My Back Pages: The Teresa Poems.
by Floyd Collins
(Stephen F. Austin State University Press, 2022. 80pp. $18)
Wild Juice: Poems.
by Ashley Mace Havird
(Louisiana State University Press, 2021. 78pp. $17.95)
Ten years back, when I published a scholarly book on contemporary Southern poetry, I felt I had a command of the writers comprising this field. In the decade since, I’ve come to realize what I thought would serve as an exhaustive tome may be more of a primer, offering only a sampling of contemporary Southern poetry in its sheer diversity and multitude. As I get introduced to more and more writers my book didn’t account for—including the two covered in this review, Floyd Collins and Ashley Mace Havird—I feel perhaps like an explorer encountering the wonders of vast new lands, already inhabited. I’m the late arrival. Both Collins and Havird have been here for quite some time, working steadily, patiently, and well.
Floyd Collins was born on November 4, 1951 in Charleston, South Carolina. His father worked as a printer and his mother as a homemaker. Collins earned his B.A. at Memphis State University (1984), and his M.F.A. in Creative Writing (1988) as well as his Ph.D. in Twentieth Century American and British Literature (1997) at the University of Arkansas. His teaching career took him to Quincy University in Illinois and to Wabash College in Indiana, and his honors include the John Ciardi Award for Poetry (1985), the Academy of American Poets Prize (1987), the C. Vann Woodward Award for Nonfiction (1988), and the Allen Tate Poetry Prize (2007). His other poetry collections include Scarecrow (St. Luke’s Press, 1980), The Wedding Guest (Ptarmigan Press, 1987), Forecast (Epiphany Press, 1993), and What Harvest: Poems on the Siege and Battle of the Alamo (Somondoco Press, 2011). In addition to poetry, Collins has published a scholarly book, Seamus Heaney: The Crisis of Identity (University of Delaware Press, 2003), and an essay collection, The Living Artifact (Stephen F. Austin University Press, 2021). Poems from My Back Pages: The Teresa Poems appeared previously in a range of well-considered literary journals, such as The Arkansas Review, The Georgia Review, The Gettysburg Review, Literary Matters, The Sewanee Review, and The Xavier Review. Collins, who is a Roman Catholic, recently moved back to his old stamping grounds of Fayetteville, Arkansas, near to his alma mater, the University of Arkansas.
My Back Pages: The Teresa Poems is devoted to the memory of Teresa Lee Shuler, a woman with whom the poet had a brief, yet intense relationship in the fall of their senior year of high school in 1970. After a four-month affair, they would break up, but would never fully go their separate ways, even after her untimely death at age 42 in 1995. This first love continues to haunt the speaker for the rest of his days, even as he enters into his eighth decade; indeed, according to “The Visitation,” a young Teresa returns intact in spirit to haunt his dreams:
…………..her short, Gypsy shag
Yellow as a hayrick, the jade ring
I once gave her now worn like a trinket
About her neck (6)
For the poet, Teresa would become something like that insistent, if unattainable green light Jay Gatsby seeks out across the gulf of darkness nightly. Nearly all the poems in the collection adhere to this monomaniacal intent, with only a few switchbacks to revisit family or other connections along the main way. Collins describes this Orphic devotion to his task in “The Outcome”: “Here in the settling dusk of my life I long / To rehearse the thousand variations of one / Song” (65).
One might object that a reader will tire of such singular focus, which could become claustrophobic. Admittedly, there are some redundancies through the poems, such as repeated autumn leaves and related conceits, including rain, mist, and frost, as well as several figures of owls and blue lawns (reminiscent of The Great Gatsby). However, these redundancies may reflect the very recyclings of memory: how the stark repetitiousness of the past looms over the poet, alongside his incapacity to recapture fully, no matter the depth of the expressive effort, his first love—either the experience or the beloved herself.
In addition to a pattern of learned allusions, Collins exploits notably intelligent, erudite diction. At times the language might strike contemporary tastes as too formalized, as in the account of Fayetteville, Arkansas, as awakening in the “psyche the felicitous / Dolor of Erik Satie’s Gymnopédies” (“The Letter” 21), or as in the description of Teresa’s voice in “Nights on the Delta” as “the comeliness / Of your speech and its liquid sonorities” (67). But Collins balances brain with muscle and heart. He fleshes out high-minded, verbose descriptions and careful allusions with a liveliness of content. The poems thrill with adventures of youthful love and sex and sports and beauty. Through the restraint of heightened language and elegiac tone, a formal distance emerges that paradoxically allows space for sincere emotion to well. What’s more, the motion of the form—how his often long, lanky phrases go tumbling into one another across and down blocks of lineation—further enlivens Collins’s exclusive emphasis in My Back Pages. The poems develop their own flow of lineation, rhythm, and image.
