Archive for November, 2012

Southern Sentence Poem Revisited

Last week when I reminisced about my Granddaddy, Pee Wee Griffin, Seaboard Airline Engineer for some fifty years, among the many comments I received was Kathryn Stripling Byer’s: The song of a train passing has haunted many a Southern poet’s work.  Haunted, that is indeed what we are.

Yesterday I caught a snippet on public radio by a Civil War historian at Duke.  He describes Governor Graham dragging his heels about secession; as much as a third of North Carolinians opposed war.  The Duke Prof then tells about pulling into a barbecue restaurant in Kinston recently.  During the War, General Pickett encamped at Kinston on his return from a disastrous attempt to recapture New Bern from the Union.  In Kinston Pickett hanged twenty-two North Carolinians he considered deserters, though most of them had never sworn the oath to the Confederate Army.  Pickett was later accused of war crimes and fled to Canada – the historical point being that allegiances, honor, and motivations are a lot more complicated than South vs. North.  When the Professer parks at the restaurant and looks down the row of cars and pickups with Stars and Bars on their bumpers, he just shakes his head and says, “You don’t even know who you are.”

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Who are we, anyway?  That’s why there’s poetry – that we may discover who we are.  I’m pondering again the form an essentially Southern poem might take. Remember in August I suggested such a poem must include Place, Past, and Culture.  Our identity is complex, but a poem’s complexity lies in its brevity.  What sense most perfectly evokes a memory?  The sense of smell – impossible to describe, complex and heavy with nuance, a simple odor may transport you to a time and place you thought you’d departed forever.  I want a poem to do the same, to be vastly more than the sum of its words, to cause the reader to gasp and sigh at the same time.


Why seven?  When I as a doddering old man kiss my great-grandchild, I will have held or been held by seven generations of my family.  There are seven Southern waters: spring from rock fissure, clear trout stream, green piedmont river, dam & lake, blackwater meandering, sound, shore.  Southerners more than many are subject to the seven deadly sins and seven heavenly virtues.  Don’t forget the seven bridges road in Montgomery, Alabama.  But most of all because I think seven lines is just the right length.

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So here’s another attempt:

When the train whistle blows
through the Yadkin Valley
we lay down our plastic toys,
lean across the porch rail
until the last beckoning
has trailed away, and I become
my grandson, wondering.

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Place – Yadkin Valley; Past – becoming my Grandson; Culture – porch rail and, of course, that lonesome, haunting train whistle.

Leave me your Southern Sentence Poems here or on our new Facebook Page.

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I lived in five different states while I was growing up: different schools, different friends and Scout troops, even different accents when I talked, but there was at least one constant.  No matter how far the drive, we spent one week every summer at Granddaddy and Grandmother’s house in Hamlet, N.C.  Granddaddy was my namesake – Grandmother always called him by our first name,  Eugene – but the men he worked with on the Seaboard Airline Railroad for over fifty years knew him only as Pee Wee.

I believed Granddaddy completely when he told me the reason he was bald was that all his hair had burned off shoveling coal into the fierce throat of those monstrous steam locomotives.  He worked his way from fireman to engineer and ultimately flew massive diesels from Raleigh to Columbia SC, a leg of the Orange Blossom Special and the Silver Star.  We would go downtown to the Hamlet station to see him off, maybe eat ham and grits and biscuits in the Purity Café at 5 a.m. In those days Hamlet was the hub of passenger and freight lines – you could actually call it “downtown.”  Dad and Bob and I would wait along the tracks to wave goodbye while the porters helped people aboard.  I’d always jump about five feet whenever the air brakes released.  Never got used to it.  Then Granddaddy would nudge the throttles, and the diesel growl would rise from basso to baritone.  The brakeman would make one last inspection, jump up and grab a handrail, each car would clang in succession as the couplings took up the slack, and the line would begin to move.

When I turned thirteen Granddaddy figured I was finally man enough to ride with him in the engine.  Seventy miles an hour through the Carolina night, headlight flaring down the rails and gyrating light sweeping alongside to catch a deer as it leapt across, side door open while summer rushed past, I couldn’t even talk it was that intoxicating.  Did I get to sound the horn?  I can’t remember, but I do know Granddaddy let me pee out the side door when there were no crossings ahead.  That was 1966, the year before Granddaddy retired. I’m not sure my little brother ever got to make the trip.

