After six decades as a prominent print journal, Washington and Lee's acclaimed literary journal Shenandoah is available at shenandoahliterary.org. The digital version - Volume 62, Number 2, is now online. The homepage also includes a Poem of the Week, an Archive Feature of the Month, audio files of contributors reading their work, an essay on featured artist, William Dunlap; brief and extended reviews and a rotating series of 100 arresting quotations. Those seeking information about submissions, prizes and the publication's history - from Tom Wolfe through Flannery O'Connor and W. H. Auden up to Rita Dove and Charles Wright- will find a wealth of information on the site. Further links reveal a description of the WLU English Department's Internship in Literary Editing program, along with comments by both the winter 2013 interns and recent graduates. All aspects of the journal are interactive and invite reader comment. Finally, Shenandoah's blog "Snopes" will introduce provocative topics and encourage readers to engage in discussion. Bloggers will include staff members, interns and special guests.
For over half a century Shenandoah has been publishing splendid poems, stories, essays and reviews which display passionate understanding, formal accomplishment and serious mischief.
Founded in 1950 by a group of Washington and Lee University faculty and students, Shenandoah has achieved a wide reputation as one of the country's premier literary magazines. Work from the magazine's pages has appeared in Best American Short Stories, Best American Poems, Best American Essays, Best American Spiritual Writing, The O'Henry Prize, New Stories from the South and The Pushcart Prize, as well as numerous other anthologies and quite literally thousands of collections by the original authors. Recent issues have featured Pulitzer winners Natasha Trethewey, Claudia Emerson and Ted Kooser, as well as fiction by James Lee Burke, George Singleton, Alyson Hagy, Chris Offutt, Bret Anthony Johnston and Pam Durban.
Diann Blakely (1957-2014) was for twenty years a steady and valuable supporter of and contributor to Shenandoah. When she passed in August, her loss was no less shocking for the fact that she had been ill for some time. Although we had met only twice, Diann and I had carried on a considerable correspondence since I accepted four of her early poems for Southern Humanities Review about two dozen years ago. Those poems appeared in Hurricane Walk (BOA Editions, 1992), which was followed by Farewell, My Lovelies (Story Line, 2000). When I moved to Shenandoah, she began sending me new work, and our ties were further strengthened when my wife Sarah Kennedy selected Diann’s third book, Cities of Flesh and the Dead, as winner of the 2008 Elixir Press Prize.
Her early work was always delicate but bold, highly aware of the body’s blessings and curses. About the quietly intense lyrical pieces of her debut collection William Matthews wrote, “[Blakely] knows everything she knows all at once, word by word, line by line, poem by poem. These sly poems are spare and ample both. They’re cool and passionate, frank and opaque, artful and true.”
In Farewell. . . Diann moved to a more narrative mode, telling her life and our lives, going public with her bewilderment, understanding and affection for the culture of the American South. A new density and commitment to realistic, historical details emerged, and she began to perform diagnoses and autopsies on the dying and dead aspects of the South which refuse to lie down and often find their manifestations in oppression, negligence or cruelty. It’s no accident that many of these poems carry a kind of Dixie Noir undertone, and Carol Muske Dukes wrote of them, “These poems are side-of-the-mouth Chandleresque . . . truly lovely, musical, steeped in a farewell eloquence, making transitory but persuasive order of the chaos of the heart.” Mark Doty’s take was: Blakely’s noir style has the urbane, anxious glamour of jazz, but there’s nothing cool about these fevered poems . . . a poet of dark and bracing powers.”
A poem from that collection appearing first in Shenandoah, “Hound Dog,” considered “the perilous erotics of flux” and cast Elvis as a new world Orpheus who “drove those country housewives mad” until they wanted to “tear him to bloody bits.” The poem is rife with humor, but the tragic mode eclipses the light and shows Diann at her adroit, observant and imaginative best.
Music, especially the blues, was becoming very important to Diann, and she began sending me poems based on Robert Johnson’s songs and life. In fact, I was surprised to discover the poems of Cities of Flesh . . . when I first saw the manuscript. I’d been fascinated with the Johnson poems and didn’t even know she had another entire, equally mighty, river running in her simultaneously. Sarah Kennedy wrote in her introduction that Diann “always promises entrance to a tragic, beautiful world . . . render[ing] the gritty details of Southern girlhood.” In-progress, the ms. of Cities of Flesh . . . had received the Alice Fay deCastagnola Award, and judge Baron Wormser’s citation called her “a master of evoking the beauties of loss while embracing the wayward joys of what is unaccountably found.”
