In The Southern Poetry Anthology, Volume V: Georgia, co-editors Paul Ruffin and William Wright have assembled an impressive array of voices representing contemporary poetry by Georgians. While the roster is hardly exhaustive, the book presents the work of more than 120 poets associated with the state, including the current poet laureate of the United States and two poets laureate of Georgia. The poems are diverse in style and subject matter, from rhyming sonnets to ranging free verse, from narrative to surreal, from one following a “Slow Train Through Georgia” to one in which “Emily Dickinson Considers Basketball.”
Nearly two dozen poets will read from the anthology and be available to sign copies of the book in An Evening With Southern Poets on Tuesday, April 30, at the Decatur Library, hosted by Collin Kelly and organized by the Georgia Center for the Book and Poetry Atlanta.
As Leon Stokesbury points out in his introduction, a defining feature of the region’s literature has been its rootedness in the pastoral. Many of the poems in this volume continue the tradition of rural Southern poetry, capturing varied landscapes. In “Coastal Plain,” Kathryn Stripling Byer formally echoes the amplitude and sameness of the land by repeating the final word in each couplet: “The only clouds / forming are crow clouds, / the only shade, oaks / bound together in a tangle of oak / limbs that signal the wind / coming, if there is any wind.”
Rebecca Baggett, in “Chestnut,” pays homage to the regrowth of trees in the Georgia mountains: “My friend writes of the great trees / and their vanishing, / but I have seen a young chestnut, / tender and green, rising from its ashes.” “Frequencies” by James Malone Smith evokes the struggles of raising livestock on a farm: “Everything here seems hard — / trying to keep things alive / long enough to kill them.”
Often the particular quality of a landscape can reflect human suffering or awe. In “Metamorphosis,” set on Sapelo Island, Kevin Vaughn contemplates the terrors of existence as he observes the cycles of the moon: “Nights, sitting on the pavilion / I stare out & wonder who I am / in the total absence of light.” And Eric Nelson in “The Lowcountry” says of the swampy foundations of Savannah, “It is difficult to live here, to hold / Firm where nothing holds still, / Where deep roots are impossible.”
In addition to the prevalence of the rural, the poems frequently incorporate spiritual longing, religion (specifically Christianity) and religious imagery. Poems such as Jenn Blair’s “Red Clay Christ” (“Christ — at one decibel: loud”), Fred Bassett’s “Accidents” (“Grace is the way out, you want to say / but don’t”), Melisa Cahnmann-Taylor’s “In the Name of God” (“I want / a God who sweats when she dances”) and Patricia Percival’s “Beam” (“The sunflower wears a crown of thorns”) reveal the through-line, sometimes obvious, sometimes subtle, of religion.
The South’s turbulent history also permeates poems throughout the anthology. In “Guilt,” Ginger Murchison compares the oppressive heat of summer to the oppressive guilt, both personal and collective, of the region: “Everything about the South boiling over / like another consequence / in the heaving night air.” M. Ayodele Heath gives voice to displaced homeless people in “On Closing Woodruff Park, Atlanta”: “I wonder / if Black turns to blue / when you’re that cold, / old, low & forgotten / by this progressive city.” And Stacey Lynn Brown asserts in “Excerpts From Cradle Song: Section I”: “that’s the way / memory works in the South — / the truth is always lying / in some field somewhere between / the bones of the fallen / and the weapons they reach for.”
The changing South, its countryside and its cities, its past and present, returns again and again in the form of personal narratives. Memory, family and mortality haunt the work of these poets. In “First Memory, Grandfather’s Cabin,” Rupert Fike recalls his family examining the ruins of his grandfather’s cabin in Rabun County: “But ‘Pop’ is dead now, gone on, they say, / his beloved place on its own slow slide.” Memye Curtis Tucker explores the difficulty of living up to the old-fashioned values of her dead grandmothers in “Ghosts”: “I try to satisfy them. / But I spill the milk, grow tired, / tell strangers / what I suspect of the truth.”
In the spectacular poem “A Chat With My Father,” David Bottoms describes an aging father’s attempt at conversation by using an extended metaphor of a small boy walking through the woods. Although the boy knows the way well, he drifts off the path and into an alluring landscape, going deeper and deeper into the darkening forest: “All the while the woods have grown dark, / and suddenly he looks across the table, / and you see in his eyes that he’s lost.” Here the poet combines the tradition of the Southern pastoral with a poignant personal narrative about the fragility of human life.