Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Delight in Disorder

I imagine Larry D. Thomas was one of those kids who just loved, beyond any sense of reason, camping out on the blackest of Texas nights with a few of his young buddies.  And he was the kid who pointed out, with over enthusiastic relish, every hoot, growl, hiss, breaking stick, and leaf shuffle.  “Listen,” he says, “the dark forces are coming to get us,” not because he believes that there are dark forces.  He just likes to see us squirm.

His third book, The Woodlanders (Pecan Grove Press, 2002), is chuck full of gleeful immersion into the muck of East Texas.  His East Texas, the Southeast corner of the Texas of the Big Thicket, is not the Central and Northern East Texas of Anne McCrady.  McCrady writes,

Look at this leaf:
An autumn curl between
fallen nuts,
waiting for footsteps,
patient as a martyr
ready to take the weight
of life as it goes on
toward another spring. (McCrady “Perennial,” page 30)

Larry D. Thomas counters with

Its blackened trunk
must be at least
six feet in circumference.
Like a fickle matron
annually adding
yet another trophy
to her already vast
collection of wedding rings,
it towers over the square
of a hamlet
in its death throes. (“The Pine,” page 13)

So much is similar in these two passages, in technique:  the focus on image, a bit of personification, the short, phrasal line, strong line endings.  Yet so much is different, as different as spring and death.  McCrady’s East Texas is inhabited with beaten people, sad people, in a hard world, but they survive.  Thomas’s East Texas is a swamp of anger and destruction.  The opening poem tells us all we need to know:

After weeks of light rain
the floor of the woods
is sodden as a bog, 

a patchwork of oxblood
and mustard tallow leaves
disintegrating from the thread-

like skeletons of their veins
in the black machinations
of rot, scat-scented . . . (“Fox Fire,” page 7)

Nine short lines, so far, and let’s take an inventory:  sodden, bog, patchwork, disintegrating, threads, skeleton, veins, black, rot, and scat.   So much stands out in these words.  First, it’s the unity of the imagery.  This is a world of bits and pieces, of stink, of rot.  It’s a kind of murder scene—but a compromised one.  Second, it’s the unity of soundscape to match the landscape:  the hissing s’s, hard k’s and g’s, thudding d's, short a’s, e’s, and  o’s.  And third, for me, it’s the unflinching attention.  Thomas is not going to look away from this rot; he’s going to poke it, probe it, lift it and inspect the undersides. 

In these poems, Thomas is a poet who sees, because he, I think, must see.  He doesn’t want to glance at something; he is no impressionist, some happy Manet painting in his beautiful perfectly wild pastel gardens, no Renoir in a summer cabin or sunny boat deck.  These poems are closer to some sort of nature equivalent to Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson.   “Don’t flinch,” he says, “I dare you.”

So he takes through a series of these lessons:
Cicadas:  “sawing/ the August evening/ down to darkness
Mildew: “spreading the sedulous// gospel of its jealous god of rot.”
Chiggers: “till he feels them feeding”
Slug:  “the plush/clear carpet/ of its mucus.”

This is a brief book—twenty five poems—the longest poem, perhaps twenty-five lines long.  But it is, almost, unrelenting in its delight in a world untouched by civilization or empathy.  The humans are no kinder than crows or copperheads.   A lumberjack with one remaining finger wields his chainsaw in his dreams; an uncle beds down with his niece; a woman gives birth without doctor’s care; a deformed baby is killed.

I said almost.  Even Thomas, in his most enthusiastic evocations of his dark imagination, cannot find the power to stain the dogwood, whose blossoms are “like stardust/ flung from the wand/ of a fairy.” 

I’ll let the fairy take me to my final observation.  I believe that Thomas has steered clear of the greatest danger of this image world—that of the trap of good and evil.  Yes, we are a little unnerved by the uncle and niece, but Thomas, for all his boyish exuberance for muck and rot, has not constructed a world rooted in an anti- or post-Christian sentiment.  Rather he reaches back, I believe, to the greatest of American poets, Walt Whitman, whom, we remember, loved the smell of his arm pits.  Recently, Bob Dylan recorded a song, “It’s All Good.”  For Thomas, it’s all good.  

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.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Natives, Nomads, and Migrants

Hello.  This will be the initial blog post.  I will begin simply by stating what the first goal of this blog will be.  Here I will write a series of reviews of books of poetry by Texas writers.  As time goes on, I may branch out on other topics, but the first goal will be to discuss the poetry of Texas writers.  Who are Texas poets and what makes a poet a Texas poet?  This will always be a difficult question to answer.  We humans are mobile animals.  But I will rely on the concept of natives and the distinction between migrants and nomads to guide me.  One is, of course, a Texas poet if one was born here and stayed here.  One can be a Texas poet if one was born here, grew up here, and then moved away.  One can be a Texas poet if one was born outside the state and moved to Texas and stayed here.  But one is not a Texas poet if one has just passed or is passing through on the way to other locals.