My Back Pages also effectively outstrips potential monotony through the polyphonic figure of Teresa, who is made manifold in varying settings and times. She collects an array of dynamic storylines and imagery surrounding her, as the calm center of a great storm. Indeed, perhaps Collins’s main strength is his command of the well-wrought image. Take, for instance, the sequence of striking images from “Farewell,” which responds to Teresa’s unexpected death from a brain aneurysm twenty-five years after their initial encounter. The speaker describes her gravesite in Murray, Kentucky, and links the autumn there to their first days together when “Frost dispers[ed] above the tree line pyrotechnic / With color” (5). Teresa’s body is contained in “a coffin once shining / And upholstered like a new roadster” (5), with “a boutonnière blue as a robin’s egg” (5) atop the lid. At poem’s close, death for the beloved means “sleep[ing] on a little past the dream” (5). Among the long string of memorable images in My Back Pages we see Teresa as high school cheerleader, college student, nurse, wife, divorcée, wife again, mother of three children, decedent, and yet she is also always beyond these things. And we discover as much, likely more, about the poet himself. Part of this seems to be wrapped up in the view of love and relationships presented in the volume: we are drawn to love most those we understand least.
Part of this, too, is that Teresa serves equally as a mirror for the poet to self-reflect on his own consciousness, and on his own possible growth. Collins makes this connection explicit in “Narcissus to the Muse,” one of the crowning achievements of the collection. As the title aptly suggests, the poet must struggle against a potentially crippling self-consciousness, as against a hollow narcissism, to commit to something, or someone, beyond the self. Revisiting the first fall of their encounter, when Teresa was a blonde cheerleader on the sidelines while the poet suited up on the gridiron, the poem limns tenuously between claims of self and other. The speaker presents several instances of heightened attention to craft, from learning to throw a slow-rolling knuckler from the mound (“its cushion-cork center / Like a fisherman’s cane pole and float hoping / The over-eager hitter would bite and go under” ), to cradling the football tight even after his thumb and ring finger have been fractured, to prepping and dressing himself to see his love (“Lord, I did lay concern on myself lathering up / With mint-scented soap-on-a-rope” ), to poetry-writing itself. Where does his commitment lie? In craft for its own sake, for glory’s sake, for the sake of others (i.e., the team), for the sake of the other (the beloved)? Or in some combination of the above? Collins describes how past exploits on the high school football field have been captured for posterity on the sixteen-millimeter celluloid reel of game tape. Players are brought back to life through “the school projector’s slow inexorable roll” (34). They “rise incorruptible” through the magic of filmic memory, repeating their past actions in the present:
From the ruck and maul of our humanity, those piled limbs
Blown dead by a referee’s whistle, we rise incorruptible,
Jumped up and come set again like a band of demons
Doomed to perpetual reenactment by reels run in reverse. (34)
The poet and his teammates are “Doomed to perpetual reenactment,” going through the motions, oblivious to the present. This is precisely the condition of ghosts. If this offers some sublimated distance from “the ruck and maul of our humanity,” presenting a kind of afterlife, it seems a relatively lifeless one. Contra the “technicolor” of lived experience, the speaker is now “consigned to a vault in black and white” (34). Albeit technically accurate, the sterile film is awash with “disaffection” and, unlike poetry, does not convey the passion and “unbidden joy” of lived experience. The poem ends in a blur of sensory imagery, of texture, touch, and taste—a material presence stressed by the rough plosive bs—that comes closer to recapturing a real sense of the past: “I wore / Brown corduroy bell-bottoms over brass-buckled boots. / I was drunk on apple wine, and you looked at me so” (34). The imagery centers initially on the self, but finally Narcissus is seen, drawn out of himself, for the time being. Still, the poem ends with a moment of suspended animation, a feeling of unfulfillment, something incomplete.
