Spots of Time: A Review of Kathleen Johnson's Subterranean Red

Kathleen Johnson, SubterraneanRed (Mongrel Empire Press, 2012)

Kathleen Johnson’s Subterranean Red treats of memory in the form of murmur and of snapshot. Like a character in a gothic novel held captive by a ghostly lover, the poet is haunted by a past she would rather escape and yet, despite herself, courts in her imagination. This past is often evoked visibly in the series of family photos that accompany the text, a technique reminiscent of Jeanetta Calhoun Mish’s very successful Work is Love Made Visible. Rather than bringing back the past, however, these pictures and the poems which they accompany serve to remind the reader that what time has broken can never again be made whole, that memory is always a matter of arranging and rearranging the fragments. Remembering is imagining.

The theme of the past’s constant murmuring in the consciousness of the poet is established in the collection’s first poem, “The Apothecary of Minerva Best.” As throughout the book, memory presents itself as both desirable and painful:

                        I’m left with an ache as faint

                        and elusive as the sound in

                        a conch put to my ear.

                        The ebb and flow now

                        no more than a murmur

                        or a memory.

The image of the conch summarizes well the way in which memory is sought as a pleasure yet remains elusive and painful. Johnson adds to this theme by the use of internal and occasional rhymes throughout the book. The faint rhyming becomes a form of echo, of murmur. Take for example these lines from “Three Generations of Cherokee Women: A Portrait,” in which she describes her great-grandmother:

                        She’s seen them come and seen them

                        go. The stories she could tell

                        I’ll never know. But her hands look like

                        they’ve wrung a thousand chicken necks.

There is enough ghost of the iamb in these lines to accent the rhyme of go and know, but the line breaks skillfully work to half bury the rhyme. This effect is even more powerful in the beautifully evocative “Wild Sand Plums”:

                        Roadside sunflowers face the sun,

                        sway in the wind.

                        Near the cornfield, I bend

                        to pick up a mottled feather.

The rhyme is of course both aural (wind and bend) and visual, the figure in the poem bending in rhyme with the top-heavy sunflowers. Enacting the way imagination constructs the past, the poem builds itself from echoes and murmurs. Johnson’s poems are this carefully constructed throughout Subterranean Red.

Many of the poems in this volume are written in the psychologically frank fashion we have for over half a century now referred to as “confessional,” but these poems nevertheless recognize, as does the best work of Robert Lowell, the role of imagination in framing and shaping memory. The accompanying photos rather than representing proof of a definitive past are offered rather as self-conscious constructions of family history. At times, the photos, like the poems, represent an effort to remake that history, as in “Granddad Scott”:

                        On my wall I keep a picture

                        so I won’t remember him just as a cruel man:

                        in a white dress and turned-up cap,

                        he is a blue-eyed baby


                        on his daddy’s lap.

At other times they are emblems of something more like negative versions of Wordsworth’s “spots of time,” as in “Father’s Day”:

                        And I realize that the line from my dream

                        has something to do with

                        this picture, that even in sleep I cannot

                        rest, but must forever watch

                        him falling off that fence,

                        falling to pieces.

In both versions, be it dream or wakeful and willed effort, the photo represents the activity of the poet’s imagination. The pictures, like the poems, don’t capture the past: they shape it. As Johnson says in “Following the Red Hills Home,” “the imagined is as real as the rest of it.” It is Johnson’s sharp imagination, along with her artistic presentation and self-consciousness, that keeps the poems about, for instance, her father’s philandering from descending into the sort of cheap latter-day confessional poetry that relies on shock and attitude rather than on craft and rumination.

In “Raven Mocker” Johnson gives us the raven as an image of, among other things, poetic inspiration, something beautiful but also dark and dangerous. Such a bird is a fitting mascot for these poems, alive to the point of tense contact with death itself, earthly scavengers yet transcendent in flight. Subterranean Red is a poignant, powerful book of poems that will be reread for many years to come.

Some Good News

My first collection of poetry, Praise Nothing, is now available for pre-order at, Powells, and Barnes & Noble! The listed release date is February 1.

