In some ways, there’s no point in talking about Southern writers or Southern literature anymore. Most of the things that made the South culturally distinct have faded in the past 40 years, or, like Christian fundamentalism and NASCAR, been embraced by the rest of America. Southern race relations, which always informed the region’s literature in a profound way, have morphed from murderous feudalism to the standard U.S. model of polite distrust punctuated by occasional violence.
But there is still one trait that sets Southern writers apart, and that is the way they cling to the past as a precious, if sometimes troublesome, gift. It’s hard to say whether C. Vann Woodward’s notion of the “burden of Southern history” is still relevant today, but the work of remembering, of passing on lore, remains a cultural imperative in the South. Southerners don’t think of their communal history as baggage in need of self-help catharsis. They regard it as a birthright, a link to their ancestors and a means of making some sense of life. They revel in telling it to the next generation. For Southern writers, hand-me-down memories are a creative mother lode that is jealously guarded and zealously mined.
In What Travels With Us, local poet Darnell Arnoult excavates her personal and family history in a quintessentially Southern fashion, bringing forth a cast of linked characters who tell us their stories, along with the stories of others long dead. Arnoult locates herself within this chain of narratives, aware that these tales have shaped her, and that she in turn shapes them by giving them new life in the retelling. The result is a multilayered, echoing chronicle or, as Arnoult puts it, “a book of the stories of a place…part fiction, part memoir, part history.”
The place in question is Virginia, specifically the mill town of Fieldale, where generations of transplanted Appalachian workers made cotton cloth for Marshall Field’s department store empire. Arnoult spent much of her childhood in Fieldale, cared for by her grandmother and a maiden aunt after her own mother was disabled by schizophrenia. She married young, then divorced and spent a couple of decades struggling to make a living as a single mother, all the while nursing her craft as a writer. She studied Southern folklore at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and creative writing at North Carolina State University, and eventually taught writing herself in a variety of settings.
Five years ago, a second marriage brought her to rural Smith County, where she has finally been able to devote herself to writing full-time. What Travels With Us is the beautifully crafted result of decades of creative process. Its personae were originally conceived as characters in short stories, but Arnoult turned to writing poems years ago out of sheer lack of time. The economy of poetry made it possible for her to explore the many voices that clamored for her attention.
The power that can reside in that concise nature of poetry is beautifully embodied in “Elijah’s Place,” a simple 22-line poem that opens the collection:
Elijah Whitlock lived
in a little white house—
a box that became a barn,
and by my time a shed.
One oiled paper window
next to a flint rock chimney.
rendered evening light….
In just a few lines, the unnamed narrator places herself and the ancient Elijah within a continuum of place. The life of the structure—house, barn, shed—spans generations of human lives and links them together. The place Elijah knew as home still exists, alive in the mind of the narrator as a palimpsest behind the lowly shed that is her memory of the object.
This interplay of memory and character animates all the poems in the collection and ties them together in a loose web that moves haltingly forward in time. In some of the poems, the speaker offers up lore far removed from him/herself, stories that have become, in Arnoult’s words, “like polished stones,” refined by endless retellings; in others, characters speak their own memories, with that note of longing that always accompanies such recollections. Pain finds resolution in being handed forward as memoir, and unmet desires are in some sense fulfilled if they can be placed in the story of a life, as in the poem “Mattie Clay”:
I stood before the
and thought how I
should be an actress.
Dew filmed my body.
My eyes were blue
sapphires. Stella in
Streetcar Named Desire.
Many of the later poems in the collection seem to speak in the voice of Arnoult herself, or someone like her—undeniably a child of the same lineage as all the characters who have come before, yet physically and psychically removed from the place that fostered her. This narrator speaks with a self-consciousness the others lack. Her recollections are not reflexive, but a knowing catalog of what has made her, and what she has left behind. “Never set foot in a towel mill. But that doesn’t matter. / I dream my mother’s and grandmother’s dreams….” The tone is neither romantic nor nostalgic, but rather dutiful, like a woman assuming a task she always knew she would inherit.
Ultimately, there is a sense of loss in these poems, and that, too, makes them somehow quintessentially Southern. The South has always wallowed in its grief for the unrecoverable past, even as its storytellers labored to keep that past alive. But a sense of distance and resignation has finally begun to creep in, signifying a more profound shift away from what once bound Southerners, and Southern writers, together. In the final poem of What Travels With Us, the narrator no longer speaks from memories that reside in her, but instead considers a painting on the wall whose “Fluid colors of water and emotion / create the illusion of clean white clapboards / and thin blades of familiar grass.” Arnoult seems to evoke the journey that so many of us have made, far from the visions and voices of home, where artifacts are all we have to remember them by.