Tag Archives: Anne Babson

Repurposing Whiteness in Louisiana’s Swamp Country – Alison Pelegrin’s DIY Recycled Southerness In Water Lines

https://www.amazon.com/Waterlines-Poems-Alison-Pelegrin/dp/0807164496/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1515102937&sr=1-1&keywords=Alison+Pelegrin

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.

Anne Babson was nominated for the Pushcart for work in The Haight- Ashbury Literary Journal and Illya’s Honey. Her work has been published in the US, in England, Ireland, New Zealand, Australia, and Turkey.

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Adam After the Hurricanes: Foraging for Hope in the Aftermath of Storms in Peter Cooley’s Night Bus to the Afterlife

Reviewed by Anne Babson

Night Bus to the Afterlife
Night Bus to the Afterlife
by Peter Cooley
(2014, Carnegie Mellon Poetry Series)
$15.95 Paper
ISBN: 9780887485770

Many communities in the South have recently drowned in storms. Climate change engenders a need for Southerners to find a “new normal,” nowhere more than in New Orleans after Katrina. Peter Cooley, in his new collection, Night Bus to the Afterlife (Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2014) seeks this new equilibrium and finds some poetic answers to questions wrought by recent disruptions.

Much poetry in the initial aftermath of Katrina simply documented the enormity of losses, as did the poem “Debris” by Peter Cooley’s daughter, Nicole Cooley, another accomplished poet: “…a football helmet     the face of a metal fan          a sign: Demolition Alert….”

Inventory is the first reckoning for sudden tragedy. Cities where storms have hit—New Orleans, Tuscaloosa, Edmonton—begin to comprehend tragedy by simply making lists. So it may be with poetry. However, Katrina happened almost a decade ago, and both New Orleans and Peter Cooley have had time to reflect. After an initial shock, it becomes possible to imagine how one may survive despite all. In “To Christ Our Lord: September 2, 2005,” he writes, “Obviously, some great lesson is at hand, / Christ, which has escaped me yet. Rush it here.”

Christological imagery abounds in this volume of poetry, just as any visitor to New Orleans will find crosses, steeples, and mausolea. But for Cooley, who is a Christian, these images are not merely detritus from crumbling edifices but keys to unlock answers to large questions of theodicy. In “Adam After the Hurricanes,” he writes of the first man, fallen, who tells himself:

For my moment in time I will be calm,

Won’t I, black morning, you who came to me

After last night’s hurricane, who are dead

As I know life, your slate face like a grave.

It would be wrong, however, to classify Cooley’s work as symbolist. He writes like Wallace Stevens if Stevens believed in God, and his allegiances to the modern and post-modern appear here. This collection references Yeats and even Warhol, who imagined a telephone by which members of his pop scene might converse with God. Cooley reimagines this as a sign of impending death in “Telephone Ringing in the Afterlife”: “I know this pull, out toward oblivion… / Someday that pull will call for me—I’ll go.”

It would be wrong to read Cooley’s “new normal” as nihilist. Despite obvious devastation, Cooley finds a type of comfort, of joy, even, as we read in “The Third Heaven: August 30, 2005”:

Only one thing was clear: someone was in the room,

Someone larger than rooms and hurricanes,

Someone who shone brighter than any sun…

Now, years later, I still have changing sight.

Some may find such determined optimism in the face of real destruction problematic, but to embrace despair is a twentieth-century literary trope, and Cooley is a twenty-first century poet writing about contemporary matters. He opens the possibility of finding meaning in the tragedies that defy easy understanding—and this may emerge as the greatest purpose of poetry in our stormy era.

Published in Cider Press Review, Volume 16, Issue 3.

 

Anne Babson was nominated for the Pushcart for work in The Haight- Ashbury Literary Journal and Illya’s Honey. Her work has been published in the US, in England, Ireland, New Zealand, Australia, and Turkey.

See all items about Anne Babson

Visit Anne Babson’s contributors page.

Yoknapatawpha Mud: The Fecund Verses of Tim Earley’s The Spooking Of Mavens

by Anne Babson

The Spooking of Mavens
by Tim Earley
Cracked Slab Books, 2010

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:

Gnostic garden:give
gardenias the green grants

gills& gimlet-eyed
grasshoppers gone

 

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.

Anne Babson is the editor-in-chief of Vernacular. She has four chapbooks: Counterterrorist Poems (2002 Pudding House Press), Dictation (2001, Partisan Press), Uppity Poems (1999 Alpha Beat Press), and Commute Poems (forthcoming from Gravity Presses).