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.

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Jeff Daniel Marion: Legendary

IMG_0681I had the extreme pleasure of encountering Jeff Daniel Marion at the 2013 Southern Festival of Books a few weeks ago. Not only was I able to hear him read on a panel for the newly published Southern Poetry Anthology, Vol. 6: Tennessee, but I was also able to meet the poet because my literature-loving mother was with me, and Marion was her college advisor and English professor some 20 years ago. This was a lovely moment to witness as student and teacher were reunited after so many years; mother shared of how her passion for literature was still alive today in her vocation as an English teacher, and in me, in my immense love of poetry. After the reading, I looked behind me as we all left the hall, and my professor (Jeff Hardin) was walking alongside my mother’s professor, while she and I walked ahead, side by side. It was one of those moments when you can see the whole of the circle, and all you can do is smile and offer up your grateful heart.

When Jesse Graves introduced Jeff Daniel Marion at the SoFest reading, he said, “Tennessee poetry in the last 30 years has funneled through the writing and person of Danny Marion.” In light of Marion’s many accomplishments and wide-spread influence, Graves is spot on. Marion has published nine poem books, four chapbooks, and one children’s book. His latest book, Letters To The Dead: A Memoir, was released earlier this year. An East Tennessee native, Marion settled at Carson-Newman College as their poet-in-residence and English professor for more than 35 years. Marion lives with his lovely poet-wife, Linda Parsons Marion, in Knoxville. Today’s feature comes from Marion’s poetry collection, Letters Home, published in October 2001.

SIGN, SOUTH PACIFIC, 1943

Weeks at sea and no mountains
rose to break that endless stretch
of horizon, blue so deep
a man could lose himself, drift
of cloud sailing wherever
wind wished. O for the anchor
of home where markers gripped true
ground. On the 37th day
land sighted, Uncle Gene sprawled
on the beach of some unnamed
island, no sign of habitation
anywhere until he saw,
nailed to the trunk of a palm
tree, an arrow plank with words
in bold: See Rock City, 5000 miles.
There rose from that vast expanse
of sea the pastures of East
Tennessee, painted barns and
boundary trees, rocks tilled up
in spring plowing: the only
war souvenir he carried
back, this memory, like a
compass left by an unknown
sailor on a nameless isle
whose needle pointed to home.

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I seem to choose poems that are feature clear and straight forward language more often than not. But I believe that this sort of writing is one of the best vehicles for projecting the voice of the poet, and, at the same time, presenting the reader space to attach their own sentiment to the piece. After reading Marion’s poems, I noticed that imagery is frequently the focal point in his works, with vivid descriptions such as–“blue so deep/ a man could lose himself”– pointedly woven throughout the narrative creating an excellent balance of lyric and color. This short tale of the narrator’s Uncle Gary surrounded by the vastness of the South Pacific and suffering from homesickness is one that many of us may have heard before. But it’s Gary’s “anchor of home,” that causes him to envision a Rock City sign echoing of his distant Tennessee–complete with the stretches of fields and “painted barns.” My heart smiled when I found this poem and remembered my own great-grandfather who fought in the Pacific arena during WWII as a very young man. Same time frame, same place, and same longing for earthy Tennessee. Papa George once told me that when he finally made the 5000-mile journey back and arrived at the Nashville train station in the dark of the early morning, he sat out on the city street and said, “I’m home.”

For more reading about the venerable Jeff Daniel Marion, take some time to read the moving homage Jesse Graves wrote for his friend that Chapter 16 featured recently. For an interview, poems featured by the Poetry Foundation, a new poem from Letters To The Dead: A Memoir, and four Marion poetry collections at Celtic Cat Publishing click the appropriate links.

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.

James Cherry: Here, Now

IMG_1293I had the great privilege of hearing James Cherry read at the Southern Festival of Books last weekend and meeting him afterwards. Though we were surrounded by a crowd of ardent book lovers and a medley of city sounds, I was deeply moved by how comfortably he shared the workings and introspections of his mind. As he read of a death in the family, new neighbors, and judgement in his everyday 21st century life– it was as if an old friend was simply unfolding those kinds of incidents that we’re all trying learn from. Cherry and his wife Tammy reside in Jackson, Tennessee, where he is the creator of The Griot Collective of West Tennessee, a non-profit that promotes poetry and the spoken word. He has written four books (Bending the Blues, a poetry chapbook; Honoring the Ancestors, a full collection of poems; Shadow of Light, a novel; and Still A Man and Other Stories, a collection of short fiction), and this week’s poem can be found in his newest book of poems, Loose Change.

Space Between Us

Death that has brought home my niece,

her cousin, lost in twisted metal, broken glass

on an interstate highway.  The house is hushed

 

with midnight when Lauren leads me to the kitchen.

She hops onto the counter, her shoulders hunched

inside a T-shirt with Mickey Mouse on the front.

