Biblical accounts of the first Christmas and the first Hanukkah have wandering and uprootedness at their primal, painful cores. Thus it’s no surprise that the Bible Belt’s first and second generations of great writersFaulkner and Welty, to name two apt examplesusually portray deracination of any sort as irredeemably traumatic. In fact, the South’s truest sons and daughters are supposed to be umbilically attached to the particular place where they were born and reared. But the Memphis native Richard Tillinghast, who recently served as Harpeth Hall’s fourth Monroe Carell Writer-in-Residence, has argued via prose essays that the Southern sensitivity to place can be as responsive and connective in distant locales as it is on one’s home turf.
If that’s the case, Tillinghast’s seventh book of poems, Six Mile Mountain (Story Line, $13.95), hints strongly that such sensitiv-ity represents both a gift and a curse: If we’re pretty much at home everywhere, are we truly at home anywhere? The poet touches on this question in nearly every poem in the book, which roams from Ireland to West Tennessee to Turkey to Michigan to the Bay Area. This last locale, like many of America’s coastal cities, is still renowned as a haven for cultural misfits and nomads, including Jerry Garcia, the dedicatee of “A Box of Rain,” Tillinghast’s surprisingly successful elegy. Poems mourning celebrities are notoriously difficult to pull off, but this one obliquely addresses how Americans attempt to find a home for themselves in popular culture, especially musicwhich, ironically in this context, demands constant travelling of those who make it.
Tillinghast’s own making as a poet represents one of the most interestingand itinerantjourneys in contemporary Southern literature, and certain of that journey’s aspects shed light not only on the poet’s work, but also on American literary history before and after World War IIespecially its chapters on the South. A native of West Tennessee, Tillinghast studied poetry at Sewanee with Allen Tate and then left for Harvard, where he took a doctorate under Robert Lowell’s guidance. In doing so, the budding poet neatly reversed Lowell’s own course as a student: Despite his Brahmin background, Lowell had received his earliest poetic education from Tate, pitching a pup tent on his elder’s lawn for one entire summer. The Bostonian initially abandoned Harvard for Vanderbilt, where he planned to study with John Crowe Ransom. When Ransom left Nashville for Kenyon College in Ohio, Lowell followed him there, where he roomed with Peter Taylor and struck up a lifelong friendship with the semi-Nashvillian Randall Jarrell; later, he headed for Baton Rouge for graduate seminars with Robert Penn Warren.
Lowell’s own story tells us much about the breadth of influences that Tillinghast absorbed during his education. Very, very few poets are capable of the kind of distillation that Tillinghast has brought to this preternaturally tangled web (one complicated even further by his later friendships with James Dickey and Seamus Heaney). Such assimilation requires merciless focus and a lifelong willingness to shed and re-shed what proves useless or imitative as a poet invents and reinvents his personal style. In Tillinghast’s case, the spiritual homelessness, even orphanhood, that marks his work arises almost inevitably from the necessary rejection of so many poetic “fathers” (and brethren); on the other hand, Tillinghast’s poems gain resonance from the sense of loss that each rejection brings.
By the time Harvard invited Welty to give her now famous lectures on the importance of place for Southern writers, Tillinghast had left and a local/regional sense of place was already being encroached upon by notions of the globalwhich the South has adopted only a little more slowly than the rest of the country. No one, including Tillinghast, mourns the passing of Dixie’s historical resistance to otherness, yet the displacement represented by the sheer number of farflung locales in Six Mile Mountain is artfully unsettling. Just as jarring and effective is the variety of poetic forms Tillinghast utilizes. Such range might seem merely virtuosic if it didn’t arise from the poet’s awareness that the postmodern global economy offers access to almost every formaesthetic and otherwisethat human desire has yet fashioned. Thus, leaping from a Turkish translation to Anglo-American pentameter in a page or two reflects the bewildering speed and numbing variety presented by global reality.
What remains constant and relatively fixed here is the belief in original sin that the South has been slower to question, much less reject, than the rest of the country. “The world / is a 12-year-old with a Walkman, a can of Coke, and an Uzi,” Tillinghast writes, making it plain that while accessories like soft drinks come and go, the human capacity for violence appears early and never vanishes.
Tillinghast’s poems aren’t unaware of the various enchantments place can offer, but they finally refuse enchantment as falsifying. For example, “Father in September” renders details of a Memphis house with such seemingly magical elegance that it comes as a shock to discover that the house is empty and the father is deadeven though early-20th-century artifacts like coal, a well, a shaving brush, and gold-rimmed spectacles prepare us for this fact all along. The impression of spiritual homelessness in poems like “Father in September” is further underscored by the poet’s aforementioned moves from formal to free verse and back again, which disabuse readers of any romantic notions about art-as-spiritual-home.
Tillinghast’s legacy to the current younger generation of Southern poets is a dark but powerful one, in Six Mile Mountain refusing to offer false comfort. Like the boll weevil in blues songs, we’re always “looking for a home,” Tillinghast suggests. But if, like the boll weevil, we’re hardwired to destroy and move on, destroy and move on in our efforts to find shelter and sustenance, we’re also capable of rebuilding. Therein lies humankind’s greatest hope for individual and universal redemption, as well as its greatest opportunity for disappointment.
Poet and musician David Berman received some ink in the Scene’s pages when he moved to Nashville a while back, but the focus of that piece was the Virginia native’s work with his group, Silver Jews. The publication of Actual Air (Open City, $12.95), Berman’s book of poems, which came into the world last year bearing the praise of James Tate and Billy Collins, has changed that: Berman is now being reckoned with as a poet, his reputation growing by the word of mouth that usually doesn’t travel very far until a small-press book has been on shelves for a year or two.
