Kate Daniels: A Heroine of the South

img068This week’s featured poet, Kate Daniels, is not afraid of conveying what’s on her mind through the tones of her earnest and complex poems. Daniels, born and raised in Virginia, now resides in Nashville, TN, where a life lived in the South consistently spills out in her works through topics of racism, the working class, and the heavy-handed society of upper-class whites. Daniels has accrued three degrees from University of Virginia and Columbia University and has taught at LSU, UVa, Wake Forest and is currently an associate professor of English at Vanderbilt University. Over the last three decades, Daniels has produced four poetry books, has been featured in the 2008 and 2010 issues of Best American Poetry, and has edited two volumes on poets Muriel Rukeyser and Robert Bly. In celebration of her work to date, Daniels was the winner of the Hanes Award for Poetry by the Fellowship of Southern Writers in 2011.

Moving

Old walls are new to me. Someone else’s

babies were carried up this cracked brick walk,

sung over the threshold, bedded down

in the tiny orange nursery that gives off

the kitchen or in the low-roofed room upstairs

where I hope to write. Not mine

who took their first steps elsewhere

and never had their portraits posed by the short

stone fence or plucked the blossoms

from the magnolia someone planted

far too near the dank north wall.

Someone else conceived her creatures

here and struggled with the washer

in the cold, dark basement. Ancient

fuses, busted lights. Other

infants haunted these nights.

Mine are quiet and sleep straight through,

Uneasy in new arrangements of their furniture,

new odors, new echoes. New light on the walls.

New darkness in their hearts. And while

they sleep, I pace my newly purchased

halls choking in wallpaper I’d never choose,

dark paints that sink my spirits. Wrenched

out of context, no depth to new life

yet. On the patio, a pail is full of water

but it’s frozen. My houseplants perished

on the journey here. And the first garment

I retrieve from the packed-up cartons

is a shirt with its pocket torn off, still

wearable, I guess, but capable of carrying

nothing. No money or photos, no map,

no scrap of paper with a telephone number

I need to remember. Not even a pen or a pencil

so I can write my way out of here as fast as possible.

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This piece is fairly different from Daniels other work–shorter in length, not as weighty in subject matter, a little more quiet in her language. I suppose I chose this piece over others is quite simple: I love moving, but I’ve never considered what the new owners felt like in my kitchen or my bedroom after we’ve packed up and vacated, or that they might feel uncomfortable. The particular house the narrator is describing sounds like one with character, “old walls,” “cracked brick,” “low-roofed room,” and “busted lights,” but the woman is struggling to place herself in a new section of the home’s story. This piece features a different take on a sense of place, for though the poem is anchored in the telling of the new home, there’s an uneasiness that hinders the connection one might experience after moving in. The loss of attachment is even more tangible as she describes the shirt with ” its pocket torn off,” for it cannot hold anything–no scraps of the old home, no information of where the narrator now finds herself, and no tool with which to remedy the situation. The piece leaves the reader sensing that the new homeowner is “frozen,” just like the full bucket of water on the porch–full of potential, but paralyzed by the confines of the detachment. In the depth of the dark language, she reaches for the extreme: “Not even a pen or a pencil/ so I can write my way out of here as fast as possible.” But the answer is not in writing herself out of the place, but in merely living and filling the home with fresh memories.

To continue learning about and experiencing Kate Daniels, use the following links for an interview/review of her latest poetry collection, A Walk in Victoria’s Secret, with Chapter 16, featured poems on the Story South blog, a poem on Poets.org, and a poem “The Pedicure,” from her latest book.

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Bill Brown: Gentle To Words

img_4130I first heard Bill Brown’s name when Jeff Hardin gave me a list of poets I should be reading.  More recently, I witnessed Brown’s unique style while introducing TJ Jarrett and Matthew Guinn during a deeply moving reading at The Southern Festival of Books. The tone with which he spoke about the two authors was mindful, for he was intensely conscious of the words he had chosen to describe and honor the artists. Bill Brown was born and raised in Dyersburg, TN, and he has given back to our beloved state through his writings, his 20 years of teaching English at Nashville’s Hume-Fogg magnet school, and his time lecturing at Vanderbilt University. Brown has written five poetry collections and three chapbooks, and he has appeared in the Prairie Schooner, North American Review, and Southern Poetry Review. The following poem is featured in Brown’s most recent poetry collection, The News Inside.

