Sunday, April 24, 2011

Grace, Disgrace, and Stubborn Keepsakes

I have said, at times in other places, that East Texas has become the ignored and forgotten Texas.  When you ask graphic designers, for instance, to create emblems of Texas, they will turn quickly to cacti, longhorns, oil wells, barbed wire, cowboy hats and other metonyms of West Texas.  Where the pecan or pine tree, where the cotton boll, where the blue bird, where the azalea, the blackberries?   Well, in the poetry of Anne McCrady is one place.
In Along Greathouse Road (Eakin Press, 2004), McCrady commemorates her native culture like a prodigal daughter offering poems like coins in collection plate.  I’ve come home, she says, and I will never leave you again.  Well, there will be the rare occasion when she just has to get out—“led by the urge to dance.”  

But a few nights away will be enough.
Before long, I will come waltzing back,
all smiles and tears—
an empty chair among friends
on the front porch
looking better than ever.  (“Native Daughter,” page 58)

For all her love of East Texas and its people, McCrady does understand that much of it is a closed world.  Over and over there are references to the sky just peeking out behind the trees overgrown.  The first poem in the book begins

Caught between the crests
of ancient loblolly pines
the East Texas sky is a patch
of unexpected news
a snatch of blue dress
of a departing lover.  (Circumstances,” page 3)

What a telling image!  Why not a returning lover?  The thing is throughout these poems there is a quiet grief.  Maybe it is not even grief, maybe it is only sadness.  Just a sense of life not quite being what we had hoped it would be.  Something happened to us as we grew up.  Something that became almost unbearable. McCrady describes such perfect moments of childhood, boys with their grandfathers, kids fishing, teasing bats, eating cookies.  We have seen these moments before with writers such as Willie Morris, such television shows as The Waltons and Andy Griffith Show.   The moments are not a faked nostalgia.  They really happened; they happened to me, also. 

But the lives of adults are hard and lonely.  One woman hangs herself, a man wishes to fly away in the talons of a hawk, another attempts escape from the retirement home.  One man sobs in his fields as he begins once more the planting season.  His family share his longing:

From inside the kitchen,
they would watch him,
their little faces lined up,
chins on the windowsill,
as he sobbed
until, exhausted, he fell
into the rocking rhythm of his shovel:
stab and twist and throw,
stab and twist and throw.  (“Sacrament,” page 4)

We are all disgraced somehow.  We are weak; we do not want to face another year of toil.  We do not want to wake up one more morning with the earth dry and brittle from drought, our faces wrinkled from sun and age.  We do not want one more day of our neighbors wondering why we are not like them, why our cousins desire antiques and not memories. 

But we are recipients of grace.  We do return home.  We do finish our humble lunch and begin our afternoon chores.  We do walk the woods with our sons and pass on what we know of life and death.  We all carry our “stubborn keepsakes from childhood” (“White Girl Come Home,” page 52). 

Many of the titles to McCrady’s poems hint that the abiding religious faith that sees her through and has seen the people in these poems through the late- and mid-twentieth century:  “Sacrament,” “Lament,” “Reverie,” “Pilgrimage,” and “Stained Glass.”  This, to me, is a beautiful faith and a sustaining faith, one without the political agendas of the past two decades.  Which makes me realize that, of course, this book is not really concerned with contemporary life in the way we experience it in the media—an East Texas of racism and poverty and meth labs and church arsons.  This is East Texas as seen by a woman who left to get an education and cultural references unavailable to her at home, but returned to it willingly and lovingly.  McCrady returns to East Texas to report on it.  She is an investigative journalist of the heart, but not a muckraker of people’s lives.

In this way, McCrady is not a cutting edge MFA poet.  Her first desire is communication.  She writes directly in the idiom of her people.  She is bound to her people, not to poetic traditions or her ego as a poet.  The music of her poetry is not the dance of alliteration, but the calm voice of friend on a porch in early evening, over iced-tea, not cocktails.  There is an effortless movement of lines falling, as the sun falls behind the trees.   And it is night.  As the poems reach their endings, I hear McCrady saying her evening prayers.

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