 

I anticipate a change in college majors, a new job

or even life in another city, but I’m still not hearing

what she has said, her words

 

crystalizing in the space between us,

shatter into syllables around my feet.

“I’m going to have a baby.”

 

She is twenty and in her smile remains

Christmas, bright early, sparkling with surprise,

summers in Tennessee swelter

 

satiated on Bar-B-Que and ice cream,

living room skits performed with baby brother Niles,

replete with costumes, props and improvisation.

 

She explains her plans to resume school

after the baby is born, that it’s a girl,

that the father is close to my age, mid-forties.

 

“Is this what you want, Lauren?”

Her answer echoes down the hall

to my bedroom long after

 

we have said goodnight.

I undress the moonlight, measure the pulse

of my wife’s breathing and lay beside her,

 

ponder the shape of shadows on the wall

and the wants of loved ones that rarely fit

desires we have designed for them.

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I can’t help but hear Cherry’s steady, gentle voice every time I read and re-read this poem. His writing voice, much like his physical one, is strong and rich, as he describes this encounter with his niece. I am struck by how vividly I can see the scene Cherry’s described–“The house is hushed/ with midnight when Lauren leads me to the kitchen.” Perhaps there’s a grandfather clock ticking like the house’s heartbeat and the linoleum in the kitchen is cool on their feet, but it’s the “space between us,” that’s so tangible to me. Much like Lauren’s “crystallized” words, Cherry has frozen this particular night with all of its conflicting emotions: shock, naive understanding, happiness, confusion, and loving concern. This has quickly become one of my favorite poems as it is straightforward in its form, tone, and language, but quietly leaves the reader mulling over the question of how to respond when one’s desires for someone they love do not align with the actual choices that are made.

To read more on James Cherry, visit his personal website for a list of books, interviews, reviews, etc. Use the following links for the AALBC’s feature on Cherry and Project HBW’s blog feature on Cherry’s book, Loose Change, which I highly encourage readers to purchase on Amazon.

John Bensko: Perceptive Heart

IMG_1916I am quickly finding that the most common thread among contemporary poets, but especially our southern ones, is their potent sense of place that they champion, and John Bensko is no exception. This poet has resided in many southern states before calling Tennessee his home, and he has particularly highlighted his Alabama birthplace through his book Iron City: PoemsWith an impressive string of degrees, teaching positions at Rhodes College and the University of Alicante, Spain as a Fulbright Professor, and celebrations such as the Yale Younger Poet Series winner for his book Green Soldiers, I am pleased to feature John Bensko’s poem found in my spanking new copy of The Southern Poetry Anthology, Vol. 6: Tennessee.  

A Broken Ode to Snow

A winter day cannot avoid its snow.

Can I accept that I do not belong to myself?

 

On the street at night a flurry of shadows falls

across the light, Can I think that I will not be?

 

My feet leave impressions

that the snow itself cannot remove.

 

Things melt. Hair grows gray, then white.

Disappearing, can I think those I love will be gone too?

 

I love snow, when it falls fast and thick,

when the wind takes it and throws it up against itself.

 

To explain me to me. To know

exactly what I am, and am not.

 

Snow does not worry, does not toil.

Its only order is to fall and deepen.

 

When we unbecome ourselves, when we melt

in moments we cannot bear, who do we become?

 

I like to watch the snow melting leave the footprints. The icy

remainders where I’ve gone down the walk are the last to go.

 

People like to speak of the soul, and the soul’s awakening.

It drifts, it rises, and falls, it deepens.

 

Watching at night, I wonder how thick it will be by morning.

In the day, I hope it won’t stop before night.

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Bensko’s ode to snow is accompanied with an inescapable chill that your body and your mind cannot seem to shake long after you’ve read the piece and shut the book. His simple language, quiet repetition, and drivingly introspective questions build throughout the poem just like piles of its cold, white subject matter. Bensko starts the poem by reminding his readers that just as a “winter day cannot avoid its snow,” one cannot necessarily escape the heavy thoughts of personal existence during one’s life of many seasons. In a steady pattern of alternating between descriptions of snow to asking questions about the soul’s transience—“things melt”—, Bensko beautifully crafts this connectedness. But he also contrasts the lightness of the snow, saying that it “does not worry, does not toil,” with the weightier matters of the soul –though they both “fall and deepen.” Three-quarters of the way through the poem, the eighth couplet snagged at my spirit: “When we unbecome ourselves, when we melt/ in moments we cannot bear, who do we become?” Each of us knows those instances where we helplessly dissolve into our circumstances, but I don’t think I’m ready to answer Benkso’s final question. Yet, here’s to continuing to ask myself the heavier questions and learning to live in gratitude, no matter what season my soul finds itself.

To read more of John Bensko’s work, invest in a copy of Vol. 6 of The Southern Poetry Anthology: Tennessee, or any of his books: Green Soliders, The Waterman’s Children, The Iron City: Poems. And for some insight into his poetic practices and thoughts, click on Poetry Net’s feature of Bensko.