Far from them. See: the years gone by are leaning
over the skies’ deck dressed in vintage gear;
Regret is rising from deep waters, grinning;
the dying sun’s bunked down beneath the pier,
and out of the East, like a grave cloth unwinding,
Baby, laid back Night is walking: hear.

Author of three chapbooks, Swimming, Selected Sonnets, and Saint-Pol-Roux & Other Poems from the French, Evans offers here the best kind of translation, especially of Baudelaire. She mirrors him, so to speak, and he looks just . . . dandy?

In conclusion for this last section proper, don’t forget how it began or the delight in alliteration afforded: Frederick Barthelme, Larry Brown, Blip Magazine, Lucie Brock-Broido, Braverman, James Baldwin, the King James Bible, Harold Bloom, The Bell Jar, Barry Hannah, blue borders, bets good and bad, black warriors of all sorts and interspersed, “Big and Black,” Blackbird, Baltimore (twice), Baron Wormser, R. Dwayne Betts, Black Nature, Boisseau, R. Boardman Vaughn, boredom, “Bunga-Bunga,” Baudelaire (et encore), brute mortality, Broadway, and of course, the blues themselves. Nothing planned except an essay beginning with Barthelme’s plight; yet in retrospect, hasn’t the emphasis been, all along, on sound?

Part Nine: More B-Words! and Coda

Cross my heart, I’ve had the word “benediction” in mind for Bruce Smith’s final words, as well as the word “gutbucket,” conjoined to ave atque vale, all along. (Surely it will come as no surprise that Smith’s last poetic sighting was an untitled piece that uses the words “book,” “blue,” “bliss,” and “bowl.”) But first I should mention that Smith, the acclaimed poet and teacher, was most recently the author of Devotions (University of Chicago Press), a collection which won this year’s William Carlos Williams Award from the Poetry Society of America, was named to various “top-ten” lists, and was cited by Publishers Weekly for writing one of the year’s ten best in its genre.

Smith, now back at Syracuse, has held faculty positions at both the University of Alabama and Houston, and believe me, the man knows his music as well as poetry, thus I received these words as a blessing:

“In those days it was either live with music or die with noise, and we chose rather desperately to live,” Ralph Ellison says in his essay, “Living with Music,” about trying to write in his apartment while being surrounded by a “night-employed swing enthusiast”, a restaurant with “a jukebox the size of the Roxy”, “preaching drunks” in the alley and “a singer in the ceiling.” Ellison finds himself dueling with the latter, caught mid-range between “Negro folk music, sacred and profane” and Western classical music.

Between 1998 and 2002 I lived in Tuscaloosa, Alabama—183 miles from Oxford, Mississippi; Memphis, Tennessee; and Atlanta, Georgia. (You know you’re a Yankee when you define the place by its distance to another place, indicating your uneasy, carpetbagging, existence.) Like Ellison I listened to the music I found in these places that mentored and tormented me to the point of identification.

I arrived in August, couldn’t sleep, what is it with those onomatopoetic heat-bugs, don’t they ever let up? I drove to the Waffle House at two in the morning. I drove to the car wash. I picked up the escaping signals from Birmingham, WBHJ—95.7 Jams, that broadcast the spare, low beats-per-minute, narcotically repetitious, bass-and-drum-machine drunk, call and response music that was Southern Hip-Hop. It was the equivalent to Ellison’s jukebox. It was loud and rowdy. It was the time of Dirty South music, reclaiming the red-hot clay and chicken coops and car-up-on-blocks poverty as the imaginative locus for a new movement of young Black artists from the former Confederate states. It was the high portamento of “Bombs over Baghdad” and “Rosa Parks” and “Ms. Jackson” from OutKast and Goodie Mob in Atlanta. And it was “crunk” (past tense of crank? crazy drunk? chronic and drunk?) from L’il Jon (Atlanta) and David Banner (Jackson, Mississippi) and the 3-6 Mafia (Memphis) who would eventually win an Academy Award for their song from the movie, “Hustle and Flow”—the first black group to be so awarded. The music was sex-obsessed and “jaw broke, wig split, neck snapped” violent and sometimes stoned and therefore profane and therefore interesting as a condition of depravation like funk, R&B, and the blues before them from which music (poetry) comes. It was the music of Ellison’s drunks in the alley. It was the voice of the “escaped slave” that Whitman wanted to use in Leaves of Grass—American, hankering, gross, mystical, nude. This music was the antipodes of the Southern Fugitives, those white men at Vanderbilt who reclaimed a different South. In the (civil) war between beats and the rhythmic phrasing of classical form, the beats won.