Here and there, My Back Pages offers glances away from the inspiring figure of Teresa, as Collins deftly weaves in other compelling motifs. Landscapes and cityscapes of places where the poet has settled—including Memphis, Tennessee; Greenwood, Mississippi; Fayetteville, Arkansas; and Murray, Kentucky—recur so vividly that they almost become minor characters in their own right. The poems also resound with music arising from these scenes, such as the Delta blues of Robert Johnson and Furry Lewis connected with Greenwood and the resplendent depths of jazz, blues, and early rock centered on Beale Street and Memphis, from Elvis the King to B.B. King. Collins also works in the vein of “rough South” poetry or “grit lit,” as he explores unseemly or unsettling aspects of Southern life and history. In “Sound Wisdom,” for instance, growing up as a teenager on the Delta is tinged with threat and violence:
…………………In my late teens a pewter flask
Rode my hip and I tucked in my right boot
An eight-inch blade hafted in dimpled bone.
I didn’t court trouble, but knew cemeteries
Were full of coffins, their rubber gaskets
Rotting in the August humidity. (17)
The collection’s rough Southern elements also emerge as Collins recounts his family inheritance from his grandfather:
In Greenwood, Mississippi, my maternal
Grandfather primed his rage with bonded
Whiskey. He loved to roll the bones, to shoot
The jive with dock-hands behind the Quinn
Drug Co. A blue .38 riding his hip, he passed
The collection plate odd Sundays, blackjack
Tucked in his breast pocket. Some devout
Church-goers whispered how a white hood
And sheet haunted his bedroom closet. (36)
Collins’s representations of his kin don’t all fall in the rough South category; he leaves some room for gentle remainders of the past, friendlier ghosts, particularly through his memories of his father, mother, and grandmother, who appears in “Late Chronicles”:
Mid-November’s chill popped the cardboard
Stoppers of milk bottles on front porches
All along South Prescott even as I slumbered
Under my grandmother’s satin-patched quilt (50)
Each of these side motifs is an affluent that ultimately converges to give fuller strength to the volume’s deepest channel and key confluence. Although Teresa takes on many roles, she can be seen as a figure of the power of poetry, which, in the terms of “A Lapsed Paean,” “hews to the contours / Of the numinous while trusting the mystery to arise / From the commonplace” (54). In the words of “Dual Allegories,” her memory gives form to “lyric’s untrammeled power to celebrate / And subvert” (53). Yet there is an absorbing fatalism to this committed remembrance of things past; Collins recalls the first time he sees Teresa as “a moment that rendered / The future irrevocable as the past” (71). We see, admirably, that love never dies. The burden, however, may be too heavy, even under the transformative power of poetic sublimation. Love, and life, have to press forward, don’t they?
For her part, Ashley Mace Havird grew up on a tobacco farm outside Marion, South Carolina, and currently lives in Shreveport, Louisiana, with her husband David Havird, also an accomplished writer and a fellow native South Carolinian who is a professor emeritus of English at Centenary College. Her other poetry collections include The Garden of the Fugitives (Texas Review Press, 2014), which earned the X. J. Kennedy Prize, Sleeping with Animals (Yellow Flag Press, 2013), and Dirt Eaters (Stepping Stones Press, 2009), which was selected by Kwame Dawes to receive the 2008 South Carolina Poetry Initiative Chapbook Series Prize. In addition, her novel Lightningstruck (Mercer University Press, 2016), which is based on her family’s farm during the 1960s, won the Ferrol Sams Award. Havird’s poems and stories appear in respected journals, such as Literary Matters, Shenandoah, Southern Review, and Virginia Quarterly Review, while Wild Juice represents the fifty-third volume in the estimable Southern Messenger Poets Series, selected and edited by Dave Smith.
This isn’t a comparison-contrast essay assignment, but reading carefully back-to-back through Floyd Collins’s My Back Pages and Ashley Mace Havird’s Wild Juice impresses one with productive affinities and distinctions. The experience drives home the open range of current Southern verse—how distinctly, if fearfully and wondrously made these poems are.
Both poets’ books abide in landscapes of memory. Both poets set their scenes by thorough-going recourse to nuanced rural or (sub)urban settings. Under Havird’s graceful touch, even ostensibly unpoetic suburban Shreveport sheds banality for unlooked-for beauty momentarily, as in the opening of “The Sale”:
She’s out in the garage
when dusk stretches violet cellophane
over the bowl of her world.
