Review by Anne Babson
White Southerners still inherit privilege, the ugly legacy of the plantation system. Southern whites receive the benefit of the doubt from police officers, welcomes in small-town stores. These things are not yet uniformly guaranteed to people of color in the South, who cling even less securely to rights since November. For some Southern white writers, like Faulkner, consciousness of this heritage is no great problem; rather for them it is Yankee liberal elites who hobbled, in their view, a functional system of racial privilege (for whites, of course) destroyed by the invasion of a foreign (Union) army, and nothing Southern has been quite right since. For other Southern white writers, like Louisiana poet Alison Pelegrin, the onus of that blighted heritage feels not so much like liberal guilt as debris, obstacles in the way of important American discourse, a grim history to acknowledge then repurpose. Such writers refuse racism and traditional notions of boundaries. Faulkner wrote famously, “The Past isn’t dead; it isn’t even past.” For white writers of the New South like Pelegrin, the past may not be dead, but like a hoop found in meemaw’s attic that might be turned into a picture frame, if it cannot be tossed out, it must serve another function than hegemony. Pelegrin’s book Water Lines wrestles whiteness, acknowledges it, and explores how to bend it into an unoppressive and useful object.
Pelegrin folds her poem into a boat and offers it to the Bogue Falaya, a river with a Cajun/Choctaw name, as she has in other work made origami birds out of KKK recruitment flyers found in her neighborhood:
“How long since fog lifted its net
And released my soul to leap.”
In “Red State Epistle,” she suggests the frustration of Democrats in Republican communities abides in the landscape itself:
“Kudzu smothers with the wings
Of dirty angels. Everything must go –…
I caught a Jesus fish.
I know I’m dreaming
When the boat moves backwards.”
The toxic whiteness permeates religion as well, in Pelegrin’s “Communion with the Rebel Flag.” There, she reappropriates the word “rebel” for art, rather than for states’ rights, and she reflects,
“Am I not
Proud – ambassador between worlds,
Mingling undercover on pontoon boats
among sportsmen with trapper beards.
I’m offended, but I drink their beer
And live in limbo between worlds,
Both everything and nothing
I was taught to be.”
It’s all messy. She writes of swamp water baptisms, hot sauce shrines, voodoo, meth labs, and saints, not just football ones. We find life in her prosody’s murk, a flawed repurposing of ugly old privilege but no denial of its vernacular energy. Since the election, the Klan has stepped up recruitment near the Bogue Falaya, and Southerners like Pelegrin have needed to stand firmer against old hegemony. What can we salvage from this swampy country? Pelegrin finds mystics, penitent sinners bound to sin again, and a fertile ground where everything grows rapidly, even new ways to be white, Southern, and egalitarian at the same time.
Published in Cider Press Review, Volume 19, Issue 4.
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