A Testament from Dixie

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Since the release of my book The Draw of Broken Eyes & Whirling Metaphysics, the subsequent book tour has bolstered my resolve in one thing: Georgia is the seat of my ease. I’ve spent a vast majority of my life here, in the company of pines and peaches. The music, boisterous laughter, and calm respect of people’s privacy are just a few reasons you’d be hard-pressed to muscle me into another locale. Yet, you don’t have to be born in Dixie to be comfortable on our Main Streets.

We are more laidback, less likely to apply the horn in traffic, and use the word “directly” to answer someone’s question concerning an exact arrival time. For example: “Don’t forget the party this afternoon. When are you getting here?” Answer: “Directly.” That means that you’re not getting a speeding ticket to hit their front door, but you’ll show up before the host is miffed. This is not a joke about colloquialisms; it’s a sticking point of our airy-chill existence.

My poetry is shaped by this landscape. I grew up in Oglethorpe County (it’s in the middle part of Georgia near Athens), where my father’s family has a plantation house. I wrote a good chunk of my first verse in that vast but closed-off space. I return often in order to gain peace and quiet for the new poetry in Athena Departs.

From eighth grade to high school graduation, I lived in Pickens County (North Georgia). In just the span of two hours’ travel, the dialect noticeably changes. Through Middle Georgia, you pick up on the soft “r” speech that is caught by most who romance about this part of the world. As you travel north, the “I” becomes soft without a hard vowel in 100 miles. “Humid” is the flavor of summer, and summer is hot. Yankees make jokes about how we’re unable to handle snow, but we are kosher with that. Open, predictable roads are stalwart companions.

My tour hasn’t stopped since I stood up to address a group at Avid Books three years ago. After a start in Athens, Georgia, readings rolled into Crawford, Georgia; Commerce, Georgia; Atlanta, Georgia; Jasper, Georgia; and Rome, Georgia before coasting up to Nashville, Tennessee for the Southern Annual Festival of Books. I spent that weekend lighting up Nashville with other artists, hearing real country musicians, and feeling the right kind of nervous around rockabilly. I didn’t want to leave.

One of the cities I hope to hit again is Richmond, Virginia. While I was there last year, a close friend hosted my reading at an art gallery, but I was only able to get a glimpse of what that gig has to offer. Not only does it sport an Edgar Allan Poe Museum, but several brothers and sisters of The Southern Collective Experience live not too far away as well. It is a return trip to make for many reasons. I’d like to sit down for coffee with all of them this year.

Yet, the towns are just the pots of gold at the end of sprawling yellow brick roads filled with classic cars, unbroken lines of trees, and a few drive-thru liquor stores. I have a horrible sense of direction. My father and little brother could be dropped in Afghanistan at noon today and make it home by dusk tomorrow with nothing more than their intuition. Turn me around three times in my own bathroom and I’ll never find the door. In the South, being “lost” is just an opportunity to find a dilapidated hole-in-the-wall diner that serves the best barbeque you’ve ever had. If this is a stereotype of the American South, I’ll embrace it and dare you to prove me wrong. From Mississippi to Alabama to Georgia and up to the Carolinas, we may vehemently disagree how to prepare pig or cow into the superior barbeque, but no one is going to fist-fight about it. (Let me say right now the same does not apply to college football.)

Music is the backbone of my faith in letters. Beginning in New Orleans, Louisiana, there’s a whimsical wind that blows east through Savannah, Georgia; then slides north through Athens, Georgia to finally swirl around Charleston, South Carolina, where I still haven’t found seafood as purely delicious as what I’ve enjoyed on their coast. The music we trade (like stocks of soul and sweat) are: bluegrass, blues, and rustic country. It shouldn’t shock anyone that we are the hub of rock-n-roll. When people ask me how the South influenced my sound on paper, I ask in return, “Have you ever spent time here?” Those words never escape my lips with the smack of condescension; they are your standing invitations with no bone to pick. If you hang around long enough, the South will sneak up your sleeves and whisper in your ear, “Slink into a seat. Wink at a pretty girl. Be respectful and everything’s gonna be cool.”

When I need to fall off the face of the earth for a few days, I’ll see my aunt and uncle in Summerville, Georgia — the very northwest corner of the state, where you see towns like Menlo that house an eclectic bunch of brilliant craftsmen. The river-ensconced city of Rome breaks into a mountain where Howard Finster rested his head. My family there is a metaphysical ilk, and embodies proof that open-mindedness doesn’t stop below the Mason-Dixon Line. They are “unique,” but that is damn sure better than “boring.”

They, like so many here, have a come-on-in-and-sit policy. If your soul feels frayed, don’t be afraid to speak up. You don’t just feed a cold around here. Good food heals what ails you, but being surrounded by love fills you back up. Their deep covers and quiet, fan-cooled rooms are the salve to soothe weariness brought on by a world that can get too heavy.

Writing poetry has made me look at the American South from a whole new perspective. The way I see nuances, smell the air more often, listen (just listen), I pick up a new way to interpret life, details in people’s expressions, modes of speech, and how folks love each other. It’s not a tired cliché that all you need is love, but it has to be balanced with self-preservation, hard work, and loyalty to your community.

I love this land. I adore these people. Occasionally, there is a Clifford Tour of Homes that does not fit the qualifications of Tara from Gone with the Wind, but you will go back with stories concerning a tree that owns itself, Machiavellian politics, and a town called Devil’s Pond. One side effect is a wicked need to read Flannery O’Connor, but there are worse things. You should sign up.

Saturday Chaconne is a poem about me haunting downtown Athens, Georgia with a friend, father, and a lady.

Saturday Chaconne

Damon and Pythias
shake off Syracuse,
and brush their shoulders clean.
In this university downtown,
Athena scoots us up one street,
then left on College Avenue.
Brothers head into a hookah bar.

Jackson’s secondhand bookshop
has whole collections
written by Rilke, Neruda, and Simic
whose woo factor
apparently hit their limit.
Now they’re here, lost with
hopeful inscriptions
that whisper, the heart doesn’t
always win.

To keep this man true, in a tattoo venue,
its floor like a chessboard,
the motto of my family’s melancholy
is punctured into muscle over time.
The blood spilt in that chair
is theirs as much as mine.
Finem Respice
now wears me.

On Four Fat Tires, we careen
into the old decor of New Orleans.
This eatery has been renamed,
but it’s still the same.
Dad sits inside, smiling,
my old man, always smiling.

We three gents
with a lady
tackle oysters,
talk about anything but the economy,
and reminisce about a blues bar
that once stood close by.

Across Broad, the Arches
remind us the ache of youth passes,
that age has a slanted perspective.
As our sour mixes blend,
evening winks in,
and dogwoods let petals drift.

The laughter
of our quartet
is brilliant.

Sunday Chaconne is about a day traveling downtown Atlanta, Georgia, and found in the book The Draw of Broken Eyes & Whirling Metaphysics.

Sunday Chaconne

Drinking absinthe
outside the Vortex
my friend buys lunch.
Sinatra sings in a passing car
as pink hair, street preachers,
and we two lucid revelers
step on
the same sidewalk.

Barely brushing the ground
traveling asphalt tributaries
trees thin,
museums rise up,
stone carves itself into forms.
Graffiti blurs into an urban Pollock.
Shop windows
warp our reflections.

Atlanta concrete greets us;
her face, many faces.
Skyscrapers lose us
among anthropology students.
Homeless squatting with Styrofoam cups
don’t accost us.
We’re happily ambivalent,
oozing around eye contact,
a speck in the sea of this city.

Crowds hush,
air shimmers,
pigeons burst upward.

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