Except there is a gash
for the moon to shine through.
And fireflies dance beneath it. (11)
Growing up, Ashley and David spent summers in the Murrells Inlet-Huntington Beach-Litchfield-Pawleys Island area of the South Carolina coast, where I now reside, and both have dedicated several poems to their experiences here back in the 1960s and 1970s. The landscape has become cluttered with strip malls, condos, developments, storage units, gas marts. The place as it was still thrives in Havird’s memory, as in her vision of 1966 Myrtle Beach in “Beach Music,” where the teenaged poet “flashed Vs for peace at soldiers on leave” and “The air was charged with Krispy Kreme, / Coppertone, foot-longs, sea spray” (34). Through the transformative power of memory, present Shreveport undergoes metamorphosis to past South Carolina coastline in “Waterline”:
When they weep the hawks turn into gulls.
Orange cannas break into flame—
tiki-torches from the 1960s, back
when our tans were deep, bodies lean,
feet sore from that trek on the shell-sharp waterline
from Huntington Beach to Litchfield
and, when the moon drank the tide down,
across to Pawleys Island….
Sting of lemon on grilled trout,
crisp burnt skin. Just as we used to,
we cut the salt with gin. (55)
Along the way, Havird also works in stunning vistas beyond the U.S. South, which are drawn from regular travels to Greece, as seen in poems like “Golden Dawn,” “Migrant Worker,” and “Cyclades,” which ends with the arresting image of “the sky blue, the sea deeper blue, / the hills green and brown, the houses / of the people a glazed and blinding white” (54). The poems set in Greece tend to carry historical weight, setting the country’s abundant beauty side-by-side against its often trying socioeconomic conditions.
In terms of contrasts between Collins and Havird, the language of each takes its place on opposite sides of the room. In diction, Collins is unafraid of the highly literate, hand-in-glove with a restrained elegiac tone. In lieu of loftiness, Havird’s words ground us. Her language is straightforward, conversational, open, just as her tone is frank, relaxed, at times wryly funny. Her poems also are less formally structured, with each poem driven mainly by narrative. Like Collins, Havird shows exquisite control of image, particularly at the start and close of her poems, where piquant images serve as narrative punctuation marks. Where Collins takes aims at the mythic, Havird keeps things real. Make no mistake, however, turning in her hands, the vernacular vibrates with meaning, as evident in the closing line of “Gone to Wild,” which describes the strong arms and strong spirits of great-aunts who pass on their maternal strength to their beloved grand-niece: “They weren’t about to let go” (8). Or, to pair two in the same poem, consider the starting and final images of “Perseids,” which begins with “The hard-lit steel plant to the east / muddies the strict dark of the fields” (10) and closes with “Slash of a meteor so near, so bright, we startle. / Burned out too fast, too soon, even for a wish” (10).
For Collins, Teresa represents a magnificent singularity of purpose, where Havird expresses lively commitments, plural. We don’t feel, however, that because her devotions are many, they are somehow lessened: as her love divides, it is made complete. The intensity of Collins’s gaze and his focus on the deep image shift in Havird to multiple storylines, full of characters, in conversation. Her people talk casually; they tell jokes. Collins also introduces other voices, and quite memorably, too, but we either come to these characters through Teresa, or these characters lead us back to some new element of her. With Havird’s people and creatures, we get to know them and often come to love them, too. Collins provides us with a single subject, repainted obsessively, capturing every detail and nuance possible, while Havird presents us with a study in various portraits. Where Collins is avowedly individual, Havird is devotedly communal. He commits his art to following a solitary other (if not Other), while she attends to others. In “Yearly Physical,” for example, Havird introduces several supporting characters in the waiting room of the doctor’s office, including an old woman with “hair bobbed ragged” (6) who is babbling as she’s “trying to learn her words again” (6) and a “pimpled teenager” who “watches her like TV” (6). Or consider the account the “newly divorced” neighbor (7) in “The Gardener,” who seems to garner a lot of attention from the speaker’s husband:
She’s blonde. Did I mention that?
Loose-limbed as a teenager and lovely,
if you can forgive her eyes, focused
on a face rarer than yours—
lavender moonflower or bearded iris.
