by Anne Babson
While Southern Prose writers – giants like Faulkner, Williams, McCullers – have stood colossal on the landscape of American letters, this has been less so for Southern poets. With notable exceptions, like Trethewey, Clifton, Walker, and Jeffers – all African-American women writers who bring to Southern verse a distinct dimension beyond the merely regional, few poets from the South have dominated the American language the way their prose-writing brethren have.
This at least in part due to a tendency among many contemporary Southern writers to eschew local vernacular tropes in favor of methodologies established by the New York poetry school. Broadly speaking, Southern poets who embrace these modalities often appear insecure about their origins, and in doing so, they leave out the things that have made the prose writers of the South such legends – vernacular speech that surprises in its lyrical meter, blighted fields evocative of great portent – in short, the things that make the South southern.
Happily, there is a wonderful exception to this overgeneralized lamentation. Tim Earley writes poetry that evokes the early language poets and New York School, but it retains a fully Southern grit. In his current collection, The Spooking of Mavens, (Cracked Slab Books, 2010), he gives us a kaleidoscopic vision, evocative of Armantrout. We encounter bogs, cars up on blocks with the hood open, the distant sound of hymns pouring from a whitewashed church in the distance, and the trailer park. Readers find themselves dazzled by craft pioneered in New York, but they find themselves nowhere near the Hudson River.
In the prose poem “The Uses of a Speculum,” Earley explores problems of racial identity in the South:
I wish I was a bee then everyone would be me. I do not see color. I only see white people.
This wonderfully concise elocution expresses the problem of current Southern racial consciousness. The New South is wrestling for its soul here, but traditional tendencies to deny glaring problems remain ineffective strategies for dealing with the perpetual Southern problem.Earley, who is white, is clearly wrestling along with the New South about this issue, about how to redeem the culture from its divisions.
In other portions of the collection, Earley gives us strict language poems that nevertheless evoke the landscape of the South. In “Things,” we read:
gardenias the green grants
Anyone who has seen the humid, lovely landscape of magnolias in bloom in Mississippi in late spring knows this to be familiar. The secret those of you who have never visited do not know is the plethora of frogs that emerge, along with large insects for them to eat, into the fields here. Like all things that emerge Darwinian from muck, Earley’s evocation of the New South is important, even where it evokes things that are in transition or ephemeral by nature, like his “grasshoppers gone.” Free from the flaws of works by his neighbors, Earley’s work here gives us a window into a place where poetry can abide redolently, and this review recommends readers put up their muddy boots and set a spell here.
Published in Cider Press Review, 2013.