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This anthology of works about abuse, death & dying, illness, relationships, memory,and rituals & remedies includes a short piece by
M.F.K. Fisher called "At the Table" (pp. 393-4). This piece is a version of the story "Grandmother's Nervous Stomach" that appeared in
Fisher's book To Begin Again ("TBA") (1992: Pantheon Books). However, the story was substantially modified for TBA.
The version of the story in Life on the Line was the first appearance, and is acknowledged as such on the copyright page of TBA.
This unusual anthology was initially printed in a limited hardbound edition of 1,000.
rschwed | Sep 25, 2013 |
I seldom – in fact, never – review a book the same day I purchase it. But this one is so unusual that I can’t wait to shout it out to the LibraryThing world.

Unusual? How so? you ask.

Well, in the first place Whatever Remembers Us (Negative Capability Press, 2007) has no preface, no introduction, no editors’ note – to clue you in on the nature of the work. It has no blurbs on the back of the dust jacket nor a publisher’s description in a panel on the inside front flap. Browsing in the bookstore, I found only three indirect hints as to what I should expect: the subtitle, an epigraph, and of course the table of contents. That’s already unusual, isn’t it? The subtitle is An Anthology of Alabama Poetry. The epigraph is a quotation of John Ciardi, from which the main title is taken: “Whatever remembers us, finally is enough. / If anything remembers us, something is love.” The table of contents has six sections: “Places Remember,” “People Remember,” “Music Remembers,” “Seasons Remember,” “Yesterday Remembers,” and “Nature Remembers.” I’m still pretty much at a loss, so I sit down in an easy chair in the bookstore and begin browsing. The store owner’s little black dog comes and keeps me company.

Alabama Poetry? Ordinarily I would take that to mean poems by poets from Alabama, either originally, or presently, or at one time or another in their lifetime. I have to admit I can’t think of a single one. But just a quick scanning of the authors in the table of contents turns up many names that I’m sure don’t qualify in any of these categories unless being in Alabama for a day or two at one time or another counts as “from Alabama.” So I deduced that Alabama Poetry had to mean something else. I must admit that those two terms did not seem to me to go together. I did not associate Alabama with poetry nor vice versa.

Before I go any further, I must tell you about a prejudice that was coloring my thinking. I mean by prejudice a prejudgment based upon previous experience or stereotypical thinking. I grew up in Tennessee – in Jack Daniels country – just a few miles north of the Alabama line. But my life took me in other directions, eastward and westward, northeastward and northwestward, never across the northern Alabama line.

With one notable exception. I spent the summer after I finished my undergraduate degree recruiting students for the college from which I had just graduated. My territory was Alabama and southeastern Georgia. This was over fifty years ago – before air-conditioned cars, before interstate highways or paved country roads. Alabama, to me, became miles and miles and miles of dusty gravel roads, lots of red clay, and tenant farmers dwelling in poverty on just about every road I traveled. Of course, I was not permitted to recruit black students in those days, but wherever I went, I saw them. At twilight or after a brief rainstorm, there they were: hordes of them, young black children playing in the roads, splashing in the water, laughing and scattering as they let me pass. But I did not get to know them; I got to know only white Alabama.

I recruited an overweight young man whom I found lolling barefoot in overalls on the front porch of a little house just one degree bigger and better than a shack. I had driven way, way out in the country, way, way back into the backwoods to find him and his house. His response to my eagerness was apparent boredom, indifference, ennui, and indolence. Nevertheless I enrolled him, not expecting him to actually show up that fall. He majored in history, completed a Ph.D., and became a lifelong professor at the college from which we both graduated.

I also enrolled an attractive young woman. Asking how to find her home, I was told, “You can’t miss it.” Oh, how often I heard those words that summer, and how often was I reminded once again that they were not true. On this occasion they were right on. “Look for a house painted pink and beige (it was actually ecru). In the driveway you will see two Ford Fairlanes belonging to her parents (in business together, maybe real estate or insurance or Avon products) painted exactly the same: pink and beige (actually ecru). I can almost swear that the whole family was dressed in pink and beige (actually ecru), but I think my memory might be playing tricks on me. At least I hope so. The young lady, of course, would take the campus by storm, becoming well-known and popular as a cheerleader and campus beauty.

I recruited a young woman whose mother had recently been widowed, quite unexpectedly, and was destitute. No way could she even think about college for her daughter – or groceries for week after next, for that matter. I made arrangements for full financial assistance for the young woman (this was well before the day of Federal loans for college or Pell grants). Furthermore, our admissions office found work for the mother and housing near our campus. The family started life all over again.

I enrolled a short, chubby (OK, obese) young woman whose older sister, already enrolled in the college, was a glamorous blonde, someone who could look both sophisticated and sleezy – at the same time. I wish I could tell you the young woman’s name, for it helps make the story. But since I cannot I’ll just say she was almost Ophelia.
I found her babysitting a herd of young children – nieces and nephews, or cousins, I’m not sure which – and serving as desk clerk at one of those old, run-down hotels like the one in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. This one, like most of them in the South, served as a boarding house for the down-and-out and (I suspected) a flop house for the down and dimpled, who rented hotel rooms by the hour and expected to find condom dispensing machines in the bathroom. I recruited Almost Ophelia, and she proved to be more charming, witty, and popular than her glamorous sister – and a very sweet, innocent young woman.

