Poems by Stephanie Schlaifer & Jim McGarrah
Part of the blessing (or curse) of the Southern penchant for storytelling is that we are always looking for detail. We tell the same story, again and again, for 30 years, but we must — we simply must — change it over time. As we pick up new details in our lives, we use them to stretch the story. We gather embellishments.
When we travel from Southern city to Southern city, we note the subtle shifts in culture, in cuisine, in music, and trace them back to their common roots. Those of us who grew up in small towns sometimes feel the need to depart the Interstates and head for the two-lane roads, just so we can see how someone else’s small town makes us feel.
More. That's what we love in our storytelling. More.
That's why we need our poets. They possess the rare ability to render those details with exactitude, with grace. They take our embellishments, our literary balls of string, and distill them for us, like good whiskey.
Today, we present two poems each from Jim McGarrah of Louisville, Ky., and Stephanie Schlaifer, a Georgian by birth who now lives in St. Louis. Each writes from a different perspective about their experiences as they move through the South, by car, by plane, through cities like Atlanta and New Orleans.
Schlaifer lives in St. Louis, Missouri, where she co-curates the Observable Readings series. She studied at Washington University in St. Louis and an received her MFA in poetry from the illustrious Iowa Writers' Workshop. Her poems have appeared in or are forthcoming from AGNI, Denver Quarterly, LIT, Colorado Review, Fence, and elsewhere. The Georgia native calls herself “a compulsive baker” and “very handy with a pitchfork.” We won’t mess with her.
McGarrah has published three books of poetry, “Running the Voodoo Down,” “When the Stars Go Dark,” and 2013’s “Breakfast at Denny’s.” In the world of prose, in 2011 he published “The End of an Era,” a nonfiction account of life in the American counterculture during the 1960s and 1970s. In 2007, McGarrah published a memoir of his experiences in the Vietnam War called “A Temporary Sort of Peace,” which won the Eric Hoffer Award for Legacy Nonfiction. We won’t mess with him, either.
In fact, we’ve learned never to mess with poets at all. Their pens always beat the swords, anyway.
— The Editor
When People Ask,
by Stephanie Schlaifer
I still say I’m from Georgia.
I live in the Midwest,
but it’s false to claim I’m from there.
One time, on a flight back to St. Louis,
I shared my oatmeal cookie
with the older gentleman
seated next to me.
He eyed my bag of jellybeans longingly
and told me he could tell how much
I wish I could move back.
He’s trying to read what I am writing,
and tells me he’s from Jacksonville, originally,
but lives in Marietta, Georgia, with his wife.
About your age when we married ten years ago!
He’d like to move back down to Florida,
definitely the Gulf side—
way far south.
Not Jacksonville? I ask.
The wind picks up.
I had a great aunt and uncle who lived there.
We used to have a place—
He leans across the aisle
to his son (about my age twenty years ago)
and says right over me,
My girl Stephanie says there’s too much cinnamon for her taste,
but they’re delicious—
The plane heaves.
I can no longer discern
the allspice from the Old Spice.
Amelia has good golf,
but Jacksonville’s just really
We lose altitude.
—too many rednecks, he says.
The cookie churns inside me.
The Gulf’s just really southern Alabama—
They’re just older and wear less clothing—
have even fewer teeth.
Someone rushes into
and out of
A woman shrieks, Oh Jesus!
The plane just rocks and rocks.
He says to his son,
Wouldn’t you’uv liked to’uv had a teacher like her—
she gave me jellybeans!
I laugh into my folding tray
and tell him he can have all the blue ones.
South of Atlanta on I-75,
I Find America
By Jim McGarrah
Those rotting pear-shaped people
with their sunken chests and flesh flowing
like a feral river over the shores of wide belts,
each one with so many chins the weight of them
drags the thin-lipped mouth open in perpetuity,
I see them everywhere today, at truckstops, rest areas
as they walk tiny poodles with spiked collars,
in flea markets full of Civil War flagged peanut brittle.