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My Dad (Eugene Wilson Jr.) still goes back to Hamlet for Seaboard Festival every October.  The one year I joined him I bought the Seaboard belt buckle I’m wearing as I write this.  My old HO set is in boxes in the basement.  It’s been years since I last danced along the ties to follow the tracks below our house out to the edge of town.  But every once in a while I take Saul downtown in Elkin when the switcher is swapping out big hopper cars of wood chips for ABT or Weyerhaueser, of corn for Wayne Farms or Perdue.  We listen to the throaty rumble as the big diesels wind up, we hear the whine of the wheels as they lean into a curve and the clunk as they cross the points.  The engineer fires us a short blast of horn when we wave.  Man, there’s just nothing like a train.

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This poem by Scott Owens closes his book, Country Roads: Travels Through Rural North Carolina.  It’s a collaboration with photographer Clayton Joe Young; every poem, every image evokes memories in danger of fading.  As Scott writes in Reading the Weather: These are the simple truths.  Not nostalgia, not a maudlin attempt to memorialize something that never was, this book just shows us who we are and how we got here.  If you’re lucky Scott has still got a few of these books.  Call him today and buy one.

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Every child should have one, a pair, really,
a matched set, set apart just the right width
so that one foot pressed against each one
leaves you stretched out about as far
as you can go, unable to move, feeling
almost trapped, almost actually in danger.

And every child should walk them as if
that’s what they were intended for,
leading out of town, around the curve,
along the river, revealing the backsides
of people’s homes, clotheslines and refuse,
the yards you weren’t supposed to see.

And every child should learn to balance
atop the railhead without the constant
unsightly tipping from side to side,
should be able to step exactly the distance
between the ties consistently, almost
marching without kicking up ballast.

And every child should have a bridge
they go under to hide and look
at dirty magazines and smoke cigarettes
and place coins on the rails to flatten
and see if this could be the one
to cause the train to leap the tracks.

And every child should know the lonely
distant sound of late night travel
when bad dreams have kept them awake
wondering where they come from, what
they bring or take, and where when it’s all
done they might return and call home.

© 2011 by Scott Owens, from Country Roads: Travels Through Rural North CarolinaA Collaboration Between Photographer Clayton Joe Young & Poet Scott Owens

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Scott Owens has undoubtedly written another poem in the time it took you to read this.  Or else he has taught another workshop, planned another poetry event, posted another online journal.  Does he ever sleep?  If he does, I am certain that he dreams in verse.  Scott’s poetry covers faith and agnosticism, abuse and parenting, alienation and existentialism, loneliness and collaboration, entrapment and liberation, personal relationships and self-sufficiency, the disappearance of a rural American South characterized as both pastoral and violent, and the possibilities of redemption as his characters attempt to make sense of an often seemingly senseless world.  Check out his blog, read the journal he edits, buy his books . . . tell him Bill says “Hi.”

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Dad on tracks



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Crab follows the Twins, then Lion uncurls himself into the midnight sky.  Bill and I uncurl our mummy bags on Bill’s deserted hillside at the edge of Surry County.  The bulky biceps and pectorals of the Blue Ridge have our back.  We are miles from town, close to a mile from the nearest mercury vapor thief of dark adapted vision.  We’ve put on our longjohns and wool hats to recline in November darkness and be amazed by showers of meteors.

The year before I’d spent a moonless night on a grassy knoll in Doughton Park on the Blue Ridge Parkway.  While cold seeped into my backbone and breath frosted my beard, I had watched hundreds of flares and streamers, an utterly silent celestial bombardment without any crash and boom of artillery.  This year, though, Bill and I had an unwelcome guest.  Luna hovered at our shoulders, the sun full gold across her face.  Her glow overpowered all but the brightest meteorite flashes.  We had to trust that the stars were falling, but only at long intervals could we see their spark.


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My friend Bill Blackley is a moon-bright sky.  His poems are the flash of meteorites.  When you meet Bill you will be warmed at once by his bright charm and quirky wit.  You’ll immediately sense that he never met a stranger.  Within the first minute he’ll have you laughing at one of his stories, or he’ll be listening to your own life story with deep compassion.

That’s the illuminated Bill.  In the darkness, artillery crashes.  I first met Bill in July, 1978.  He was Senior Resident, I was a green intern.  In all the years since then, though, I don’t think I would have ever really known him if not for his poems.  Oh, the charm and wit are there; so many of his poems reach out their hands and just welcome you in.  But read on — the crash and conflagration show through on nights when the moon has failed to rise.