The Melting

There should be hope in the leaves’ first turning—
summer green fringed red and yellow, webbed
hands reaching out against the curtain’s blue.

Winter and what it takes from the heart
is almost worth it. Year by blessed year,
in the shortened days, something is stolen

that cannot be reclaimed—a swelling in the chest
when night comes soon. At a certain age
a man takes a season’s beginnings, the small

beauties—frozen rings on creek rocks,
the first skein of ice in the horse trough.
He holds it to the morning sun and it burns

his palm as it drips through his fingers.
Each year he grips it tighter to see
his face melt in the fire.

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This poem was too timely to pass up, as it reflects the current season with vibrant hues on floating leaves and too-early sunsets, cutting our autumn days shorter and shorter with every passing week. I was drawn to the appearance of the poem with its minimal and clean three-line stanzas, but as always, the words drew me closer. “There should be hope” about the changing color of the leaves, but the autumnal tone serves as a solemn reminder that this season is a swift one. Winter quickly follows, and with it, brings the end to another year. The reader senses, that to the poet, there is more than just flora to be lost in the winter, “Year by blessed year,/ in the shortened days, something is stolen.” Maybe we age the most in the sunless days of those colder months, often pouring over the past and wondering if the future will look any different. Yet, even though the narrator is aging and his “night comes soon,” he’s still seeking out the loveliness in the different changings of the season. I envision myself right along beside him, gripping my slab of ice–making sure that I can feel this moment. For I too hate to see the years melt away, but I ache to honor these physical indications of change.

For a review of Brown’s 2008 poem book, Late Winter, an interview with the MTSU literary project, a Chapter 16 featured interview, and two different links for poems (Still Journal and Chapter 16), click on the highlighted phrases.

On this Veteran’s Day morning, Chapter 16 has featured Brown’s poem, “When the Dust Settles;” please take a moment to reflect on his poignant piece about lives that have been touched by war. Thanks, and thanks again.

Jeff Hardin: Welcome In

img074On my first day of Creative Writing class with Jeff Hardin, he told our room of eclectic and eccentric students: “You’re writing for now, and you’re writing for later.” I was hardly aware of how that quote, that class, and that man would change my path into the one that I’m now walking. He asked us once, who had given us permission to “play in the game [of writing];” and though there were others who have lovingly encouraged my love of writing over the years, it was Hardin, who looked at me, and said, “Yeah, you can write poetry.”

Jeff Hardin was raised in Savannah, Tennessee, and is an eighth generation descendent of the county’s founder. He received degrees from Austin Peay State University and the University of Alabama. Hardin teaches English at Columbia State Community College– where I first encountered him and was his student for two semesters. He has amassed some 500+ publications, and has birthed two books of poems, Fall Sanctuary, and Notes For a Praise Book.

I’m struggling, more than usual, to convey the importance of this particular poet, for he has been more influential to me than a mere poem on a page. He is a friend to trees, to old waterways, to the last light of a sunset, to the voice of a guitar, to tomorrow, to grace. And I’m blessed to say he is a friend to me.

Seed Heads Bursting Gold Light

We need to busy ourselves with memorizing autumn

in the puddles down the drive. A single

forgotten reflection makes all the others tremble.

 

I didn’t think twice as a boy, lying prostrate

to watch a dandelion bend with the breeze.

Amazing! I knew already what to do with my life.

 

I’d wager Solomon, had he lived nearby,

would have taken long walks in the sage grass field,

just to watch how seed heads burst with gold light.

 

I’m an advocate of letting things lean as they must.

When one tree rests its dying toward another,

I go among them to listen in and take my place.

 

No big difference, I say, between years that lean that way

and a shared gaze between me and some friend’s eyes.

Some weakness unspoken may be the strongest voice we have.

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I smile as I read, because this poem is such a prime look into exactly who Hardin is. He says it himself, “I knew already what to do with my life,” as he identifies that noticing and bringing attention to the beauty found in the smallest, simplest of things is an integral part of him. His attention to detail is lovely; I’m there, and I can see each moment frozen in a photograph rich with emotion–the “trembling” puddles down the leaf-speckled drive or the delicate seed heads lifting into the dying sun. “I’m an advocate of letting things lean as they must,” is a line that encourages us to accept life as it comes.  The poet reminds readers, as if they were young maple trees pushing into the wind, to embrace those especially unique things about oneself. Because Hardin and I both know that it’s in those things that everyone’s particular loveliness is found. Spend some time paying attention and celebrating the distinctive elements of today. Take your place among the woods that are beginning to burn with color, put your hands to the bark and character of the trees you pass, nod your head to life’s cycle of death and rebirth, and raise your “strongest voice.”

