Poetry restores beauty to those things that have been demeaned. -Galway Kinnell
I have two book projects underway right now. One attempts to reclaim the woodlands before they are developed out of existence; the other records a magician's relationship with a swamp bride's family. Both books are, more accurately, love letters to the South. I'm a slow writer. I wrote my first "Blackbird" poem at age eighteen and it didn't become a series of blackbird poems with a final book form till nearly two decades later. During those decades I've been soaking in the world: shoveling shit barns and piecing a salary from odd jobs, vagabond camping, rearing a child (with my husband), and earning a late-to-come Ph.D.. All along I've recorded the stuff of poems (100 yellow legal pads and three hard drives-worth), but it has taken me this amount of time to learn how to sit in a chair for eight hours a day revising. This skill has arrived at an inopportune time: I am now the sole provider for our family.
What my projects want: Several months of solitude and funds to travel back to the places where I first became enchanted with people like Paul Cannon (the last living member of The Bear Clan) and Roger (a.k.a. mountain man who brings down warthogs with his bulldog then donates the meat to foothills families in need). The landscapes and stories of folks in and around the towns I come from seem too small and fleeting for notation in conventional history books; when viewed as integral to a long tradition of pastorals that Theocritus began, they seem more lyrically epic, somehow: more as I see them.
To the jurors of my application materials and to the NEA: I could not be more personally pleased or awestruck to receive your support at this particular time than if I'd received a forty -acre cloverfield of Luck. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to practice the age -old art of storytelling through verse.
What do you want? Shall I come to you
with a rod, or in the spirit of gentleness?--1 Corinthians 4:21
If you want to hear the stories about the sisters who thwarted chiggers by rubbing coal oil on
their arms & legs before wading into brambles, & how they walked out of the forest with
blackberries staining through the upturned laps of their floursack dresses, on the fourth of
July--do not lament.
I could have gone on believing they would wash their hair in a rainbarrel, forever.
& that the mailman would bring live chickens in boxes, so they could exchange eggs for
groceries. That there would always be more eggs, because they would trick the hens into
perpetually warming their nests, by placing glass replicas under them. Befriended chickens
would run like dogs, through the brooder, to greet them. Their mother
said her hell had been on earth, fighting with eight mouths over gravy scraps.
& even if it wasn?t the quaint picture it seems now, still their mother was the only one who
could bring herself to break the necks of barnyard fowl. To soak their bodies in salt,
loosening the feathers, then to burn the down with lit ends of a newspaper. So there was
fried chicken wrapped in a towel to warm the sisters? hands on the walk to school.
I could have gone on believing they would whet their knives on a stone.
& on Christmas, the oyster truck would arrive from the coast. So they would go on
riding in a buckboard to meet it, in Beech Grove, Kentucky. They would circle the dolls they
wanted in a Sears catalogue. Thread cranberries & popcorn into garland. The neighbor
would carry a violin on his back down a dirt road.
I could have believed they would keep milk cold by lowering into the well, all summer.
Would wake before dawn to coldpack enough fruit for the next winter. Would slide their
knives under thin skinned peaches & slip the wet & delicious fruit into jars for hours, in a
sweltering kitchen. Aching fingers & hump shouldered. Until a group of teens arrived in a
car & tempted the girls to skinnydip in Green River.
On the hottest day of the year, one sister finished the other one?s work & the other
sister went, sans socks & shoes, sans apron, to the other side of the bridge, where tent
revivals were sometimes held. & long lines of believers waded, fully dressed, into the
riverbed. Here John, the prince of Baptists, held a woman--waist deep--in his arms so that
from the shore they seemed to waltz in her despair before he drenched her,
then brought her out again, her face--wet & ecstatic with sungilt grace.
It must have been the parting of their ways, the river--each sister, laying claim to one side of
it. Each one believing she followed a chosen path: My aunt, still, coldpacking fruit in the
sober kitchen of obedience. My wild mother, forgetting that place, because heaven was on
Even now, unbuttoning her blouse & letting it fall through the clouds.
Jane Springer received her PhD in creative writing from Florida State and is currently a Visiting Assistant Professor of Poetry at Hamilton College. Her first book, Dear Blackbird, won the Agha Shahid Ali prize for poetry (University of Utah Press, 2007). Her poems have received, among other honors, an AWP Intro Award, and The Robert Penn Warren Prize for Poetry. In April of 2007, Brett Lott invited her to read as The Southern Review's representative emerging talent for "Periodically Speaking" at The New York Public Library. Her poems may be accessed online in journals such as AGNI, Poetry Daily, and Verse Daily or in print from journals such as The Cincinnati Review, New Letters, Lyric, and The Southern Review.
Photo by Robin Caudell