Friday, May 17, 2013
If there is such a phenomenon as a post-modern troubadour, poet Darrell Bourque, former poet laureate of Louisiana from Churchpoint, Louisiana, is that man. In his latest work, Megan's Guitar and Other Poems from Acadie, his lyrics sing about the Acadie that is, as a friend who attended his reading yesterday said, "his history." A writer unafraid to be called a poet of place, Darrell weaves the culture of south Louisiana, its ancestral and present-day characters,its artists like Acadie's own Elemore Morgan, its rituals and landscape into a tapestry of rich textures.
The introduction to Megan's Guitar is written by Barry Ancelet, Granger and Debaillon Endowed Professor of Francophone Studies at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, whose alter ego Jean Arceneaux is a poet, playwright, songwriter and storyteller. Ancelet explains that Megan's Guitar was born in his living room when Darrell viewed a sewn silk art piece depicting a woman playing a guitar by Megan Barra. Darrell often uses the ekphrastic technique in his poetry – viewing art to inspire a poetic response – and was moved by the beautiful silk art piece that provides the cover and title of his latest book of poetry to research his Acadian past and explore in sonnet form, the vision and struggles of his ancestors.
Megan's Guitar is divided into three sections, Acadie Tropicale, poems about postmodern Acadia; Megan's Guitar, a section telling how song is "catalyst and clarifier" of history; and Acadie du nord, the northern Acadian experience.
In the section, Megan's Guitar, Darrell writes in the title poem that "Songs are in fingers as they are/in heart and brain and belly and feet…" and his sonnet reflects those songs in his own fingers, heart, brain, belly, and feet, moving felicitously like a medieval troubadour "inside this trembling world of ours." Although the section is short, it resounds with the chords of Darrell's personal history as a descendant of the migrating Acadians who survived the Grand Derangement. However, in "Vanitas," he writes about an experience common to all of us: "We are always slinking, always wedded/to everything before and after us, even as every rage/inside us is without consent quelled and put to bed."
I had read "Before the Sparrows Awakened" in the section entitled Acadie Tropicale, but it is a poem that resonates again and again with me and illuminates one of the cultural rituals that took place in Darrell's childhood: "Before daylight we were awakened by the voices/of my aunts in my mother's kitchen./As soon as my father and my uncles left for work,/they appeared like gauzy apparitions/and shadowed our backdoor. The sky outside was but a dimly lighted sheet/and the sparrows were still drowsing lazily/in the upper branches of the trees./These birds were rhymes for who we were/in our beds; still, but being awakened/slowly by the voices and the perfume creeping/into the woodwork as water plumped/the dark, rich grounds in the little blue pot/stirring inside another pot on the stove./The anxious thoughts these women carried inside,/they put out on the table/along with whatever was left from yesterday:/sweet dough pie or fig cakes,/gateau sirop or des Oreilles de cochon./On this fare they would break fast/and whatever gleamed in their lives or in lives/close by, they lighted the room with./This hour was something they had taken as theirs,/and it was their job to start the day." The imagery in this poem is energetic and picturesque and illustrates how Darrell often pays tribute to his generous and self-effacing kinspeople in his songs about Acadie without making declarative statements about those two familial qualities.
Many of the poems in Acadie du Nord feature Joseph Broussard, dit Beausoleil, who was the leader of the first group of Acadians to arrive in New Orleans in 1765. He also led resistance fighters against the British in Nova Scotia from their deportation to his departure for Santo Domingue. He arrived in the Attakapas area of south Louisiana in 1765 and was among three designated leaders of the Acadians. Notes about the poems featuring Beausoleil are included in the concluding section of Megan's Guitar and represent the intensive research that Darrell did before writing his wonderful sonnets.
The lonely figure of Evangeline appears in Darrell's sonnet entitled "Evangeline Speaks," and he captures the poignancy of lost love in lines about her faithfulness to a man whom she "may or may not have held dear …but I was never what they were, never a mother,/never even married…never with the women who foraged for medicinal teas/to save a spouse in a wild land no one knew, or nursed a child, never smothered/by want or dread….I was always covered by right image and right sound, measured neatly in what others wanted to believe."
Darrell, a personal friend who remains my mentor in poetry, has written a masterpiece in Megan's Guitar, and I was sorry I wasn't at his reading yesterday at ULL when he sang his songs to take those of us who have Acadian lineage back to our origins – and to transport those who were not of Acadian ancestry into further exploration and appreciation of a rich and magnificent history and culture. He has accomplished in each illuminating sonnet the two components which Robert Frost once touted as indicative of good poetry: wisdom and delight.
P.S. The stunning photograph of Darrell by John Slaughter in the end pages is a portrait that captures Darrell's strength of character and poetic sensibilities. In the photograph he looks like a French imperator! Bravo, Darrell – the victory is yours!