The book was a finalist for the Miller Williams Poetry Prize and is being published by the University of Arkansas Press. Working with the the talented people at the press has made this process unbelievably easy. So very professional and helpful. I feel lucky. So thankful.

The cover image to the left is somewhat low-res, but it'll have to do until I can get a higher-res version from the press. The brilliant artwork that appears above the title is called "Solar Eclipse 2 (Crowd Watch)" and is by Andrew B. Myers, who was kind enough to let me use his work. If you don't know his work, check it out by clicking this link. Also, here's a link to an image of the entire piece.

The book will also be available at the AWP Conference in Boston this March. That's where Praise Nothing will make its official debut. I'll be signing copies at the AWP Bookfair, March 8. More details on that signing and upcoming readings coming soon.

Other good news: my poem "Exchange," one that's really central to my new work, has just appeared in the current issue of Anti-. Many fine poets in this issue, including Keith Montesano, Ruth Awad, David J. Daniels, Nate Pritts, Richard Newman, Stephanie Goehring, and many others. I hope you'll click over and ready my poem and the other works included in this issue.

In other news, I'm contemplating moving this blog over to a webpage or platform that's a little more official and stable. My posts here have been so infrequent in recent months that I don't think I can really call this "blogging" anyway. It's sad to think of this project as being defunct, but it may just be time to move on. I'll keep you posted.

Risk & Point of View

In the last couple of weeks, I've been asked to talk a lot about point of view in poems. In workshops I often question whether the poem has enough risk or urgencyThere are many ways to heighten tension in a poem. Some are thematic, e.g. alluding to backstory. Some are syntactical, e.g. phrasing a sentence as a question. Some are formal, e.g. breaking lines at a critical junction, or enjambment between stanzas. 

But I think point of view is undervalued as a determinant of tension. The POV you choose helps shape the risks your poem can take. 

First Person: Here, the central risk is one of discovery. The speaker's understanding of something, or the reader's understanding of the speaker, should change across the course of the poem. That doesn't mean the subject might not also do something. But keep in mind that you've chosen a POV that privileges his or her perception of that act/experience, a version that may or may not be reliable, versus focusing on the act/experience itself. 

Second Person: Here, the central risk in one of disclosure between parties. A secret is being revealed or created by those present in the world of the poem. If the "you" is being addressed through a series of imperative commands, then he or she should be asked to do something counterintuitive to what we know of that identity. 

There are a ton of Second Person poems being written right now, in part because it is a shortcut to intimacy with the reader. But it's frustratingly static when "I" tells "you" a story, across the course of the poem, that in reality would already be known and complete between the two parties. It's a gimmick, much like when the character in a short story pauses on a doorstep and flashes back to an entire romance right while her finger is pressing the theoretical buzzer. 

Third Person: Here, the central risk is dramatic. These are characters, and you control their stage, even if your writing is inspired by contemporary or historic events. A compelling Third Person poem, whether bird's-eye (in which you're battling the drag of expository language) or omniscient (in which you're tackling the beast of authenticity), is an awe-inspiring thing; I wish more people would try their hand at them. 

Ask yourself why your draft uses its particular point of view. Try envisioning the same poem in First Person, Second, Third. What does an outside view reveal or emphasize about your "characters" and their dynamics? What secrets would one tell the other? How do you newly sympathize (or not) when an antagonist becomes the speaker?

When the poem finds its destined POV, it will cling to it. Your favorite moments won't work in the other modes. You can try the same thing with verb tense: rotate the poem through past, present, and future. And I always create an intermediate draft in which all line and stanza breaks are erased. I massage the syntax as a prose-paragraph, then I break again. Sometimes this results in the same visual format. Sometimes not. 

When the poem starts to fight back, to commit over and over to certain aesthetics, that's when I know I'm on my way. And I'm wrestling with one right now, so wish me luck.


Last night, my wonderful and very cold-ridden boyfriend came over after getting off his late work shift. We talked over tea, he dosed himself with Nyquil, and we curled up in bed. After a couple of hours I woke up, restless in the too-hot apartment, the bright blue-fairy light of my computer speakers blazing from the distant wall. I tried to find a good arm position. That failed. I tried to balance my desire to snuggle with my desire to avoid his fevered, germ-laden breath. That failed too. 