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These two poems by Bill sneak up on you and bite.  An Auger Bit may fool you into thinking it’s a simple reminiscence of the good old days, but its key word ends the first line — son.  The speaker is teaching his own son, and the time they share among the tool bins also redeems the speaker, son of an alcoholic who has broken the chains and freed his son.  Freed himself.  The title itself grabs me — what cutting edge and piercing point can we read between the lines?

I love to play with the title of the second poem, too.  Time Piece, it’s a piece about time, not only how we measure time but how we live it, and live through it.  And once again there are hidden teeth here.  The poem counts milestones of regret across the years, the loss of an heirloom, anger over being a victim of theft, feelings we can all identify with, but then there is the soul scorching image of peeling the watch from the arm of the dead soldier. Our measly hours:  this poem struggles, as we all do, to create some meaning from our years and at the end to discover some peace.

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An Auger Bit

Let’s rummage together son
this pawn shop aisle, bins
stacked with monkey
wrenches, pulleys, winches
C-clamps, pliers, bastard files
blue snap-lines and ball-peen
hammers antiquated by electric
drivers and laser levels.  Your granddad

once worked wooden handles, oiled
calipers, turned them on shipyard steel
in Charleston harbor and launched
battle cruisers.  Let’s gather

chisel, plane, hacksaw and slot head
Yankee driver in memory of when
he holstered a yellow folding rule
a blunt pencil in his shirt pocket
before hocking his tools to quench
a thirst for a Four Roses.  Let’s mine
bins until we find a gauge calibrated
to plumb whiskey’s undoing.

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A Time Piece

Two-finger blow a kiss
goodbye to dad’s graduation
watch left for easy
pickings on a beach blanket.   So long
to the self-winding Seiko rolled
in gray sweat pants outside
the handball court where
a thief slipped my treasured piece
into his pocket and beat it
while his lookout grinned.  Bon voyage
to the green-rimmed Swatch
a kid sticky fingered
from my pool locker .  C’est la guerre
to the radium-dotted Bulova I peeled
off a National Guard soldier in Vietnam
and airmailed, along with his scorched
effects, to Altoona.  Adios
to a fourteen-dollar Timex I tossed
to a co-worker when presented a fake Rolex
at my retirement gala.  Gods chuckle
at us mortals caching batteries, winding stems
and punching in our measly hours.

[first appeared in Cave Wall Issue #3, Winter/Spring 2008]

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Bill Blackley is a retired family physician and a full time advocate for the public’s health.  He has saved you and me and a good percentage of our state’s population from cancer and lung disease through his relentless research about and opposition to biomass incinerators.  He has also promoted the literary health of our state’s youth as director since its inception of the Gilbert-Chappell Distinguished Poet Series.  AND . . . ten years ago he made me take over as treasurer of the NC Poetry Society, which has promoted my literary health (although it didn’t quite save me from cancer). Bill, I owe you, old pal!

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Each of us needs a friend who challenges us a little.  Someone who expects more from us than we expect from ourselves.  Who wiggles something interesting in our peripheral vision, something we may not have thought about in years, and just knows we will turn and reach for it.

I have a friend like that who wiggled poetry where I just couldn’t quite ignore it.  About twenty years ago Anne Gulley called: “Bill, the Friends of the Library is sponsoring a poetry series, and I think you should come.”  “The last poem I read was Walt Whitman in college.  Well, I think I did try to write Linda a poem for our twentieth anniversary.”  “There, you see.”

When I took German in high school our teacher, Herr Watt, spent as much time narrating all the Wagnerian operas for us as he did on pronunciation and declension.  He insisted, “This is important!  It’s part of your allgemeine Bildung*.”  Maybe it was curiosity, maybe I recognized the need to beef up my allgemeine Bildung, maybe it was a sheepish feeling of being undereducated, but I went to the series: six Sunday evenings reading contemporary poets I’d never heard of like A.R.Ammons and Sharon Olds.  Holy Zeitgeist, this was writing as fresh as today’s Washington Post and a couple of orders of magnitude more compelling.  My brain fizzed.  Thanks, Anne!  And the very best part was the instructor.

