Chapter 16
A Community of Tennessee Writers, Readers & Passersby

What Can Be Said About the South

In Poems of the American South, David Biespiel assembles some of the best poets writing from or about this region

It’s no wonder that Poems of the American South starts with the hymns sung by enslaved people. “Bound for Canaan Land” and “Nobody Knows de Trouble I’ve Had” represent what’s best and worst about the region—its history and its hope. They also suggest the rich musical legacy that’s apparent in poem after poem, with roots not only in gospel but also in jazz and blues. Indeed, the last entry in the collection is “The Blue Terrance” by Terrance Hayes:

Suppose you were nothing but a song

in a busted speaker? Suppose you had to wipe
sweat from the brow of a righteous woman,
but all you owned was a dirty rag? That’s why

the blues will never go out of fashion[.]

These poems, assembled and introduced by David Biespiel, aren’t going out of style either. Even at their most topical—Muriel Rukeyser’s “The Soul and Body of John Brown” or Langston Hughes’s “Song for a Dark Girl”—they transcend their particulars. They even transcend the South, as Biespiel explains: “In our time, the very notion of regional poetry is problematic.” And yet this editor’s enthusiasm for the work is clear when he praises the energy of recent literature, an energy he credits to the growing diversity of Southerners. That wide range of voices is reflected in the book’s table of contents.

These are risky poems that tackle high-stakes issues such as poverty, violence, and race. In fact, high stakes are the defining characteristic of this anthology. There’s an entire section, “A Cloud of Witnesses,” dedicated to understanding people’s motivations. In “The Warden Said to Me the Other Day” by Etheridge Knight, the speaker responds to the question of why black prisoners don’t run away: “Well, suh, / I ain’t for sure, but I reckon it’s cause / we ain’t got no wheres to run to.” Even in the “Critters” section, though, rattlesnakes are much more likely to appear than deer. As Andrei Codrescu writes in “Virgin Mule,” “Oh let the monsters in. Help us / rise above our not seeing them.” These poems have their eyes wide open.

In his intro, Biespiel quotes Natasha Trethewey: “No matter how people think about poetry or think they think about it on a regular basis, people turn to it in some of the most trying times in our lives.” Her observation is supported by many poems in this book, but never more so than in Bob Hicok’s “In the Loop,” a response to the 2007 mass shooting at Virginia Tech:

People wrote, called, mostly e-mailed,
because they know I teach at Virginia Tech,
to say, there’s nothing to say. Eventually
I answered these messages: there’s nothing
to say, thank you for your willingness
to say it.

Biespiel frames the collection as one of “rediscovery,” a point made especially clear in the “Lookouts” section, where Hart Crane and Langston Hughes appear side by side. Neither man lived in the South, but they both approached the region with longing. In “Southern Cross,” Crane writes, “I wanted you, nameless Woman of the South”; in “The South,” Hughes declares, “I, who am black, would love her / But she spits in my face.” And in the final poem of the section, Trethewey ends her own “Pastoral” with “You don’t hate the South? they ask. You don’t hate it?” The question is left unanswered in this poem and in others where disgust and desire live side by side.

In this thoughtfully curated collection, Biespiel conveys the dualities of the South, the tension created by an appreciation for its history and an acknowledgement that much of its history is brutal. In “Diorama,” Artsuro Riley captures the frenzy of a crowd using a regional vernacular: “I am bone-broke but falling into line. / The men upwind of me are leaking chaw-spit and pennies. / That, plus the eye-hunger spreading like a rumor through the swarm.” It’s easy to get caught up in the momentum, find yourself jostled forward, unable to avoid seeing the main event. In the shocking ending, the speaker watches his father bring two African-American boys in to fight. The racial tension is not a straightforward one of witness, though, because earlier in the poem the speaker himself has been subjected to disapproving looks for his mixed heritage: “gaggles and clutches of feather-white neighbor- / women, eyeballing us like we’re pig’s feet in a jar.” More than by location on a map, these poems are united by an acceptance that truth is complicated.

It’s tempting to think of anthologies as teaching tools rather than books for private consumption, but Poems of the American South is anything but stuffy and academic. At 256 pages, it’s also manageable, the ideal introduction to poets writing from or about the South. “What can be said about the South that hasn’t been said already?” Biespiel asks in his introduction. These poems answer that challenge with the ferocity and grace expected of this region.