When I'm trying to fall asleep, my mind wanders toward projects in progress; in this case, a book proposal I've been been considering since my January VCCA stint. Last night, I realized an idea for a narrative arc--one that resonated with life decisions I'm in the thick of right now. For the next 40 minutes, my mind poked and prodded. This could work. Episodes that had previously felt like nothing more than dissonant essays began to cohere in my mind as sequences, chapters, a braiding of memories with experiences that could be researched and reported. 

Well into my second hour of wakefulness, I jumped out of bed. It was 5 AM. I grabbed my notebook and used the last match in the box to light a votive, wary of the kitchen's fluorescent glow. I poured a small glass of carrot juice, and tipped into it a swallow of vodka leftover from earlier. I scribbled until the clouds began to lighten outside.

The spell was broken, energy vented. I crawled back into bed. He wrapped his arms around me and rested his lips on the nape of my neck. That's when it hit me: this man, who also came into my life during that January VCCA stint, is in the story going forward. He is both high spire and brick foundation. He is part of the adventure.

An adventure that I will, one way or another, commit to the page. The Author rejoices in having a witness, a trusted and funny voice in dialogue for the ride. The Girlfriend wonders: Is this something we talk about? Do I ask permission?

This is a memoirist's problem. I don't face this with poems. Though we sense the texture of inspiring truth, it's understood we talk about the poem as invention. In readings, even those most revealing poem is one among many. There are other things to talk about afterwards. 

I once had a man forbid me from writing about him in any form. It was stifling. It spooked me out of drafting for months. Another, an artist himself, would say "It's all material." I wonder if that maxim has ever been tested with him on the other end of the art. The first question I got after reading a personal essay at Frostburg State University this past summer was, "So, how much of that is true?" My flustered response--"um, all of it"--flip-flopped in my stomach as I considered the shady activities committed by a central (albeit unnamed) character. Right now, that essay is a finalist for a contest that offers a reading in the town where said "character" lives. It's one thing to write honestly about our weaker moments. It's another thing to deliver them to his doorstep. 

Sometimes students and aspiring memoirists ask me about the risk of writing about real people. I have no problem defending the ethics. There are very few cases where someone is at legitimate risk of lawsuit for libel or slander. What you are really worried about is making your dear ones mad at you. And I can't assure you that won't happen. 

"Isn't everyone flattered to see themselves in print, deep down?" No. Writers say things like that to each other, forgetting that we're writers. Our worldview is warped. My principle is that nothing is off limits, as long as 1) I've made my best effort at being truthful, and 2) I'm as hard on myself as anyone else in the scene. I stand by that. I remind myself of the revelatory nonfiction that I've read over the years, which meant so much to me, that may have been hard for that author's dear ones to see themselves in at the time. But principle is cold comfort when you lose someone over creative work.

If I could go back in time, are there pieces I'd spike, paragraphs I'd strike? No. That makes me feel selfish, but no. Second-guessing yourself as a memoirist is the worst pesticide. You don't just kill a weed; you contaminate the soil.

All of this is to say that when we woke up, puttering around the apartment and drinking orange juice, I did not ask.

Writers don't get a pass from the social pact. We have to give as good as we get--which might mean suspending judgment, cheering on a friend's decision that you'd never make for yourself, letting your own less-than-flattering moment go up on someone else's canvas. But when you surround yourself with the right people, those who go the distance of a lifetime, they recognize the capacities that you have to exercise to thrive. It is inseparable from their love of you. No permissions necessary. 


Spotted on one of my favorite blogs for visual innovation, Colossal: Arizona artist Ernie Button, is creating a series of photographs that show the bottom of tumblers after that last drop of single-malt scotch is drained. "It’s a little like snowflakes in that every time the Scotch dries, the glass yields different patterns and results," he says. "I have used different color lights to add ‘life’ to the bottom of the glass, creating the illusion of landscape, terrestrial or extraterrestrial." 

There is an ew factor--these are close-ups of dirty glassware--but I find the visual rhythms here beautiful, more so knowing how they're made. Above is "Macallan."

