Poems by Melissa Dickson, Kevin Cantwell, Kathleen Nalley & Philip Belcher
We know their names like we know our own.
Lee, Faulkner, Hurston, Welty, O’Connor, Percy, Conroy, Styron, Ward … the list could go on and on.
The South has a long history of producing — and then revering — great writers of prose.
But what of our poets? Ask readers to name a great Southern poet, and most folks will tap out after James Dickey — or they might know that Mississippi native Natasha Trethewey is the current U.S. Poet Laureate.
The work of our poets lives largely in academic literary journals, mostly unnoticed by the rest of us.
WAIT! Don’t click over to Buzzfeed just yet. Poetry puzzles many people, and to each his own etc., but we’ve learned that if you read just the right poem in just the right circumstances, something clicks. And then, if you read the same poem again a time or two, it sticks.
The Bitter Southerner over the last few months has worked to gather a small collection — four fine poems from Southern writers working today — to share with our readers (a task we could not have completed without the great help of our de facto poetry editor, the most excellent Blair Hobbs, who teaches poetry at the University of Mississippi).
These poems cover a lot of territory: potatoes, roses, annoying birds, hunting trips and Merle Haggard, sort of.
We hope you enjoy, and if you do, spread the word. The poets of our South do work that is insightful, inspiring and sometimes just downright funny. The Bitter Southerner believes their writing deserves our attention, and we hope to bring more collections of poems to you in the future.
The Night Merle Haggard Could Not Go On
By Kevin Cantwell
Pine fires burned the last gift-wood at the New Year,
and chimney smoke drifted down the bungalow streets.
A few floors up in his hospital room, he grew chilled,
not even a nurse down the hall after dinner.
His face the color of ice on the road, he closed his eyes,
listening to it snow outside, and then those grains of sleet
fell through him, like a grip of sand down a well.
Kevin Cantwell is the author of the poetry collections “Something Black in the Green Part of Your Eye” (2002) and “One of Those Russian Novels” (2009). He has received the River City Poetry Award, the Agnes Scott Award for Poetry, and the James Dickey Poetry Award. His latest poems have been published Five Points, Irish Pages, and Poetry Wales. Cantwell chairs the Department of Media, Culture, and the Arts at Middle Georgia State College.
By Melissa Dickson
The winged fury, battering ram of beak
and feather, unholy hot ginger rage whipping,
now scissoring, around and back to strike
my parked Nissan Quest’s sideview mirror,
seeing there again and again that damned twin invader,
doppelganger, nemesis, threat to harvest and nest,
should properly be called Turdus Migratorius,
or “moving shit,” I think to myself but do not say
out loud. I do say Turdus Migratorius
out loud several times and write it down
in longhand, on Facebook, in a list
of titles to poems one might write.
I say it out loud, knowing it doesn’t mean
what I want it to mean though it certainly
looks like as much as the turd pivots again
and finds himself in the passenger window
of my husband’s Hyundai Santa Fe.
Turdus Migratorius. Turdus meaning thrush,
and Migratorius suggesting he will go. Till then
he is our yard robin, ubiquitous as the low slung lawns
of our block, ransacking here our figs and blueberries,
singing, as a robin must, his species’ own lament.
In which, if one can believe every word
of my son’s dog-eared Backyard Birds of Georgia,
I should hear
cheerily, cheer up, cheer up,
cheerily, cheer up, cheerily...
Melissa Dickson is a poet and mother of four. Her work can be found in Shenandoah, North American Review, Southern Humanities Review, The Cumberland River Review, Gravy, Graze, Southern Women's Review and Literary Mama. She has published two collections of her poems — "Cameo" and "Sweet Aegis." She holds an MFA in creative writing from Converse College and an MFA in painting from The School of Visual Arts. After stints in New York City, Europe and various cities around the South, she has “finally settled in a home within walking distance of the homes where my mother, grandmother, great grandmother, and great-great-grandmother lived and died in Newnan, Ga.”
Another Ode to the Potato
“Why sing of roses, you aristocrat? Sing of the democratic potato, which keeps the people alive.”
— Heinrich Heine, Confessions of 1854
By Kathleen Nalley
Where are the roses, those unnecessary
fragrant imbeciles, petals
of poetry for new lovers as they trespass
one another’s body with an abandon
that will only last as long
as the first bloom?
What good are they, anyway, stupid
flowers that immediately die upon
cutting, whose canine-size thorns cut
flesh with one touch? They need
constant tending, pruning, water,
and love, those high-maintenance
Let’s praise instead the solitary
potato, that bulbous, grounded
beauty who thrives anywhere, anytime,
whether heat or cold, whether fertile
soil or mason jar on the sill,
who has no problem baring
its skin, showing its spots
and imperfections, who fills
the fields and the stomachs.
Oh, edible tubular, you’re no mere spud.
Loved by the ingenious Incas to
the American French-fry eater,
only you could bring whole
nations to hunger, only you
could turn yourself into
so many different things:
Vodka, children’s toy, electricity,
biodegradable packaging, art.
who has time to dally with pretty
flowers when you’re constantly bent
over hoeing the soil?
Kathleen Nalley’s 2013 chapbook, “Nesting Doll,” won the South Carolina Poetry Initiative Prize. Her poetry has appeared in the Country Dog Review, Emrys Journal, Real South magazine, and several other literary journals. She serves as poetry editor of the literary journal south85 and teaches English at Clemson University. She received her MFA from Converse College in 2012.
By Philip Belcher
Every opening day, before our first shots
broke November’s truce, he stopped
by the gate on the way to the field,
lit a menthol True, and blew a ring
in tribute to his old pointer, Jack —
Jack, who gummed dead birds into
the pocket of his camouflaged vest,
who never once bruised the sweet
white meat, never required a lesson
from the tip of a sweetgum sprig.
Now Easter in Barnwell, sun glinting
like a barrel through the oak’s uncocked
green, fields ripe with patio homes,
all the quail scuttling under the hedgerows
ten miles away in Kline, and I remember
Harold Geddings hurdling broom straw
bent with ice, his bellowed whoa ricocheting
off poplars lining the irrigation ditch,
one fist gripping a Browning Light Twenty,
the other hoisting a chain to sling
at an English Setter born too fond
of sparrows and mice. Harold, veteran
lathe-minder and lecturer on the South’s
finer arts: how to breathe at the nucleus
of a covey’s blast, how to drop a dove
by aiming ahead into nothing, how to
honor days clear enough to spot not
only the grackle crouching in straw
but the fly it snaps from the air.
Philip Belcher has published poetry and critical prose in a variety of literary journals, including Passages North, Shenandoah, Asheville Poetry Review, South Dakota Review, Southeast Review, Fugue, and The Southern Quarterly. In 2007, his chapbook, “The Flies and Their Lovely Names,” was published by Stepping Stones Press at the University of South Carolina. He is an advisory and contributing editor for Shenandoah and holds degrees from Furman University, Southeastern Seminary, the Duke University School of Law, and Converse College (MFA). He currently serves as vice president, programs, of The Community Foundation of Western North Carolina in Asheville.