I drove through the Black Belt with my colleague and NPR contributor Diane Roberts stopping at Little Zion, a church burnt and rebuilt by 1996, to Faulkner’s house in Oxford, Mississippi, 183 miles. I was prepared to lick the “postage stamp of human soil” that was Yoknapatawpha County. I was prepared to hear the voices formed by racial segregation, Southern defeat, the Middle Passage, and the Trail of Tears. Instead I heard a live NPR show, which included Brazilian drumming and folk songs at one of the best independent bookstores in the country, Square Books. I heard Barry Hannah’s voice, a man who felt “a need to listen to the orchestra of living” and did and gave voice to the war vets, drunks and uneasy good ol’ boys. On Faulkner’s grave, the joke goes, the sticker reads, “I’d rather be reading Airships.” I drove to Memphis where Beale Street was a sad weekend destination for frat boys and sorority sisters, but Sun Studios and Stax Records lived in dilapidated glory. The poetry of the South, I maintain, is still found there, as chronicled in Stanley Booth’s book, Rythm Oil. And in the Civil Rights Museum, at the Lorraine Motel, room 306, the replica of King’s last meal, catfish and hush puppies and greens—an eloquent concrete poem of endurance.

Back in Tuscaloosa I instituted a ban on the word “kudzu” as a form of shorthand to describe the Southern experience. My colleagues were Jews from Brooklyn or geniuses from the Midwest, poet Robin Behn and Indiana’s prince in exile, Michael Martone. My neighbor spoke a south Alabama dialect that I couldn’t distinguish from barking, and I had trouble in general understanding and being understood. I was called “rude as a Yankee” at the dry cleaners when I couldn’t stay for the obligatory fifteen minute discussion of the weather and my life. I was dismayed that Bear Bryant Drive didn’t intersect with Lurleen Wallace Boulevard, although Helen Keller Drive intersected with Harper Lee. From Bryant-Denny Stadium I could hear the whoops for the Tide and the brass of the Million Dollar Band. They echo still as I try to write, 918 miles away.

Received also with gratitude, though the bridge it provides is purely fortuitous—and fortunate—is Claude Wilkinson’s “Anything That Floats,” New Orleans being the heart of the final essay in the series known as “Notes on the State of Southern Poetry,” “Controversies, Connections, and Coincidences”:

Before even opening The Katrina Papers by Jerry Ward, its cover art ferries us toward the book’s thematic and metaphoric heart. Herbert Kearney’s construction All Mothers Are Boats is composed of paint, driftwood, lumber, dirt, masonry, and other rubble found around the artist’s studio post-Katrina. The literal importance of boats during and after the hurricane is evoked by the image alone. However, as we soon find out, Ward’s very act of writing a journal was for the author, a means of survival. His introduction refers to Katrina as “a matrix of stories,” and indeed whether speaking of the storm or the journal, there are situations within which something else originates, develops, or is contained. Although the book is in part documentary of a cataclysmic event, design elements such as no table of contents and the use of varied fonts and forms throughout the text remind us that The Katrina Papers is in fact one man’s memoir.