I've been thinking a lot about rhythm this week. It's only a month (!) until I take up residency at Lenoir-Rhyne University, and so I'm saying Yes to every RSVP. Most days include multiple destinations; in particular I've been on the circuit of the Writer's Center, the Folger Shakespeare Library (for both the Hardison Poetry Series and PEN/Faulkner), and the Arts Club of Washington. I see someone at a dinner party one night, and the two days later they grab a chair in front of me for a reading at Politics & Prose. The cumulative effect of these repetitions is that makes DC feel like a neighborhood instead of a city. It's ironic that the anticipation of leaving has reminded me what it's like to really live here. 

The poetry manuscript is still getting turned inside out, as every new draft seems to displace as many pages as it adds. A trusted reader pointed out, "You've got a series of series." Do you present those series in discrete sections, or braided together?  Unity is appealing; monotony is not. Can there be an emotional arc if the narrative is always changing hands? These are good questions, hard work worth doing, but good lordy. If I Was the Jukebox was composed in one-month sprints, this book is the marathon. 

Poetry made an unexpected cameo in the food coverage of the Washington Post today, when Jim Shahin posted Jake Adam York's wonderful BBQ poem "Grace" on the All-We-Can-Eat blog. Last fall, Jake and I talked poetry, food, and the rituals of the holidays in a four-part interview for Southern Spaces. It's worth a listen (I hope); the site is carefully edited, very search-friendly, and an invaluable resource for students.

I'll leave you with Ernie Button's "Dalwhinnie"...a bottle of which waits on my shelf, ready to be poured when I get home from tonight's Story League show.

On Narwhals

Lookee here!

I was delighted to spot a narwhal tusk on the wall of the Folger Shakespeare Library's Great Hall--part of their "Very Like a Whale" exhibit, on display through January 6. I am quite fond of narwhals; not on the scale of capybaras, maybe, but close. Like capybaras, they make a cameo in a poem of mine, "The Editor of the Encyclopedia Britannica Regrets Everything," which was nominated for a Pushcart Prize by Black Warrior Review way back when, as part of the chapbook "Bitch and Brew: Sestinas."

In case you know little about this creature, let me introduce you...


Monodon monoceros


In recent years, narwhals have achieved the cultural ubiquity shared by penguins, pandas, and small vanity dogs. Key indicators include the founding of “Narwhal Vs. Narwhal,” a powerpop ensemble based in Portland, Oregon; foodie-blog buzz over the “bacon chicken narwhal," two chicken breasts wrapped in bacon, fried, and detailed with pepperoni fins and a tusk carved from pepper jack cheese (recipe here); and the “Avenging Narwhal Play Set,” complete with baby seal and Koala bear figurines readied for impalement.


“It’s weird they have that one tooth,” he says. “Gross.” 

“What’s wrong with a tooth?” I ask. “We’ve got even more teeth. Are we ‘gross’?”

“No, but theirs is freaky long—and always on the same side, left incisor. Isn’t it just the males? I only remember because it’s freaky.” 


Nar is old Norse for corpse; Scandinavians named this arctic whale the “narwhal” because its gray, mottled body resembled that of a drowned sailor. Inuit myth claims the creature originated when a wicked woman, tricked into anchoring her son’s hunting line, was dragged into sea by a harpooned beluga. In her dying struggle, the harpoon’s shaft tangled in her hair and fused to her spirit-self, forming the narwhal. 

By Medieval times the narwhal tusk was thought magical, synonymous with the unicorn horn. The Vikings delightedly jacked up their export prices. Neighboring royalty took to drinking from cups made of hollowed-out tusk, believing the cups neutralized poisons. In 1638, the Danish scholar Ole Worm (a.k.a. “Olaus Wormius”) exposed unicorns as a scam. It took another century before British physicians stopped prescribing powdered tusk for everything from erectile dysfunction to the plague. 

Seafarers have long wondered why narwhals surface, rear up, and rub horns in a display known as “tusking.” Are they friendly? Conspiratorial? Jousting? Naturalist Charles Darwin decided their tusks were a secondary sex characteristic, akin to antlers—handy for showing off, not good for much else. His educated guess was soon accepted as fact.