I could go on and on: dusty roads, red clay, and college recruits straight out of Mad Magazine. That was all I really knew of Alabama. That, and my later association of the state with a state pf mind represented by Governor George C. Wallace and then Lurleen Wallace and then C’nelia Snively, the second Mrs. Wallace. But that’s another whole story.

None of this – the dusty roads, the red clay, the hot summer months, the peculiar college recruits, the Wallace clan, nor the state of mind I associated with them – prepared me for Alabama Poetry. But I let my eye float up and down the list of authors in the table of contents – some 170 of them, or so – thinking I would recognize at least one, well-known Alabama poet. Almost none of the names were ones I had ever heard of, and the few I did recognize I could not associate with Alabama: Marge Piercy, Langston Hughes, Michael Harper, James Dickey, Sonia Sanchez, Rita Dove, Miler Williams, some not even with poetry at all: Ray Bradbury, for example. Maggie Britton Vaughan, the Poet Laureate of Tennessee for years and years, I remembered being associated with the publisher Negative Capability Press, which I thought may have been located in Bell Buckle or Lynchburg, Tennessee – no, that’s Jack Daniels, isn’t it?

Wait, didn’t Andrew Hudgins once attend (or maybe teach at) the University of Alabama? Maybe I’ve found one genuine Alabama poet whose works I know and admire. But I check the internet and find that he was born in Killeen, Texas, and migrated in a northerly direction, spending most of his career in Ohio. Still, there’s an Alabama connection, I’m sure.

Browsing, my curiosity send me to the bios of the poets tucked away in the back of the book. Another unusual feature of the book attracts my attention almost immediately. Most such biographical notes in most poetry anthologies these days tell in which writing workshop in which college or university each poet was “educated,” and in which they have taught and/or are now teaching. Well, a good many of these poets fit precisely this pattern, but scattered among them are also a good many just plain people – not establishment poets tucked safely away in academia. There are bookstore owners (hmmm, still sorta literary), at least two lawyers, a neuroscientist, a civil service employee, high-school teachers, even math teachers, a member of the air force, a FEMA inspector, two surgeons, a factory laborer, a Marine Corps officer, an engineer, a police captain, and Ray Bradbury. Just goes to show that William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, and Ted Kooser are not the only poets who have scribbled poetry while earning their living and reputation in another line of work altogether. Believe me, I know what I’m talking about: the prominence of these poets makes this anthology quite unusual in this day and age.

By this time, of course, you can tell that I have been reading poem after poem – and I am hooked. Every single poem is appealing, and not a single one is depressing. Not a single one is so oblique that I can make no sense of its meaning. I keep going. Each year I look forward to an anthology called Best American Poets of the previous year. Usually I have to read at least eight or ten poems to find even one appealing one – and even more to find one that's accessible to an ordinary, reasonably well-educated reader. These poets all hold (or are working on) tenure in a college of university, and they write basically for each other, publish each other in their literary journal, review each other's work, give each other awards, and make sure their libraries purchase each other’s works.

But here in this anthology, Alabama Poetry, that just shows up without any fanfare – here are poems that are subtle yet accessible, simple but not prosaic, uplifting but not sentimental, serious but not solemn, sometimes challenging but never overwhelming. Poetry obviously is alive and well in Alabama; or rather poetry about Alabama is alive and well. Where did these poems all come from? Who are these poets, and how were they brought together? From the acknowledgments, It appears that most of these poems have not been published before, or at least were not copyrighted. Were they solicited especially for this book? Had they been read aloud at state poetry get-togethers? Something tells me many of these poets know each other and pass their poems around like squash from a summer garden or sugar cookies at Christmastime. Pat Schneider, for instance, addresses one poem directly to poet and editor Sue Walker:

We walk behind your old dog
on the rain-wet avenue. Talk
poetry and azaleas. Alabama
slow and sleepy in the rain.
“One Day in Mobile”

Most of the poems mention a place in Alabama; most of them speak of home folks like cousins gathered at a family reunion. Most of them celebrate a moment of insight. They are not meant to shock or puzzle or disturb or distress. They simply share experience with people who’ve had similar experience. They remind, they confirm, they focus, they preserve. Like blackberry jam or wild plum jelly.

Fall in Alabama meant cotton pickin’ time.
Mama and Daddy kept
all us young’uns out of school an sent us
to the ripened fields.
Jane Allen, “Cotton Pickin’, 1953”

It could be a unicorn bounding across the blacktop
At barely dawn, as we hed down the road toward
A Thanksgiving dinner waiting for us in Mobile.
Juanita Hendrix Halliman, “Thanksgiving 2002”
[it's a deer, of course --what else?]