And she’s passionate, judging from her spells
of ravenous pruning. (7)
Havird’s portraits often mix humor with generous dispensation. In her accounting of others, she balances the vibrancy and energy of youth with the wisdom and calm reflection that arrive with maturity.
Havird’s capacity for compassion—empathy, really—extends beyond the human, to animal others, such as the dog in “Reading the Trees,” as we learn to see from his perspective: “What he learns / is always news, in disappearing ink” (9). Or the heartbreaking story she captures in “Tour of Grief” of a mother killer whale journeying for seventeen days and one thousand miles with her dead calf: “Only when a thrumming, like breath, / wings from the calf’s slack jaw— / a plume of flies—does she release it…” (20). The poet realizes “How human” (19) this rite of grief seems, crossing species lines. Or when she decides to allow nature to follow its course in “Turtle and Snake,” where the poet at first moves a turtle from out of the immediate vicinity of a cottonmouth. She thinks she’s helping, that the turtle is the target of the cottonmouth’s predation. But she glances back to see a small clutch in a hole dug in loose sand at the edge of the roadway:
I set the turtle back—tried to, anyhow—
the way she had been. I wanted to believe
she would blanket her eggs with soft dirt,
camouflage the nest, outwait the snake.
I walked on, hauling my hope like a heavy shell. (41)
I think we come to admire the lovely, brave protective sentiment we see in the mother turtle, something beyond herself for which she is willing to die. Wanting to believe is important. It’s a heavy hope for the future, but it’s hope. If we pay attention, we can learn a lot from animals. This is clear also through the several poems dedicated to good dogs threaded through the volume. Beyond touting a banal or cloying nostalgia, these poems demonstrate a tender intimacy and reciprocal care, even empathy, crossing back and forth between human and nonhuman animals. The animal poems that appear throughout Wild Juice reflect a local instance of a larger, even global concern that emerges in the volume—the effects of climate crisis—evident in poems like “Habitat” (about a trophy sawfish, a “Critically endangered” species (56), hanging above a beach bar), “Ghost Net” (about damages wrought by lost commercial fishing nets), and “Earth Day” (about plastic pollution infiltrating the Gulf Coast).
Both Collins and Havird explore, at the heart of things, those venerable poetic saws, love and death. Mainly both poets explore how death transforms love, and how love transforms death. Like Collins, Havird has had her share of grieving. Wild Juice contains a full run of elegies—for her father, who suffers dementia and death; for the children of Sandy Hook; for an array of nonhuman creatures, from dogs to deer to goats to sawfish to killer whales. Havird’s elegies for her father are punctuated with resonant images: how the poet breaks down in line while ordering at Wendy’s in “Hospice: Grace”; how the poet and her brothers bury a beloved Lab mix, who dies of a bad heart, and their father’s ashes, using the same shovels in “Daisy’s Heart”; how the poet places over her father’s ashes picked wildflowers, an Indian pottery shard, and a smooth white stone from Greece in “Deer”; how she donates the father’s shirts, likened to “prayer flags beneath Mount Kailash” (44), to Goodwill in “Prayer Flags”; and how she likens the extenuated process of grief or “unhealing” (45) to a scabbed cut in “First Year” (45).
Wild Juice also records the difficulties, for patient and for caretaker, of the father’s dementia, which embodies a death before death. The poems about dementia avoid the temptation to romanticize or sublimate the disease; instead, they speak bluntly of day-to-day conditions, capturing, for instance, the debilitating sense of “tricked time” that accompanies the illness, that eats away at a shared sense of reality, as in “Dementia: American Pickers”:
For Dad, it’s sunup. No matter we show him
the pitch dark outside, the clocks, our phones,
the four watches he’s placed in a perfect row
on the kitchen table. Finally, he has enough
of us and our so-called truth.
