Saturday, November 7, 2009

Review of Sara Claytor's "Howling on Red Dirt Roads"

Review (First Published in Wild Goose Poetry Review)
Howling on Red Dirt Roads, Poems by Sara Claytor
Main Street Rag, 2009, 89 pages
ISBN: 9781599481487

Sara Claytor and I have a great deal in common. We both grew up in the rural South, amid everything that implies, including a less than ideal childhood. We’re both poets and teachers. And, perhaps most surprisingly and arguably, we both used the same complex structure for our latest collections of poetry. Claytor’s book, Howling on Red Dirt Roads, is divided into three sections. Part I provides a broad perspective on the South preceding and coinciding with the poems’ speaker’s birth and growth. In a sense Part I portrays the larger world with all of its tensions, conventions, and expectations that gave birth to the family dynamics more tightly portrayed in Part II. And Part III presents the world after the speaker’s family, the world the speaker inhabits as she attempts to redeem the worlds of Parts I and II.

In large part, the book consists of a series of portraits. First, there are portraits of Southern women, defined in the poem “Fading Southern Belles” and expanded upon in many of the subsequent poems in the first section. Then, there are the family portraits in Part II, grandmother, mother, father, and most significantly, nanny. And finally, there are the portraits of the speaker at various stages in her adult life in Part III. These portraits are sometimes funny as in the description of “Miz Southern Belle” as “contradictory, confusing / marshmallow on the outside / a Mack truck on the inside,” a description that goes contrary to the usual “tough on the outside, tender on the inside” characterization of people. Other times they are quite dark as in the story of “Miz Lottie Jenkins” who “told Bible stories to the junior girls / about Jezebel torn apart / by the wild street dogs.” At a recent reading, Claytor claimed that most of her poems “end on up,” but I would disagree. While there are certainly “up” moments, poems confronting head-on such issues as racism, poverty, class distinctions, alcoholism, abuse, mental illness, snobbery, and fear are not easily spun to “happy.”

Interestingly, with only two exceptions, my favorite poems from Howling on Red Dirt Roads are the ones that are not portraits. I enjoy the humorous “Second-Hand Redemption” in which the speaker imagines a catalog of people who might have previously worn the shoes she mends in a thrift store, concluding

the broken heels
nail the sides tight
shines the toes
mend the soles whole

blue suede shoes
boots made for walkin’
golden skippers
dancing in the dark
all God’s chil’en got soles.

Similarly, I enjoy the disturbing poem “The Last Taboo,” which explores both literal and figurative conventions of cannibalism beginning

Buried deep in the human mind,
an urge quivers to eat each other.
Lovers nibble lovers’ flesh; babies
so cute we could eat with a spoon;
we eat our hearts out with envy.

and concluding

Facing starvation, we ingest corpse flesh
weep,wail, accept the ultimate
revulsion for its moment; then
somewhere between clouds and shadows
turn again to our daily affairs.

And, finally, I’m moved by “What the Children Know,” which examines the psychic trauma of childhood terror including such things as physical and sexual abuse, concluding with this horrifyingly evocative image:

We can’t tell what the children know
until they smother in the fumes,
shrivel in the flames of acts so heinous,
even Mother Mary wraps a shroud
around her face, turns away,
unable to bear the silent cries.

And the two exceptions? The two “portraits” that I find among the best poems in the book both come from Part II and deal with the relationship of the speaker, a white Southern girl, and her African-American nanny, Julia. In “Julia’s Invisible Fences,” after several glimpses of this special relationship, the speaker tells us

Part of my heart moved down that road to your house
with its blue porch rocking chair and yellow birdhouse nailed
above the tin roof. I was your ‘baby gal,’ even after I graduated
from college, visited you last in a nursing home where you kept
a photo of blonde three-year-old me tacked on the wall above
your bed--right beside the picture of a white Jesus.

The importance of this relationship is made even clearer in “We Played Spin the Bottles,” where the speaker reveals how Julia became protector and comforter against her “white mother’s” alcoholism and physical abuse.

The bottom line? These are compelling poems individually which are strengthened through a context provided by weaving them together in a complex and unified narrative. The only thing better than reading them on the page is hearing them spoken in Claytor’s own transporting Southern drawl, which, is best achieved by attending one of her live readings and experiencing her Southern charm and flair for the dramatic firsthand, but which, thanks to a CD included with the book, is also possible without even leaving the comforts of your favorite chair.

1 comment:

  1. I have to agree, loved hearing Sara read her work and I particularly like the poems you picked out from the book as well :)