April 2018

Monday, July 27, 2015

Poetry, Truth, and Mythology

Saturday afternoon Ann and I attended a poetry reading at the home of our friends Rita and Linda. First, Linda’s brother Jeff read romantic poetry, a twenty minute selection from his 19 published books, and then their friend Azar read a collection of her poetry (in Persian) and Rita, Linda, and Azar’s son took turns reading translations that Rita and Azar had worked on together. The event’s intent, to share poetry in community, would have warmed my heart anyway, but the poets’ loveliness and the conversation about poetry—Prussian and English—delighted me more than I can really say.

Jeff introduced his readings with a story of his grandfather, who was a poet in upper New York, reading as the family gathered around. My family didn’t have gatherings like that, but the story brought to mind our large Southern family gathering around my Granddaddy Matthews as he told stories that made himself look somewhat foolish and made the rest of us laugh.

I remember in particular one story about the day Grandmother and Granddaddy had returned home with their kids to discover their home had been robbed. Drawers had been emptied and furniture turned over. Grandaddy grabbed his rifle and took off after the guy while Grandmother called the police. Granddaddy was a tall man, maybe not yet the 350 pound man that I would know, but probably big enough to be scary.

But Granddaddy was also sweet and harmless in a way that the burglar must have detected. Grandaddy found that burglar and put his gun on him, telling the man to stop, but the man kept walking, so Granddaddy followed him into the darkening dusk, the two walking in file. Finally, the burglar turned to Granddaddy and his gun and said, “Mister, if you don’t stop following me I’ll kill you.”

As he told the story, Granddaddy repeated the punch line and hee-hawed. “I was the one with the gun, and he was gonna kill me!” We’d all heard the story before, and the repetition was part of the fun (kind of like seeing the Rocky Horror Picture show again and again), so my Uncle Tommy hollered out his line, “Were you scared, Mr. Matthews?”

“I was scared,” he said, just like he’d always said before. And, laughing even harder, he said again: “I was the one with the gun, and he was gonna kill me!” We all laughed and repeated the sentiment to one another, feeling the warmth of family in the laughter and the retelling.

Telling and retelling stories is the poetry of the South, at least of the South I knew. This was our version of a poetry reading.

Sharing the music of our cultures—whether it be poetry or stories, instrumentally accompanied or not—is so much of who we are and how we know the ground is solid beneath our feet (a metaphor that Jeff used in some fine way that I can’t now remember, because I immediately made it my own).

I felt the intensity of this realization as Azar read her poetry—in Persian, the language of her youth and adulthood until the Revolution—and much of the poetry followed Persian forms and the beauty of Iran and a sense of loss of a homeland. After the reading, the group discussed the work of translation in meter and sound, the way that no work can fully be translated from its original culture.

I, too, lost my homeland, though I didn’t lose it to Revolution, like she did, and I moved away of my own volition. I think I always knew I would leave the South. After all, I was—from as early as I can remember—a feminist butting up against a male-dominated culture, and my favorite family picture is from when I was in second grade standing with my family on the stoop of our flat brick home, flashing a peace sign at the camera while the others just smiled and looked darling.

When I was in school and people started asking me where I’d go to college, I always responded, “Alaska University” because I figured there must be such a place, and it must be far from home. (I like the heat, so I don’t know why Hawaii never occurred to me.) I went to my father’s Alma Mater in Davidson, NC, but after college I started moving west and landed here in the upper western corner of the contiguous United States.

Though I’ve separated myself from the South, being Southern-raised is still an important part of my identity. I still have the accent (much stronger after brain surgery), and I still love grits (no sugar: that belongs in the iced tea—Texans, who are not Southerners, mix that up.) I go to a church with similar politics and values to the one where I grew up, though that church was Southern Baptist and this one is not-so-united Methodist. (The Southern Baptists were not so united, either, so the church of my childhood is now another brand of Baptist.)

One aspect of being Southern that has stayed with me is that I still like country music. The truth is that, growing up, I liked country music but didn’t admit that to my friends, who listened to Molly Hatchett (on one spring break trip to the beach, they brought only the album Flirtin’ with Disaster, and we listened to it over and over), and my sister, who listened to Led Zepplin (“And she's buying a stairway to heaven.”)—Country music was uncool, and I was already uncool enough for listening to Simon and Garfunkel (“Just kickin’ down the cobbled stone, lookin’ for fun and feelin’ groovy) and Joan Biaz (“We all know what memories bring. They bring diamonds and rust.”) Though I was in the South, I didn’t admit that I liked country music.

This Saturday morning at the gym, my ipod wouldn’t play my songs, so for an hour I listened to the radio, and Wolf radio, a country music station, came up. I thought I’d listen nostalgically, because I haven’t listened to country music since the culture dumped the Dixie Chicks. Instead, I found myself analyzing the new country culture.

In that hour that I was listening, the station played all songs by males—not one female vocalist. I wondered if that were still backlash from The Dixie Chicks. The songs were clear about being Southern: several were explicit about being Southern, and all of the others (with their accents or lyrics about living in the backwoods or the holler); Several mentioned beer—Two Bud Light. (One smashing his third bud light can for the night on his forehead.) Though she’s Southern, my Auntie Susan wouldn't like that. She drinks Miller Light. There was a Coors light commercial, and I wondered how they fared with all that free advertising for Bud.— One mentioned whiskey. Two mentioned jeans that fit, clearly a part of this picture of Southern life, I suppose to distinguish themselves from Northern folk who wear suits. Two songs mentioned pick up trucks (one with gun rack.) You might think that’s cliché, which may be true, but I also remember the parking lot at a 1987 Waco dance club, filled with pick-up trucks, most of them with gun racks; Three songs saluted the men fighting overseas. (I don't remember the women being mentioned.)

These singers’ South was not the South I knew. This South seemed like a myth grounded in cliché, a myth that (I’m guessing) supports wealthy country singers who sing about being poor, bad beer, and a political paradigm that seems ridiculous from a distance but must be about belonging and longing for a mythical past, a time when the Southern, wealthy, white, and male part of our nation were gilded and guiltless.

So far as I can tell, that South never existed except in mythology. The South I love is steeped in traditions of Bluegrass music, William Faulkner’s meandering story telling, grits and y’all. My South wasn’t all bad, and it wasn’t allpretty and noble, just like this place in the Pacific Northwest I now love and call home.

Seattle believes its myth, longing mixed with truth, that this is a progressive place. In some ways, it is progressive. This is a place where gay and lesbian marriages were legalized before the Supreme Court forced our hand. In this place, I voted to return a socialist to the city council. Also, it’s extraordinarily beautiful here, with mountains and water accented throughout the landscape.

But Washington is also a state with the most regressive tax structure in the country. Seattle’s growth in the last year has been 95% people who are either poor or rich (only 5% middle class), and Seattle’s people of color keep moving further south of the city. The courts had to tell us to fund public education adequately, and it took our congress three extra sessions to figure out how to do that. (By postponing mandates to increase teacher pay and decrease class sizes in the upper grades, as I remember.) Additionally, our police force keeps being cited for overly violent and discriminatory behavior.

It seems to me that it’s best that we face our mythologies wherever we live and learn to look at the people around us. Perhaps throughout the nation we need to listen to our poets, our soothsayers, who can tell us all what we cannot see for ourselves because our mythologies lay a mist over our vision.

C’mon, y’all. Let’s be real.

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