Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Review of Joseph Bathanti's "Land of Amnesia"

Building on Ruin: Song of the South

Land of Amnesia, by Joseph Bathanti
Press 53, 2009 (ISBN: 9780981628073)
83 pages, $12

Those of us who were born and raised in the South and who have paused on occasion to reflect on the trajectory of the South have never doubted the existence of either resurrection or reincarnation. We’ve been quite comfortable with the apparent contradictions of the Phoenix myth and the questionable logic of generations who, if Schliemann got it right at Troy, build again and again atop and from ruin. Joseph Bathanti is not, in fact, a native son, but he has lived here long enough and worked long enough amid those masters of renaissance and redefinition, prisoners, orphans, and community college students, to recognize the persistence of the pattern on personal, political and social levels.

The truth is, nothing ever dies completely here. Historically, the South in its apparent resistance to change has been resistant primarily to governance, but one law the South has perfectly abided is the law of conservation. This is the truth Bathanti explores, exploits, and lays bare in his wonderful new collection of poems Land of Amnesia. Bathanti’s appreciation for the stubborn resilience of Southern ways in the broadest understanding of that concept is apparent in the title poem where the speaker states: “at the end / I’d beg to cross one last time / the Rocky River into Anson County.” It is here that he imagines “The old bay, Star, dead two decades, / canters in the pasture” and that he declares “It is here, my best beloved, / we’ll build on ruin.” It is again apparent in “How to Bury a Dog” where we’re given multiple images of the duplicity of persistence and transformation that has marked the history of the South:

You won’t cuss through three feet
until you spark off a shelf

of sediment rock that’s been making
since the Yadkin lived here.

Resist the temptation
to wrap him in cerements.

Face him east.
Let the earth do its work.

Bathanti is engaged in these poems in the craft of preservation, of saving moments, ideas, impressions, and he is particularly good at it because he clearly loves not only the world he preserves but also the tools of his craft: words. These poems are so carefully and precisely written, each word the exact right word, that the reader feels they could not have been written any other way and gladly returns to them again and again to enjoy yet another connotation and the resultant implication, perhaps the same reasons we dwell so long on the particulars of history. This precision of image and word choice is illustrated in the poem “Running a Group Home,” where the reader is struck by the chilling poignancy of the proximity of a group home with certain other elements of the Southern economy:

We’d stagger naked out of bed
and go to our only window,
look out over Roosevelt Boulevard.
On the other side was a dyeing
and finishing plant; then beyond it--
. . . . . . . . . .
the Union County Prison Camp.

I have seen this same love of words, this same careful, precise phrasing recently in several books from Press 53, specifically those by Linda Annas Ferguson, Joseph Mills, and Terri Kirby Erickson. It is an admirable talent on the part of editors Kevin Watson and Tom Lombardo to recognize and encourage such sublimity among the poets they publish.

The not-so-secret message in this book, and perhaps in all of the recent Press 53 releases, is that in the quest for “the improbability . . . / that legs with hearts to prompt them / may keep lurching, decade upon decade, / chaplet upon chaplet, toward salvation” (“Running”), memory is vital, for as long there is memory, there is the chance to build on the past, and clearly as long as Bathanti is writing, we can defy “the great sorrow of forgetting” (“The Sorrow of Forgetting”) and circumvent the land of amnesia. Bathanti clearly shows in these poems that you don’t have to be from the South to know what to make of a ruined thing, but it helps to spend some time there.

1 comment:

  1. i find that i am most drawn to the books where it is obvious that the writer loves language at the level of the word. absolutely!