Established in 1989, the Fellowship of Southern Writers "wanted the work of young Southern authors to be read and evaluated and recognized by other Southern writers for whom the region and the subject matter would not seem 'quaint' or 'exotic,'" writes Louis D. Rubin. "[W]e wanted to recognize and encourage only work of the highest quality, free from insularity and localism."
This volume, which editor Fred Chappell calls both a complement to and a companion of the fellowship's collection of fiction, The Cry of an Occasion (2001), beautifully continues this new tradition of Southern writing and succeeds in escaping the charge frequently leveled at literature of the South--that it is too specifically local to have much of an impact outside of a narrowly prescribed region. Nothing could be further from the truth in this slim volume of verse that contains selections from Fellowship members both living and dead, and recipients of the Fellowship's Hanes Prize for Poetry.
In his preface, Chappell addresses this criticism of local insularity directly, by contending that although poetry is supposed to strive to be universal, a specific place only enhances that universality. The poetry gathered here clearly exhibits this powerful combination. The A.R. Ammons poem "I Went Back," which opens the volume, sets the tone and subject for what follows:
I went back
to my old home
and the furrow
of each year
the place had
The damage that time inflicts upon us can be healed by a return to that "old home," the repository of indelible memories. Locales wrestles throughout with this tension between human perception and natural reality. In "The Sycamore," Wendell Berry explores this tension through the metaphor of a place as both a defining element in one's identity and a healer of the resulting wounds:
In the place that is my own place, whose earth
I am shaped in and must bear, there is an old tree growing,
a great sycamore that is a wondrous healer of itself.
Yusef Komunyakaa's "Knights of the White Camellia & Deacons of Defense" strikes the tense balance between a KKK rally in the dark of night and the following day's march when the "Sons/& daughters of sharecroppers/Who made sawmill/& cotton fields hum for generations,/Encircled the slow-footed/Marchers like an ebony shield."
His is a grim reminder of the South's legacy of bigotry and enslavement, but one that shows that times have changed, albeit gradually, as the descendants of sharecroppers and slaves take a bold stand against racial hatred.
No inaugural volume of poetry from the Fellowship's rolls would be complete without contributions from James Dickey and Robert Penn Warren, two poets with stylistic similarities and regional connections. In "Holly and Hickory," Warren brings to life the sights, sounds, and memories of the land:
Rain, all night, taps the holly.
It ticks like a telegraph on the pane.
If awake in that house, meditating some old folly
Or trying to live an old pleasure again,
I could hear it sluicing the ruts in the land.
Dickey's "Snow on a Southern State" has a narrative arc that travels from the "labor/To change wholly into my spirit" to the "land/All around ... renewing my youth/By changing the place where I lived it." In between, Dickey takes us across "buried meadows/Of muffled night light," past screened in porches in small towns and "parked cars clumsily letting/Pureness, a blinding burden,/Come slowly upon them." As with many of the poems in this volume, Dickey's lyric combines a strong sense of place with a universal longing.
This desire for a renewal of the spirit is at the heart of this collection of poems. Locales mines the rich spiritual and natural landscape of the South, and challenges the tired notion that to be regional is to be insular. Read and enjoy.