For more Hardin reading, you can utilize the following links to his personal website, blog, a feature on Still: The Journal, an interview with Shane Toombs, a review of Fall Sanctuary, and a poem feature and a review of Notes From A Praise Book on Chapter 16’s website.

Jesse Graves: Tied to the Land

Jesse Graves, a descendent of German immigrants who settled in the Tennessee hills, understands the connection our ancestors used to have with the land far better than most people in the 21st century do. Like the roots of a pine, Graves’ tie to his ancestral grounds is deep–since he was raised just miles from where they originally emigrated to–and, thankfully, he allows this strong sense of place to permeate his work. Graves has collected a Ph. D. in English from the University of Tennessee and a M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Cornell University, and he now teaches English at Eastern Tennessee State University. Tennessee Landscape with a Blighted Pine (2012) is his first book of poems and features today’s selected piece.

Johnson’s Ground

We sit under the awning and watch them descend in unison.
A flock of thirty or more down through the heavy rain
We weren’t supposed to get, pecking where grass is thin
For what the moisture turns up.
They look like the sound of the word
Grackle, these scavengers with wings muted black as painted iron rails,
As wet tar, their empty beaks flashing a bright citrus smear.
Memorial Day weekend and the weather drives us for cover,
Beating down plastic flowers and darkening the family gravestones.

Each year we arrive, like any family, to admire new babies
And find out who has changed jobs or gotten married,
I come to see who’s left to sit in the shaded chairs
Where my grandmother sat with her oldest sister Minnie
For the last time, neither of them able to name the other,
Both staring as if into a clouded mirror.
In the memory of their faces
I see pillars of stone, pillars of stippled salt,
Where the hammer of time drives the chisel of living,
The opaque blue of their eyes, each pair reflecting the other,
Sky blue buttons threaded through a dark blue dress.

Homecoming at the cemetery: they never let us go, even the ones
Laid under before our births continue to make their claims,
To draw the interest on their spent lives.
My grandfather waits here,
A Houston buried in Johnson ground—such is the appointment
He made with them. He was dead two years before
I was born, but who do I remind the old people of?
Whose picture did I stare into above the living room fireplace?

My great-uncle Gene tells my father and me about the base
He served in Korea, how bombs sounded hitting the village,
While a hundred feet away is my cousin Gary,
killed in Vietnam, telling his story into our other ears,
into the soles of our shoes.
The foraging birds drag worms
Out of the ground; we pull dark meat from the bones
Of chicken thighs and split boiled potatoes with plastic forks.

Damp air hums in our lungs and old people begin
Covering dishes—the rain always seeps in,
Even under shelter.
I offer my hands one more time
To the company who packs their leftovers and drives away,
And to the company who stays behind, under the tall grass,
Left in the restless turning of what we remember of them.

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Graves’ recounting of his family’s Memorial Day gathering leaves the reader with a feeling similar to that of humidity–an odd mix of heaviness and hope. He sways back and forth from present to past to present as he weaves a clear picture of all who have convened, “even the ones/ Laid under before our births.” Save for the mention of new children added to the family, Graves does not mention the young, but focuses on the elderly–those who linger to tell of the past and those who have already passed from life to death. This poem caught my attention because as I read it,  I remembered a similar day, the day we buried my great-grandmother. Though we shared the rain in common, it was a much colder February afternoon that we gathered in the heavily cedar-wooded plot where generations have said their goodbyes. I felt at home in Graves’ keen awareness of the impact that his forefathers have had on the ensuing generations they were not privileged to know.  I often search for my own connections to the past and try to piece together a history that will keep in this fast-paced world of technology and transience.

Jesse Graves will be speaking at the Southern Festival of Books on October 12th, so be sure not to miss the opportunity to meet him there. For further reading on Graves or his poetry, visit Chapter 16 for this interview, Town Creek Poetry’s interview, and his personal site for poems and other info. His two books: Tennessee Landscape with Blighted Pine: Poems and The Southern Poetry Anthology, Vol. 3: Contemporary Appalachia can be purchased on Amazon.