Narwhals are exceptionally elusive to field study; none have survived in captivity. And so, there is no known record of narwhals feeding. Scientists theorize their diet from posthumous stomach dissections that yield halibut, cod, shrimp, squid, and rocks. The rocks are probably accidental. 


Narwhals frequent the waters of Greenland, Canada, and Russia. Each weighs between one and two tons, averaging 12 to 15 feet in body length. They dive deep and fast. Really deep: 2,400-4,500 feet. Really fast: they make the round trip in 25 minutes.

Around 75,000 narwhals live in the wild. Their predators are orcas, polar bears, and humans. The latter is under increasing regulation. In 2004 Greenland banned tusk exportation, setting hunting quotas to subsistence levels. Inuits prize raw narwhal flesh, mattak, sliced and dipped in soy sauce. The taste is termed “hazelnutty.”


The Narwhal tusk may spiral up to 10 feet and is usually found in the upper left jaw of the male narwhal. One in 500 males sport a second tusk. Only three percent of females ever grow a tusk. 

It was a 2005 study that revealed the tusk is really a pulped tooth, containing an astonishing 10 million nerve endings. Narwhals use their tooth to detect subtle shifts in salinity, temperature, and other environmental factors. This casts new light on the purpose of tusking. Perhaps it is collaborative form of tooth-brushing, scraping away algae and barnacles that block nerve tubules. 

In all likelihood, tusking also generates pleasure. In contrast, the human penis contains only 4,000 nerve endings—less than half as many as the narwhal tooth. If only humans could multitask in such spectacular fashion, gingivitis would soon be a thing of the past. 

Narwhals! And that is our Wednesday serving of awesome. 

These are busy days--I hope to see some folks at the VQR event tonight, and also at the Story League showcase next Tuesday, both at the Arts Club--not to mention that I'm fighting off a cold. But how could I not emerge from my hibernation to talk narwhals?

"as helpless as crushed birds"

I'm going to have to write more about this later, but this is obviously a great loss for poetry. And for the first time, maybe not since Deborah Digges died, I am moved to tears. Rereading Gilbert now, this one seems particularly poignant. And so we go on, with our grief, managing to carry the box, without ever putting it down.

Rest in peace, Jack Gilbert.

Michiko Dead

He manages like somebody carrying a box
that is too heavy, first with his arms
underneath. When their strength gives out,
he moves the hands forward, hooking them
on the corners, pulling the weight against
his chest. He moves his thumbs slightly
when the fingers begin to tire, and it makes
different muscles take over. Afterward,
he carries it on his shoulder, until the blood
drains out of the arm that is stretched up
to steady the box and the arm goes numb. But now
the man can hold underneath again, so that
he can go on without ever putting the box down.

Jack Gilbert
from The Great Fires

Other poems by Jack Gilbert poems posted @ Against Oblivion:
"Not Part of Literature"
"Finding Something"'
"A Stubborn Ode"
"They Will Put My Body Into the Ground"
"Failing and Flying"
"Doing Poetry"

Wishing for something else...

If Wishes Were

You could walk up any creek or canyon
in the Bitterroot watershed, One Horse, Sweeney,
Larry, Bass, Brooks, McCalla, Kootenai,
Big, Sweathouse, Bear, Fred Burr, Blodgett,
Sawtooth or Roaring Lion, and sit down,
feeling a little dizzy maybe, like the nuthatch
clinging upside down on the bark of a pine, and
make a wish.

Before long you might find yourself
wishing for something else. Remember
that old song, Keep your eyes on the prize,
and the line about the only chains we need
are the chains of these hands holding us together.
Somewhere over the rainbow there’s a pot
of lottery tickets. I know the chances
are slim, one page in a ream, or worse, and the sky
is full of what we like to call stars, and if wishes were

horses, or a herd of confused elk down from deep snow
in the mountains, standing at the edge of the highway
watching us watch them as we speed by—maybe we
should just pull over, let things settle down, slow
to a slug’s pace, and maybe they will cross over
to the river as if we hadn’t fenced it off, as if
the highway meant them no harm. See the way
they seem to turn the pasture into an open prairie,
and every step they take has built-in dignity and grace.
Hold up. Here they come. Hold on.