Finally we found the farm: old house
weathered, nestled under pecan trees,
wood smoke rising from chimney
of gray-brown native stone.
We had heard there were guineas
for sale here, and hoped to buy a few.
Reese Danley-Kilya, “One Alabama Spring”

And all the doors fall away,
and I am left at a No Entrance sign
on some street in Florence, Alabama,
in front of the disused Shoals Theater –
its marquee boasting only a lopsided red “L” –
near the post office and the park with the goldfish pond
where someone has thrown in a silver gum wrapper
and horns are blowing.
Bonnie Roberts, “Poems of Mine Readers Cannot Follow”

Without meaning to, without realizing it, I have spent the day in Alabama. I’ve listened to Hank Williams. I’ve sat on that bus with Rosa Parks (“the trim name / with its dream of a bench”). I’ve attended an academic conference in Mobile with Marge Piercy and had shrimp with a grad student who worked in E.R. I’ve grown up with Edward O. Wilson, feeling “mud squish / between his toes." I’ve imagined Walt Whitman in Gadsden, (“singing / out to the garden of the world”). I’ve watched the moon rise in Delta. I’ve been on a train pulling out of Druid City: “what a pity, what a shame . / Until noon of April 16th, I had never heard your name.” I’ve had seafood and sandwiches on sourdough at Pink Pelican, wondering if Jimmy Buffet’s gonna come back. I’ve listened to those native names: Eufaula, Tuscaloosa, Tuskegee, Talledega “fall softly on the tongue.” Oh, yes, I’ve seen them, see them still: “the white neoclassical columns, / the black jockey hitching post in the front yard, / the Confederate battle flag bumper sticker.” Still, again and again, I’ve seen “the Iron Man on the hill. / I hear a whippoorwill. / . . . / I smell a paper mill.” Oh, yes, I’ve seen an unloved house, “where kudzu and sawbriars define / rotting walls and sagging roof.” I started out at Eagle’s Point, “the highest place in Alabama.” I ended up at an empty picnic table at Big Spring Park, where

Unforgetting willow trees sprouted up
to weep and sway at the edges of ponds.
If you listen hard when the traffic subsides
. . . . .
you can still hear the mournful sound
of slaves shifting shovels back and forth,
lifting iron picks and slamming them down.

I have no idea where Eagle Point or Big Spring Park is, but thanks to Bruce Alford and James Miller Robinson (I have no idea who they are either) I feel as if I’ve been to both places and my heart beats just a little bit faster. Thanks to Sue Walker and William Chambers, and some 170 other poets, most of whom I do not know, I’ve seen more of Alabama than I’d ever dreamed of seeing, or guessed at driving south on Interstate 65. Believe me, it’s more than dusty roads and red clay. And, yes, its people are my people – whether I know them well or not. For, after all, I do know them well.

If the Negative Capability Press would publish such a book about each of the states I’ve lived in (Tennessee, Texas, Iowa, Missouri, Florida), I would purchase them in a minute. If there were a whole series – one for each of the fifty states plus DC – I would try collecting them, to sit between the Rivers of America series and the Best American Poets (1988 to 2010) on my library shelves. If Sue Walker and William Chambers (why do I feel I should call him Bill?) would teach me how, I would put together an anthology like this one filled with Tennessee Poetry.

I don’t like Tennessee politics these days, or its commercialization of country music, or all those billboards along all those four-lane highways, but it still has the loveliest landscape I can imagine, those hills and woods and rivers and wildflowers and sunsets. Though I’ve lived elsewhere for over fifty years now, I still protect my Tennessee twang, and I still remember the one-room school at Ebenezer and the New Hope Cemetery near Cherry Corner and Seven Springs Farm halfway up the hill to Gnat Grove, and Richland Creek where I saw my first baptizin’. And the white frame church up on Chestnut Ridge looking down crooked roads going in every direction, one of them leading into Lynchburg, where they make Jack Daniels but won’t let you buy it and where you can have dinner family-style at Mrs. Bobo’s. Poets down there must have written about all that.

Whether I travel north, east, or west,
the minute I open my mouth and speak,
I’m greeted with, “Oh, you’re from the South.
I just love to hear you people talk.”
I want to say “we people are your people.”
Yvonne Kalen, “Wake Up, America”

My twang is my homage to the hills of Tennessee. When I return, the hills are still there. They welcome me still. But the farms at Ebenezer and Gnat Grove are unfarmed, and the little towns I knew are bursting at the seams, spreading out in nearby fields and up steep hillsides.

Alabama Poetry catches that phenomenon too.

And as I drive along
The road that joins the old town to the new
I see how awkwardly and out of plumb
The town’s two halves were joined. There is
No evolution from the oak-lined streets
To giant metal buildings hawking God.
The town is not a lady come to tea; it is
A boisterous sullen teen with breaking voice.
It jumps and squawks excitedly to life
Like a chicken crossing an eight-lane road,
Which is about how wide that road will be
Some day. I’m sure of it. Just as I know
One day it will be more than Spanish moss
Or even Wal-Mart and the outlet mall.
Thomas Lakeman, “Driving On Through Foley, Alabama”
bfrank | Jun 4, 2011 |
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