Fifty Years of
Southern Poetry Review
James Smith, Editor
(University of Arkansas Press)Carolyn Kizer shows her usual violent imagination, hearing "jackboots on the stairs,"
the fascists dragging daddy out of bed,
dragging him down the steps by his wonderful hair.
Howard Nemerov worries about babies, "Lovers everywhere are bringing babies into the world."
Lovers with stars in their eyes are turning the stars
Into babies, lovers reading the instructions in comic books
Are turning out babies according to the instructions; this
Progression is said by demographers to be geometric and
Accelerating the rate of its acceleration.
Kathryn Stripling Byer (whose name itself might well be a haiku) remembers dry years in Georgia, the pigs "grumbled / from sunup to sundown,"
so much hot weather
the silly petunias collapsed
(Do people with such names like that somehow grow to produce better poetry than the rest of us: Starkey Flythe Jr. wrote a paean to the anesthesiologist, "I had only to lie / there, free even of my dreams,"
What is memory
but the counter of time? Where I went I could take nothing,
not even Newton's laws. I swam armless,
a fragment of Greece, plaster taking on
water, the bottom dizzyingly close,
blindly bumping into wall dead to the sound
§ § §
As is my wont, I spent a bit of time over the 200 poems in Don't Leave Hungry before turning back to the Introduction by editor James Smith ... and then backwards to the Foreward by Billy Collins. I read it thus because I want to see if the editors had missed the boat.
But they didn't and, by gum, Collins even touched on some of the poems I had thought to be worthwhile. Like William Matthews early and remarkable "The Attic, the House," Michelle Detorie's "appropriately miniature 'Doll House,'" and a longtime favorite of ours, X. J. Kennedy, with his funny portrait of Mount Rushmore ("Abe, Abe, how does it feel to be up there? ... "Alone.")
Collins even gives a sly kick to the overrated James Dickey. He refers to his "curiously strained metaphor." (James Smith, the editor of Don't Leave Hungry, tells us that the founder of the Southern Poetry Review, Guy Owen, opined that Dickey's poetry was "diffuse and repetitious.")
§ § §
Collins has come along just in time to save American poetry from getting overstuffed and fat with too many Guggenheims. He kicks against the groupthink of Acceptable Poetry from the pages of the Atlantic, the Midwest Review, and god save us, "Poetry Magazine" (which recently stumbled into plutocratic heaven by means of a $100,000,000 donation from the daughter of the man who invented Darvon, Darvocet and Cialis).
Thank god for Billy Collins. He's a joker; knows how to write, both prose and poetry; admits that in his early days he shipped off poems to The Southern Poetry Review not even knowing what it was. "I was looking only for cracks in the editorial wall that would allow me to slip into the ranks of the Published and forever leave the board of the Anonymous."
And Don't Leave Hungry has a passel of passable poems. Cathy Smith Bowers muses on okra, Henry Tayor on The Muse. Edward Wilson sees a lady in "Her Station Wagon Weeping at a Red Light." Kathryn Kirkpatrick gets lost in Ireland "between two armored cars."
Claudia Emerson finds a dead mouse in a jar in the cellar next to "jars of beets, peach halves, snaps, tomatoes." And, Debra A. Daniel remembers when she was a girl, the boy sitting next to her in church
he pulled a pen from his pocket, leaned forward,
drew on the length and meat of his thumb,
a hula girl, and as his knuckled bent and swiveled,
she danced a crimson sway...
As usual with poetry collections, the few stinkers come, mostly, from the people who have a name in the oxygen-thin world of American versification. James Dickey compares a rowboat to his mother ("Loose the long cord;") Wendell Berry writes another endless elegy on the good old days ("talk ... and laughter / and taking of ease around the porch / while the summer night closed...") And David Ignatov writes poetry to his poetry --- "for the night / of empty muses" --- complete with a singularly unfortunate phrase,
I fall asleep
as if it were a poem
to resolve my cares
into a final solution.--- A. W. Allworthy