Greg Pape
from Animal Time (Accents Publishing, 2011)

November 14! VQR Shindig & Issue Review

I have four poems from my current manuscript in the Fall 2012  Virginia Quarterly Review, themed "The Female Conscience." It took a minute, amidst all the travels, for me to get to sit down and read this gorgeous issue. But now I have, and I'm so impressed (honored) to be included. Highlights, a.k.a. an annotated TOC:

-"Is There Such a Thing as the Female Conscience?" an essay by Jean Bethke Elshtain...At the magazine where I worked for several years, Elshtain was my first "get," a prestigious scholar I convinced to contribute a small item and later, a significant book review. I am so glad the issue leads by taking on the substantial question of the theme's title and, ultimately, questioning its validity for beyond academic (if useful) provocation. 

-"Dreaming of El Dorado," an essay by Marie Arana...Arana is both a confident editor and a superb reporter. This piece pulls me into the world of gold mining in La Rinconada, Peru, with ferocious energy. I care. I wish I didn't, because the options facing these people are bleak. Incredible and merciless and necessary photoessay, too. 

-"The Sweet Spot in Time," an essay by Sylvia A. Earle..."I took pleasure in turning questions such as 'Did you wear lipstick? Did you use a hair­dryer?' into a discourse on the importance of the ocean as our primary source of oxygen, the value of coral reefs, mangroves, and marshes as vital buffers against storms, and the delightful nature of fish, shrimp, lobsters, and crabs alive, swimming in the ocean—not just on plates swimming with lemon slices and butter." I want to be this woman when I grow up. 

-"Of Flight and Life," an essay by Reeve Lindbergh...A priceless glimpse into the life of Anne Morrow Lindbergh, who served as spouse to one of Americas greatest adventurers while creating a formidable identity as an author and correspondent. Particularly poignant is the daughter's recognition of her mother's change over the years; too often we try and fail to understand our parents as homogenous, ageless archetypes. 

-"Bad Feminist," by Roxane Gay...I have read most of Gay's essays and articles published in the last two years, yet this was unique access into the quirks and vulnerabilities of her mindset. So much resonates. Is it the fate of our generation of 30-somethings to feel like Bad Feminists, rather than be No Feminists at all?

-Page 93...when I came up for air and realized, hell, I'm reading this cover to cover.

-"Labor," a short story by Maggie Shipstead...It says something that while my sympathy, based on real-life experience, should have been with the three friends--the fierce, fun, independent ones, stubbornly child-free--I found myself feeling for the protagonist. The gift that is both we-love-you and now-go-away: I've been there. 

-Three poems by Victoria Chang...If this is what she is up to, I want to read the book. Smart, funny poems that rely on repetition & linked phrasing (mimicking transitive properties of logic) and are set firmly, refreshingly in the non-academic workplace. 

-"One to Watch, And One to Pray," a poem by Camille Dungy....No words. This poem just touched me--deeply entrenched in the moment of a family's deathbed vigil, and also irritated and enervated by the presence of a needy newborn.

-"My Fight," an excerpt from the memoir by Deirdre Gogarty...the book is called My Call to the Ring (Glasnevin, 2012), and tells the story of how Gogarty got on the path to becoming a world champion in boxing, a field owned by men. There is probably some tough, headstrong, unholy little girl in your life who needs to read it.

-"My Life as a Girl," a memoir by Stephen Burt...This dovetails beautifully with the recent profile of Burt published in The New York Times Magazine. I love Burt's refusal to defuse the ambiguities, e.g. the opening line, "Maybe I just want to be pretty."

It is interesting that the back page is a facsimile includes a note from the agent of the (then young, pre-Nobel-Prize-winning) author Nadine Gordimer, offering these markedly modest snippets for potential inclusion in an author bio:

"Publishers in both South Africa and in America want to see a novel from me, but I don't know if I can write the novel I want to write.... 
Except for a very short spell when I worked for the local newspaper in the small town in which I lived (how I wish I could use all the wonderful material I picked up from knowing everybody's business for that five months--but South Africa has a small white population and a long memory), and another short spell when I went to University in Johannesburg, I have always written for myself. 
I now live in Johannesburg, am married, and have a baby daughter."
I am not sure it was an intentional commentary by the VQR editors, but I am intrigued by the notion of what Gordimer could have written, versus what she has written. What does this tell us not just about the female consciousness, but the female conscience?