Thursday, May 16, 2013
|Main House, Andalusia|
|Home of farm workers |
We toured the 19th century home, peering into O'Connor's downstairs bedroom/study that held a single bed, covered with a simple blue and white bedspread, set only a few feet away from a desk that held a manual typewriter, flanked by a straight-backed chair sans cushions of any kind. It was a stark room, a setting where O'Connor wrote her novels, short stories, essays, and letters from nine until noon every morning of her writing life. In the afternoons, she tended peafowl – at one time, she had fifty of them – and painted (even her self-portrait), sometimes entertaining people who would drop in to see her.
As we walked around the grounds that included a small pond, a peacock aviary, and a few nature trails, we thought about the mysterious, often violent fiction, that had emerged from the quiet landscape and connected with the words in O'Connor's essay, "The Fiction Writer and His Country:" "When we talk about the writer's country we are liable to forget that no matter what particular country it is, it is inside as well as outside him. Art requires a delicate adjustment of the outer and inner worlds in such a way that, without changing their nature, they can be seen through each other. To know oneself is to know one's region. It is also to know the world, and it is also, paradoxically, a form of exile from that world…"
|Diane next to red dirt road |
As I walked through the grounds, I passed a completely dilapidated garage that seemed strangely incongruous with the well-kept landscape, a large pile of broken wood that mocked the romanticism I had attributed to the scene of a southern writer who had once said people didn't understand her writing about the people and region that surrounded her farm. O'Connor also said her Christian affiliation centered on redemption and what she saw in the world in relation to that redemption, adding that her Christian beliefs freed her to observe and affected her writing "primarily by guaranteeing her respect for mystery."
If you haven’t sampled the work of Flannery O'Connor, you might enjoy the short story collection, A Good Man Is Hard to Find (1955) which includes a bizarre baptism in "The River," a one-legged woman's encounter with a Bible salesman in "Good Country People," and other discomfiting stories that bear out her words, "In order to recognize a freak, you have to have a conception of the whole man."
|Main house, side view of Andalusia|
In the small gift shop of the old farmstead, I bought a volume that included all of O'Connor's books, short stories, essays, and letters, published by the Library of America, and began reading it aloud to my friend, Vickie, while traveling home to Sewanee, Tennessee, arriving back on The Mountain after being transported by O'Connor's "The Train."
Photographs by Victoria I. Sullivan
Monday, May 13, 2013
Michael and I share a fondness for the New England poet Robert Francis, "a man who owned freedom and leisure," as I described him in a former poem – a poet who subsisted on a pittance for years before being recognized as an important New England poet.
I reviewed Michael Miller's newest book of poetry, Into This World, published by Pinyon Publishing, a few weeks ago, and before I traveled to Florida recently, Miller referred me to another of his works, The Singing Inside, a beautiful book of poetry set by hand in 14 pt. Perpetua, a font designed by Eric Gill. The text was printed letterpress on a Heidelberg Original Cylinder press, and the cover was printed by hand on a 10x15 Chandler and Price platen press. Artwork was printed from wood engravings by Frank C. Eckmair, and the book was designed and printed by Birch Brook Press.
I describe these exterior qualities because I seldom see such beautiful, hand-printed books of poetry. The Singing Inside accurately defines the poetry inside – the singing inside of a man who pays tribute to his wife and their journey together as they mature in married love, passionately and honestly. There are so many fine poems in the volume that I wouldn't strike out even one as unfit for the theme of married love, from its inception as a passionate love affair to the present decade of their aging. Miller sings about the latter stage of married love: "Our house is singing as it sinks/A gradual decline with choruses/We can hear beyond the floorboards/Cracking, the old beams creaking,/The stone foundation shifting as if/It were looking for a place to escape./How we resist our body's aging!/Resentful of our brittle bones,/Our muscles slackening as if asleep,/Come, let's open all the windows/And sing to the warblers, the wrens."
I was also impressed by the cogent feelings expressed in two exquisite love poems reminiscent of the Persian poet Rumi, on facing pages, XIX and XX, the latter defining a love that has been plumbed and kept intact: "We have delved into the anatomy/Of each other's darkness,/Of each other's light,/Uncovering a grave,/Unveiling a hidden sun./We have explored without a caution,/Reconnoitering each other's heart,/Refusing to believe there is/Nothing left to discover."
Although Miller speaks of "maple leaves reddening and curling at their edges," he recognizes that mature love takes "decades of struggle/And ease to arrive at this/Three-foot wall built with/Smooth and rough stones/Where the countries of lichen grow,/And we sit upon it looking out/With the joined perfection of hands."
These poems are true and powerful – no frills, each word crafted with precision, each poem condensed into tight, concrete imagery and rendered in passionate phrasing. I read this volume while vacationing in Weston, Florida, a city of wonderful light and felt a synchronicity of environment and the wonderful clarity and light in The Singing Inside.