Joseph Bathanti drove down from the mountains for each of those Sunday sessions. So calm, so coaxing, another friend who just naturally expects more from you than you even expect from yourself, he held out a handful of seeds to the squirrels of our curiosity with confidence that we’d come.  When we read Ammons’s Hymn I shuddered to discover language that melds lyricism and physics, imagination and biology, the particular with the cosmic.  I had to discover more of this stuff.  I’m still discovering.  Thanks, Joseph!


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Last month Leighanne at the Foothills Arts Council called to see if I’d like read some poems at an event she was planning.  Music by “Not Your Usual . . . ,” wine by Grassy Creek, eight readers, she titled the evening BEAT!  If there are going to be beatniks, you can’t neglect Allen Ginsburg, so I decided to read America, but I also wanted to introduce folks who don’t know his work to our newest NC Poet Laureate – Joseph Bathanti.  I re-read Joseph’s newest collection, Restoring Sacred Art, and finally chose to read Your Leaving.

What grabs me about this poem (besides the razor sharp dead center descriptions) is the complexity of the characters, artfully revealed in just a few lines.  There’s the father laughing drunk the night before his daughter’s wedding, then next day standing stoic in his “mourning suit.”  Marie, giggling in a muumuu with her bridesmaids, is transformed, “perfect in all the ways a bride desires to be.”  Mother, one moment stern and organizing, the next moment lost “on the edge of her bed, still in her house dress.”  And of course there’s the little brother, angry at the cousins and the loss of his bed, but struggling with a greater loss as he begins his “apprenticeship as an only child.”  Ambivalence, conflict, longing, revelation – reading these lines is to walk into a new household and become part of the family.

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Your Leaving
for Marie

The night before you married,
Pap’s godsons from Detroit
got him drunk and I had to help
wrangle him upstairs, so mad

I threatened to punch them.
Married men, cement finishers
with mortar grey hands who spoke
broken English with Michigan accents,

they wore Bermuda shorts, undershirts,
black socks and tennis loafers.
My outrage made them laugh.
A father marrying off his only daughter,

his best girl, after all, is entitled
on the eve of the wedding
to drink as much as he wants.
Pap laughed too,

but he felt sorry for me.  Like them,
he figured I was still innocent.
We laid him in my bed.
Mother wouldn’t sleep with him,

“stupid drunk
the night before his daughter’s wedding.”
She blinked the porch light off and on
to signal you in from kissing

your fiancé in his red MG,
the first Protestant
to marry into the family.
No wonder Pap got drunk;

it was you last night home.
Your bridesmaids slept over,
cosmetic kits and high, spun hair,
spit-curls scotch-taped to their cheeks,

rustling aqua gowns lounging
from the mantel on cloth hangars.
the six of you stayed up all night in muumuus,
laughing and eating popcorn.

Downtown, the groom and his ushers cheered
the stripers at the Edison Hotel.
I had nowhere to sleep,
so I crawled into your empty bed, and began

my apprenticeship as an only child.
The next day, Pap got up
and donned his mourning suit.
The girls descended the porch steps

in single file, heads bowed
over nosegays as the photographer
stilled each for posterity.
And you, only twenty, behind them,

without hesitation, disguised
in wedding dress and veil, perfect
in all the ways a bride desires to be,
the repeated click of the camera

documenting those first irrevocable seconds
of your leaving once and for all,
while upstairs Mother san on the edge
of her bed, still in a house dress.

© 2010 by Joseph Bathanti, Star Cloud Press, Scottsdale AZ

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A couple of years after that Friends of the Library series Anne called again.  “We’ve arranged a Saturday morning poetry writing workshop at the Arts Council.  I really want you to meet Frank Levering.  And Bill is going to be there.”  A whole new story – estrangement, reconciliation, inspiration, new friendships.  Anne, you can’t quit challenging me!

While I was trying not to step in the bear scat on Albert Mountain two weeks ago, the Foothills Arts Council held opening night for Anne’s show Mythology–eyes, which will be up through most of November.  Her oils, from almost pocket-size to wall filling, are for me a little like that Ammons poem.  Rooted in closely observed and rendered beasts, landscapes, they branch and soar into surreal planes that challenge me to see, to think, to discover.  Thanks, Anne!  My allgemeine Bildung continues to accrue.

Here’s a photo of Anne cloistered in her Cabinet of Curiosity, and me reading Your Leaving at the FAC.


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*   Allgemeine Bildung = general culture, or education – Google the phrase for 17 megahits.

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