Those in the DC area have an opportunity to join us in a celebration of this issue on Wednesday, November 14, at the Arts Club of Washington (2017 I Street NW). 

Beginning at 5:30 PM we will have a reception, leading into a 6 PM reading by guest editor Marie Arana (Writer at Large for the Washington Post and author of several books including the forthcoming Bolivar: American Liberator); Judith Warner (writer for the New York Times Magazine and Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress); Mary Emma Koles (winner of the 2009 Gerald Stern Poetry Prize and the 2012 Mississippi Review Poetry Prize);

Copies of the magazine will be available for purchase, and the festivities will continue with post-reading refreshments. This event is free and open to the public. 

Seriously, now. I'd venture to say that it you make it to one reading in November (as a friend of mine), make it to this one. It's an awesome glance to be part of the new forward momentum of VQR, which is of late making a lot of great hires. Onwards~

October Yes

This is the third October that I have traveled to Mississippi, and (for better and for worse) the occasion of least internet access. A few glimpses of what I saw:
Oxford is as it always is...wonderful, and welcoming. Within the first few moments of being in town I bumped into Charlie walking outside Proud Larry's (where he was playing that night), Ron hollered down a hello from Square Books' balcony, and Chico drove by--with his dog Ringo hanging out the passenger side window--and said "Welcome home!" We ate smoked catfish salad at Ajax, caught  Thacker Mountain, had a second dinner of oysters at Snackbar, and had one helluva time. 

Because it was the weekend of the big game versus Auburn ( = drunk Ole Miss craziness = no hotel rooms) we trekked out to Memphis and, ultimately, the Shack-Up Inn for the weekend. The inn is outside Clarksdale, cotton country, and consists of an aggregation of buildings that includes refurbished sharecropper shacks, a cotton gin, seed houses, and other outbuildings. Lots of corrugated tin and cypress wood. We were just a few miles down the road from the Crossroads of Highway 49 and Highway 61, where Robert Johnson supposedly sold his soul to the devil in return for his guitar skills. I don't know about that, but the BBQ ribs and beans cooked by Abe's, at the base of the crossroads, were definitely soul-worthy. 

Cotton truly is the name of the game here. Those are great rolls of it, off in the distance, wrapped tight in chartreuse shrinkwrap. Fluffs of it tumble down the road as you drive. 

We ate those ribs while lazing our way through a Sunday on the balcony of our Sky Shack, a room that overlooks the inn's central Juke Joint Chapel.
Office, pantry, sometimes music venue--but we had it to ourselves after dark.

One of many bottle trees dotting the grounds, as ubiquitous as kudzu in Mississippi. From Hill Country to Jackson, Starkville, we made our way east, we watched the landscape shift in tone. By the time we got to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond, we were talking a very different type of glass: Dale Chihuly.

My absolute favorites were these basket-forms, which were displayed alongside the artist's collection of rugs and other woven textiles. But I could also appreciate the epic quality of the site-specific "Mille Fiori," an installation that echoed an underwater sea garden and included a wicked ghost stingray:

Really, you can't go wrong with a good stingray. 

We made our way home via Skyline Drive, staying at the Skyland Resort before wandering all the way up to Front Royal. The temperature was a good 30 degrees lower than down south.  On went the socks, on went the coats. We listened to bluegrass instead of blues (with a little Django Reinhardt that I'd picked up in Atlanta mixed in for good measure). Instead of BBQ-dusted potato chips, we snacked on honey-roasted peanuts. We chose darker beers instead of Red Stripe, the red wine over the white. Instead of cotton, my eye was drawn to the orange leaves like handfuls of flame. 

We visited 10 towns in 12 days. We went to a party at Rowan Oak, lawn strung with lights and oysters shucked on the spot. We toured Sun Studio. We watched a possum romp through Red's juke joint. We talked with writers, artists, musicians, teachers, awesome new-business owners, and a guy who lives half his year in a kayak on the river. I saw beloved friends & people I will surely never see again. The crazy thing about traveling in October is that you feel as if you come home to a different season. But after a summer of going to ground, regrouping, I'm ready for it. I'm ready for change. That so much of this narrative uses a "we" instead of the usual "I"? Part of the change. 