They offer me no apology for their misshapen shirts
and I offer none for my unkind and unfair thoughts,
or the foul mood their appearance puts me in
now that I’ve stopped at an all-you-can-eat buffet.
It isn’t that I have no pity for the gluttony I see
as the crowd of two-footed cattle rustle around
a mountain of fried chicken and a sea of gravy,
or fear, as I instinctively pat my own sagging belly.
This tragedy of corpulence isn’t personal. Well,
maybe a little personal since we all appear related.
Mostly, it’s metaphorical and that’s where my anger
ruminates, at the point where something is
what it is not and something is not what it is. This
crowd of fat cousins has become my country, a swarm
of pasty people blanched even more by the prospect
of losing their place at the dining trough. Pushed aside
by the largest and their horrible hunger, those left behind
scratch to keep crumbs away from the bus boys.
by Stephanie Schlaifer
Driving down in your truck Nessie
for your opening in Memphis,
You ask, So is this South yet?
The crops are changing
corn to wheat,
wheat and cotton—
cotton and brown cornfields
where ears died early on the stalks
and vines wind themselves up viciously
at the bottom of Missouri.
We pass the signs
for Daddy Rabbit’s Towing,
The Cotton Patch Buffet,
one billboard for a ginning service,
I think we have our answer.
You tell me,
You’re an advertiser’s wet dream.
Maybe on the way back we can stop.
we learn about the Mid-South—
a cultural divide
that’s lionized with road signs
and manifest in the architecture,
the accent, and the time zone.
(Georgians, like me, don’t get Central Time.)
The accent, Tennessee-Southern—
where ten and tin are nearly homophones,
akin on my ears though not my tongue,
and H’s are only sometimes silent
in white or whistle.
Not at all like St. Louis-Midwestern,
rhymes with park.
At the hotel,
we change quickly.
You go from
jeans to jeans
and a clean
The boots stay.
My pink T-shirt
is too pink. I think
you can see
through my skirt.
No, that pair looks about the same.
At the opening,
it is only six
and everyone has already eaten.
We are overdressed.
It is now so windy,
you can see
through my skirt.
We are on our own
We walk down Cotton Row,
where cotton used to be king,
over the highway on Monroe,
past the Wonder Bread and Hostess factory,
where exhaust mixes with the smell of cakes and yeast.
We’re starving, so I try to entertain you
with an impression of the coed from Mississippi State
who managed to turn no
into a five-syllable word.
The road we’re lost on
brambles into black walnut trees
and mounds of sumac,
a tall, white-columned Georgian,
We see a red brick building painted
Kudzu’s Bar & Deli,
but there’s a bar across the door
and hardly any kudzu.
Half of Main Street is boarded up.
The storefront of Memphis Cycle & Supply is filled with
a dozen dead birds, feathered and skeletal,
the plate glass and the plywood.
In the morning,
the local news announces
Kroger is buying out the Memphis Schnucks.
There are no grits at breakfast.
We are neither here nor there.
Southern Seasonal Affective Disorder
By Jim McGarrah
My stomach is squeezed by sadness,
a twinge of hunger minus appetite.
In front of Welty’s Deli a few blocks
from the French Quarter, lawyers make
deals, bankers lose someone else’s fortunes,
and cops sweep the sidewalks clear
of pick pockets, the only honest crooks.
I’m beginning to feel SAD at 8AM.
There isn’t enough breeze to lift a wing
and hurry a fly off my beignet.
A child, miserable in his mother’s grip,
bellows like a wounded dog, a tourist
checks the tag on her rolling luggage
although we’re miles from any airport.
Worst of all, there is no newspaper to read.
The Times Picayune published since 1837
is no longer printed every day.
Knowledge costs more than ignorance.
At the next table three people clash
over the sinfulness of television, grackles
form a counterpoint harmony of useless chatter
from the eaves above the Deli’s sign.
This is my world this morning, and it would be nice
in these moments of sweat and despair, to believe
I’m getting what I choose, that my minor miseries
are a reflection of my own poor perspective
rather than the burden of being southern.