Berman’s ironic deracination only emphasizes his Southern identity as a poet, even if Nashville hasn’t quite realized that he’s here. The alluring, weird disjunctiveness of Actual Air is inseparable from Berman’s Southern roots, which are about as weird and truncated as they come. He was born in Williamsburg, whose colonial center was resurrected and restored a half-century ago with massive funding; other than Disneyland, there’s probably no stranger and more tourist-haunted patch of America. It’s worth remembering that where there are tourists, fast-food joints, T-shirt shops, and outlet malls follow. Berman’s poems somehow remind us that American history and American commerce have always been kissing cousins. He writes in “Virginia Mines: The Mascara Series” that wilderness, “[l]ike a mousetrap...has always had one muscle, / / and like sleep / it combined death and tourism.” Elsewhere he says that souvenirs only remind us of buying them, not of the place they commemorate and not of the time we spent there.
Such poems resign themselves to “belatedness,” a term coined by the critic Harold Bloom to describe the hallmark of modern/postmodern existence: We feel that everything has already happened and thus all the important art, philosophy, myths, and religions have already been created. Belatedness may have been around a good while longer than Bloom has posited, as the spooky and tragically humorous “April 13th, 1865” reveals. One of the strongest poems in Actual Air, it takes place in the aftermath of Lincoln’s assassination: “At first the sound had no meaning,” the poem begins, and unless the reader possesses a terrific memory for dates, we momentarily halt, wondering what sound the poet is talking about. In other words, this clap of noise has no meaning for us unless we participate in the poemparticipate in a way that Berman mostly finds impossible elsewhereand feel an awful awareness dawning as “the news traveled over / the chairscape like a stain.”
“I remember standing up / as the others did,” the poem’s speaker concludes, “and how the assassin was in mid-air / when the stagehands wheeled out clouds.” Scenery and scenes, as opposed to real places and real events, have been with us always, Berman is saying, and those creations both undercut the unique authority of individual existence and, paradoxically, make it possible. For most of us, a poem like “April 13th, 1865” allows as much historical and emotional participation as we’re likely to find in regard to anyone else’s life and to any era not strictly our own. Mediated experience, in other words, can thus become a means of expansion rather than shrinkage; empathy available secondhand is better than none at all.
The inability to participate in unmediated experience is Actual Air’s primary subject, and the lack of affect produced by media-saturated, consumeristic, postmodern America forms the underpinnings of Berman’s style. That style has its own sly impact when it seems an inevitable part of certain poems, like the sequence called “Self-Portrait at 28”; here, the trap of subjectivity seems inevitably part of the human condition, not just Berman’s. “If you were cool in high school,” he writes, “you didn’t ask too many questions. / You could tell who’d been to last night’s big metal concert by the new T-shirts in the hallways. / You didn’t have to ask / and that’s what cool was: / the ability to deduce, / to know without asking. / And the pressure to simulate coolness / means not asking when you don’t know, / which is why kids grow ever more stupid.”
Elsewhere, this flatness of tone can seem like a tic, like the post-structuralist surrealism that has become one of American poetry’s period styles as we enter the new millennium. Accustomed to twining words with musical instrumentation in his other life, Berman can sound flatter than most when he’s wearing his poetic hat but failing to mine the possibilities of language, structure, and form, which perform the same function in poems that musical arrangements perform in songs.
Thus a poem like “Cassette Country” seems a genuine culmination of Berman’s talent, since it, like portions of “Self-Portrait at 28,” breaks beyond mannerism to consider a world outside the self. Furthermore, as in “Self-Portrait,” Berman both explains his aesthetic and acknowledges some of its limitations: “I’m going to call them Honest Eyes until I knowif they are,.../ because the second language wouldn’t let me learn it / because I have heard of you for a long time occasionally / because diet cards may be the new recovery evergreen /and there is a new benzodiazepene called Distance, / / anti-showmanship, anti-showmanship, anti-showmanship.”
Readers unfamiliar with the antic surrealism of John Ashbery and James Tate, to name two examples from whom Berman has obviously learned, may wonder what in the hell these lines mean. But one doesn’t necessarily need Poetry for Dummies to sense that the author is looking for an escape from irony and a means of living authentically (“I’m going to call them Honest Eyes until I know they are”). The quoted passage builds upon emotions that we express or experience internally in nonlinear fashion, and while some readers may feel that Berman’s lines border on nonsense, there’s surely no doubt about what the poet means in the poem’s close. To worship irony, as our age has been accused of doing, is to use distance like handfuls of Xanax (a pharmeceutical member of the benzodiazepine family). The first step to divorce ourselves from irony, Berman implies, is to stop the benzodiazepines cold turkey and to drop our hip, ironic lingo, a position that Berman callsvery significantly, for a musician who rarely performs live“anti-showmanship, anti-showmanship, anti-showmanship.”
Berman may retain his cool here, as well as his sense of the absurd, but a genuine and passionate longing for connection flares in “Cassette Country.” It’s no coincidence that his sense of line and sonics, which can become fuzzy elsewhere, is pitch-perfect in this poem. Born in 1967, Berman is part of a generation that has every right to find irony a great deal safer than passionan emotion that has given us, among other things, AIDS and a divorce rate drifting toward 60 percent. But passion is as essential to genuine art as skill, patience, discipline, and, Berman would doubtless argue, a good sense of humor.
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