You believe what you believe. I believe
what I believe. (37)
As the poet says her goodbyes to the father in “Suitcase,” she wonders: “Will he remember who I am / next time?” (38). For the father, and for their shared time together from here on, “There’s no next time” (38). Witnessing a loved one disappearing under the strains of dementia threatens to disappear parts of you, too—certainly those parts of you that were shared with the loved one. “Suitcase” closes with the poet-daughter “looking for the parts / of me he gathered and took with him” (38). “Skull Mount” brilliantly entwines a vision of a dead deer and the dying father, presenting another trenchant instance of human and nonhuman consonance in Wild Juice. The speaker’s initial response to the deer hunted down by her brothers presages the father’s impending death: “What struck me was how fast, how far from life / it had come. Congealed blood stuck like a fat tick / to the bottom lip, eyes dry as paper, nostrils still” (1). Unlike their father, the poet’s brothers embrace the Southern ritual of hunting:
Our father refused to hunt. But how he praised
my brothers’ kills—the mallard’s emerald head,
the turkey’s crimson wattle, the deer’s broad rack—
then put on jazz and turned up the volume. (1)
Father, like daughter, is an aesthete; in choosing not to join in the larger rite of hunting, he instead partakes of his own aesthetic practice by listening to jazz. “Skull Mount” then lays bare the process of butchering the dead deer’s corpse to salvage the skull. The process isn’t pretty, yet there’s something about the brothers’ strict observance of form that commands attention, if not respect, for the poet “can’t get enough of looking” (2). After harvesting the deer’s meat beside the bone pit, one of her brothers “goes at the spine with a hacksaw / beneath the skull” (1). They then boil water over a propane tank “to scald away skin and flesh” (1) all day, and then a “twisted wire / scrambles, hooks out the brain” (1-2):
It takes a case of Bud Light, chain-smoked
Marlboros, a barrage of hunting stories
around the steaming pot. Two more days
in a pan of bleach. One day to dry in the sun.
With a toothbrush, peroxide (Clairol, No. 40)
where bone meets bone. A bubbling. (2)
We follow along, step by step, and perhaps come to see artistry in the process, as Havird resets this spartan rite into the ritual turns of poetry. And then there’s a sudden turn from the deer’s now sterile, hollow skull, to the father’s muddled skull:
Most days toward the end my brother
drove our father in the mud-splattered Polaris
down dirt roads alongside fields,
through timber and into the cypress swamps,
his life’s landscape. It never failed,
according to Scott—that fallen-in shack
where pasture met woods tricked time. (2)
We look now to the father’s loss of time, his lostness in time, except for triggering moments of salience, as the past interpenetrates the present, and he lives as “A boy again” (2) who “along with his father, / lays those pine floorboards” in the shack for their cowman Walter (2), now long gone. On “a salvaged pine slab / that knew our father’s hands and knees” (2), her brother mounts the skull, inside a “dated” kitchen (2) by a cuckoo clock “which nobody now troubles to wind” (2). These images of belatedness speak to the trickiness of living in lost time. Being stuck in the past is a false state. We need to move forward, come what may. With the mention of “toward the end,” we realize the artistry of rendering the deer skull rhymes grimly with the mortician’s art, the aesthetic process the father’s corpse will soon undergo. The deer skull acts as a memento mori: for the living to remember death, and then to live on accordingly. We’ve got to get our bearings, as the double entendre on Polaris as pole star suggests. For Havird, there is still a future, one that will surely contain some darkness, but also, let’s hope, some goodness. Either way, the future is real, and we’ve got to face it.
In “Strays,” we return to a living memory shared by the poet and her father on one of their last walks together around the grounds of the family farm. It’s clear the father—like the latest stray he’s taken in, a Husky mix—“won’t last long” (46). Amid death, surges abundant life. The two enjoy purple muscadines from a teeming overhanging vine: “Wild juice baptizes our chins, / and we are born again” (46). They don’t seek false solace. They realize they are “Left with what’s left” (46). They know, for the father, the future isn’t particularly long or particularly bright. But they also have courage to “spit out / sour pulp, bitter seed, crushed skin” (46), to leave what’s not good behind and seek what’s ahead ahead. To cite the parting words of the Rolling Stones’ “Sweet Virginia” (1972), itself a gloss of parting advice by Jesus to his wandering apostles: “Got to scrap that shit right off your shoes.” Where Collins’s vision of Teresa evokes a fatalistic ethos, even in Havird’s elegiac pieces there is more sense of the future. Along with needful backward glances, her poems still seem mostly forward-facing.
Both Floyd Collins and Ashley Mace Havird demonstrate the value of considerable patience. Editors of literary journals have already affirmed their talent, and I hope scholars will take a closer look. Both Collins and Havird have long paid their dues for the good of Southern poetry. I’m pleased, in small part and finally, to pay them back.