Thursday, June 9, 2011

HOLDING THE NOTES…

When I returned to The Mountain from a brief trip to New Iberia, Louisiana, I found in my mailbox a copy of the newest book of poetry written by former Louisiana Poet Laureate Darrell Bourque.  The book lifted my spirits following this long road trip, and I read it straight through within a few hours after arriving at our cottage in Sewanee.  My only disappointment in the small volume of poetry was that I wanted more poems – the chapbook contains seventeen tightly-woven poems in Darrell’s irresistible voice.  Darrell’s poetic voice still sings even though he has retired from the position of Poet Laureate, and he sings best about his family, especially his deceased mother in the poignant end poem, “Holding the Notes.”
Equally powerful are his poems about his literary friends from south Louisiana.  Included in HOLDING THE NOTES is the tribute to his friend, Ernest Gaines, writer of the memorable The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. The tribute poem was composed for the opening of the Ernest J. Gaines Center at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.  Entitled “Of Men and Rivers,” the masterful lyrics evoke images of Gaines’ childhood and the Quarter residents who live in his stories about southern blacks, which he created from memories of those Quarter characters. 

Darrell’s poems are evocations of the region of south Louisiana where he still resides and are rendered with honesty and strength of character.  He has a sense of place honed to precision, a gift for portraying lives normally unsung, depicted with gentle wisdom. 

HOLDING THE NOTES is dedicated to Darrell’s mother, and his aunts hold a close second place to her with their appearance in the first intense poem of the book.  It’s entitled “Before the Sparrows Wakened:”

BEFORE THE SPARROWS WAKENED

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
        sitting 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 orielles 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.
 – Darrell Bourque –

I enjoyed the honor of reading alongside Darrell a year and a half ago in New Iberia, Louisiana where we shared one segment devoted to children in Haiti, and Darrell’s poem from that reading, “Venus Rising in Haiti,” is contained in HOLDING THE NOTES.

Darrell’s previous books include THE DOORS BETWEEEN US, Burnt Water Suite, The Blue Boat (my favorite), Call and Response, and In Ordinary Light.  He is presently Professor Emeritus of English and Interdisciplinary Humanities at ULL where he held the position of Friends of the Humanities Honor Professor. 

The poetry reading in New Iberia in January, 2010 remains the highlight of my career as a poet, and I was moved to write the following poem about Darrell the day after we performed together:

TO DARRELL

It is good to read poems with you,
the ultimate poet leading the ultimate life;
I liked that our ancestors have common roots
tightly entwined in boats
rocking on the wave of exile,
their coming disturbing a halcyon world--
wilderness and deliverance in one place.

By right of poetry
we became friends in a friendlier world;
I am looking at your face,
one that has known lost battles
and lately won even more.
It is a face more French than the French,
the sharp incline of your nose,
framed by gray curls,
reading words that sound to me
like “pwis and jer, may jamay,
der swashay, dit swa, dit swa.”

Your wife looks up at you
crooning those soft inflections,
mating with your eyes again;
she does not have to remember
the romance of first years,
every day it is reflected
in your voice and eyes.

I am sorry that part of my ancestry
cannot match yours,
the speaking of this ancient language
that aroused my Scots mother’s disdain,
eclipsed my father’s perorations
   in Parisian French,
   in Cajun French,
doubling the language he never passed to me,
or I would be able to parley with you,
tell you in like patois
your poetry is elegant and delivers us,
immerses me in occasions of shared ancestry
where we recite anthems,
chants of the Grand Derangement,
coming upon this place
of tangled vines and brown water, singing
it is good to be a poet with you,
it is good to be a poet with you,
it is good to be a poet
   in this new world.
–Diane M. Moore –

Cover Painting of HOLDING THE NOTES, "Gathering Lessons" by Bill Gingles
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