PS ~ The really good photos are on this boy's fancy camera.

Real Quick

I'm swamped with freshman comp essays, upper-division Modernism essays, job applications, and general everyday tasks, but I do want to mention that I got to hear Alice Friman read last night at the University of Tennessee, part of the Writers in the Library Series. Really a wonderful reading with some moving poems. And Friman is as wise as she is hilarious.

Some of my favorite quotes from the patter between poems:
"Poetry is the great permission."
"Falling in love is my great hobby in life--that's a joke."
"Don't you think that 'accessible' is the sexiest word in the English language? Think about it."
Here's the setlist from her performance (though I think I'm missing one poem):
"Depression Glass"
"Visiting the Territories"
"The Color of Ineffable"
"Apollo Comes to Floyds Nob, Indiana"
"Aunt Nellie's Walk"
"My Father's Chrysler" (new poem)
"The Waiting Room"
"Permanent Press"
"The Price"
"On Loving a Younger Man"
"Imitating Nature"

Permanent Press

When I think of that summer, it opens
like a pleat in cloth: lake, tree, out-
blooming itself. What deep delicious
yardage of suffering: the virginal
July we defended, all the while itching
willful and goatish. Five hundred larks
rising from the fields and all I could do
was stare at the scar on your arm—
the gold embroidery I longed to touch.

What difference that time and pharmacology
delivered too late? I loved you then
in the old way of longing. Four wars,
nine recessions, ten presidents: patches.
Each year another July flings her ribboned
hat into the ring, another summer trying to
duplicate ours. Who were we on that park
bench that defies being folded and put away?
Forget it. Are you still alive? The rest is gibberish.

Apollo Comes to Floyds Knob, Indiana

Only the lover is éntheos, says Plato.
Only the lover is full of god.
—Roberto Calasso

Everywhere is green—forest green,
moss, jungle, viridian. All Indiana
down to the Ohio, pushing against fences,
swelling with juice. A fat lady
taking up two seats on the airplane.

We used to be forest here
before the urge for acreage and the axe,
pickled beets and church on Sunday.
Forest, before there was a Sunday.
Even before God took off for Italy
to have His portrait painted.
And this year, despite what you’ve
read in the Kroger check-out line,
the news for the turn of the millennium
isn’t who flicked whom sideways
but that we’re being rained on,
flooded, snaked out. Green is in!
When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d?
Mister, they’re eating up the house.

I tell you, Papa’s coming home.
He’s fed up writing prescriptions
and orders for the medium indifferent.
He’s bought himself a bank of clouds,
some killer luggage, and a watering can.
And no kicking the tires or shivering
prayer in a booth is going to stop him.

Before you know it, Sycamores will be
sawing through your floorboards. A Cedar
big as a myth will rise in your toilet.
And more White Pine, Scotch Pine, Loblolly
than you can count will crash out of your
closets, demanding your furniture back.
With no more TV’s, PC’s, plug-ins for
your little mouse, who knows what else?
You lose your job. Your son becomes
an English major, and your wife
of thirty-two years decides to throw away
all her clothes and frisk in a Laurel tree
naked, insisting she’ll not come down
until you learn Greek and climb up,
stripped, hot and hard again with love,
singing Orea Orea. Beautiful, beautiful.

You’re kidding you say. My wife,
Secretary of the Bridge Club, flashing
her puckered thighs and beckoning
like the Lorelei, bewitched in varicose
and droop?  Mister, just climb up.
Take your belly and bald head and climb
if only because she is ridiculous—
an old hen playing chickie on a balcony,
asking only that you rise like the Cypress
from your knees and clutch her to you
in all her bravery and redeeming foolishness.
Cradle her face the way you would
a crystal cup you could drink from
forever. Then hurl yourself for once
into your heart’s voice. The leaves around
your head will whisper what you need to say.

Alice Friman
from Vinculum, LSU Press, 2011