Generally sequential in its arrangement, the book begins under the romantic heading Early September Preludes. Ward’s first entry on September 2, 2005 sets out, “Being in the First Baptist Church shelter means . . . damn, the words don’t want to come out of the pencil . . . that thousands of us have been abused by Nature and revenge is impossible” (11). As one might expect of such writing, Ward’s iteration of the importance of home and the force of loss is constant. Considering his own transformation even near the end of the journal, the author thinks to himself and then writes,

You are fooling yourself about bright moments. All moments from now until the time of your dying shall be dull and prickly. You shall laugh, and laughter will bring you no joy. Sadness shall season all your waking minutes. Peace will exist when you are asleep. You will never be conscious of it. Stop wishing and dreaming. Wake up. (202-03)

What readers may not expect however, is Ward’s sometimes humorous, often Zen observations and his continued professional engagement in the face of catastrophe. At one point he asks, “Does water walk when you swim?” (210). Six days earlier, Ward expresses his annoyance over a fellow juror’s tardiness in making a selection regarding a literary award.

The Katrina Papers also presents the Zeitgeist of Ward’s vexing trial of registering online with FEMA and his reflections on the joy of getting a much needed haircut, as well as vacillating, conflicting emotions—from the brief happiness of finding out via e-mails that friends and family are still alive to the sorrow of his situation. “Be happy, then be miserable,” he writes (11). Interspersed in the entries are associations that Ward makes between experiences such as watching telecasts of people struggling through the flood and his having edited a poetry anthology subtitled Wade in the Water, followed by the mimetically iambic thought, “A boat is anything that floats” (11).

Ward’s claim of “trauma affect[ing] the mind, the soul, the body” is buoyed by descriptions of “wading in poisoned water with snakes and the dead bodies of animals and people floating by” (12). Although certain entries vent anger through commonly voiced political stabs at the American military’s involvement in Iraq by suggesting that the true terrorism is here in the flooded coastal areas, The Katrina Papers is also a stocktaking of sorts. Under the heading You Don’t Know What It Means, Ward describes the awful task of preparing to abandon one’s most secure place in the world, possibly never to return: “You hurriedly pack—vital documents, granola bars and water, sports clothing and toiletries for a week, put on your Army dog tags for good luck,” reminding himself “[You did survive Vietnam], lock up the house and leave at 12:06 with a backward glance at John Scott’s ‘Spirit House’ on the corner of St. Bernard and Gentilly” (13).

Yet in the scope of other atrocities such as 9/11, slavery, and “the AIDS/famine/ethnic laundering crises in Africa and the triumph of evil elsewhere,” the author ultimately considers himself blessed (13). Nevertheless, Ward, a Richard Wright scholar, poet, and English professor, remembers and clings to sundry safety nets, stating: “You do have unfinished work at Dillard University, and suicide, damning your Roman Catholic soul, would hurt the relatives who love you. Wear the mask. Smile. Pretend you do not hurt” (13). The journal is evidence of an unquenched desire to ruminate on Emersonian philosophy and Harold Pinter’s Nobel Prize speech, to read new works of literary theory, and to communicate with colleagues. Alongside Ward’s Olympian pursuits are his mundane but necessary lists reminding him to write checks for bills and file a claim for flood insurance.

Near the anniversary of his leaving New Orleans just before Katrina hit, the author recalls other personal traumatic events—namely the death of his father on December 25, 1957, which hence hardened him against any celebration of Christmas. On the death of his mother in April 1992, which he admits to being better able to handle, Ward writes, “By then I had experienced the rising and falling rhythms of life”—an ominous, apt segue to the coming storm (232). Thus the journal closes in a manner reminiscent of an absurdist play. Exclaimed in bold font are the directions—which I ask you, dear Readers, to follow with me on 29 August 2012, the seventh anniversary of Katrina’s landfall:

The journal stops. Trauma doesn’t
conclude. No tidy solutions demand summary.
Stop. Clear the throat.
Exit into a pre-future of unknowns. (233)

Work Cited:

Ward, Jerry W., Jr. The Katrina Papers: A Journal of Trauma and Recovery. New Orleans: University of New Orleans Press, 2008.

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