Many poets, notably the late Lynda Hull and Eleanor Ross Taylor, have lost a passionate advocate in Diann, as she was a tireless critic and literary journalist, a gadfly and a fan at once, a poetry editor at Antioch Review, a fierce and hungry heart. The one thing I may miss more than her unpredictable, challenging and spirited e-mails will likely be the fully finished and polished sequences of blues poems she had been working on for years: Rain at Our Door: Duets with Robert Johnson. I hope there are enough of them in complete enough form that someone will see them into print as a unit. What follows is one of the four published in Shenandoah as the opening selections in our Traditional Music Issue in 2006. I could not get enough of them then and still can’t. She knew how to hammer the blues to silver, and my only solace is that the pain of the process is over. What’s left is to celebrate her words and live our own blues.
COME ON IN MY KITCHEN
Just one kiss, post-belles know, can linger sorghum sweet
Or curdle men’s cafes-au-lait with blood and spit,
Thus we listen to rain charm our screen doors,
Whose rusty hiinges leak the blues each humid dawn,
And watch for uncoiled snakes. O don’t redo the kitchen
Because there’s gonna be rain at our door
Like the last century’s flood, where moss-wreathed cemeteries
Released their dead while bluesmen tortured guitar strings
To dissolve thoughts of ragged, last-drawn breaths
And rambling loves, or those fled to the half-breached levees
Who’d stay past tomorrow. Like those eye-lined Pharoahs
In pleated nighties, spices on their breath,
I’m a believer-o, burning dried sweet moss to cleanse
This house of kisses fouled. Come on in my kitchen
Although the radio nailed to the high shelf
Growls low at night to warn me, sounds buried deep as bones.
Or as deep as your voice denouncing God? You knelt
To bark, they say, against the juke-joint shelf
Of bodies that surrounded you, crazed by the poison
Curdled in your whiskey. Come on in my kitchen . . .
Should we release the ragged dead with kisses
And stir love’s bones among my perfume-pots? If not,
There’s gonna be rain at my door long past second thoughts,
Past levees, screen doors, rusted empires’ kisses.
Historical fiction seems to have become as much a staple of contemporary television as it has contemporary reading, and many of these shows try to correct the look of previous Hollywood-prettified versions of the past with grittier sets, costumes, and dialogue. Henry VIII certainly never looked like Jonathan Rhys Meyers (except for that one adolescent portrait), but The Tudors did try to represent the very real machinations and misbehavior in Renaissance England, even among the clergy. Vikings has so far given us authentically tattooed and made-up men going about their aggressive business, though the writers seem to have misunderstood the role that women played in Viking culture. Deadwood may have overdone it with the dialogue, but it broke ground for other shows by showing the American West through characters who are dirty, lustful, and regularly violent. Hell on Wheels also unflinchingly depicted the West, focusing on the greed and corruption of American industrialists as the country expanded. For the most part, I enjoyed these, and other series like them, primarily because they seemed more adult, more real, than what television often serves up.
More recently, shows like Turn have taken on specific historical events, and in a Wicked or Maleficent move, have tried to show viewers another side of the received story. Sadly, I couldn’t keep track of the turns on the show enough to stay engaged and so, though I applauded the effort, I turned off Turn after a few episodes. Then there’s Penny Dreadful, which has a certain ghoulish appeal. This one seems to pride itself on humanizing Frankenstein’s monster (though Mary Shelley did that, too) and demonizing its sexy Dorian Gray (but didn’t Oscar Wilde already do that, as well?). This show, however, becomes so allusively chaotic that it’s hard not to laugh, even when Vanessa Ives puts on her most low-browed scowl. I wonder sometimes if the writers are a bunch of English majors who get together for a party every week and throw any characters they can recall from their nineteenth-century surveys into the script.
What Penny Dreadful offers, in addition to its refresher course in Victorian monster lit, is the paranormal aspect that still draws viewers (and readers). Despite the controversy surrounding the YA author John Green, whose success has led some critics to say that the Harry Potter/Twilight phenomenon is passing in favor of a return to psychological realism, the paranormal still seems to sell. Game of Thrones has capitalized on this, and the imagined world it creates (which looks, still, quite a lot like medieval Europe) allows for dragon-taming waifs and big baddies with super-powers alongside its more pedestrian castles and monarchs.
And now along comes Salem. I looked forward to this show, because it seemed to feature strong female characters and a re-examination of a touchstone event in American history. The Salem witch trials, as many students of the past know, came at the tail end of a long period of debate about demonic powers in Europe, in which thousands of people were summarily tortured, hanged, or burned. Or all three. Even at the beginning of the witchcraft prosecutions in medieval Europe, scholars and skeptics expressed horror at the anti-intellectualism of belief in witches and at the use of Christianity to justify the gruesome murders that witchcraft judges ordered. The Salem trials, historically speaking, were a footnote to centuries of panic, hatred, fear—and revulsion at that very panic. But the women and men who died there would have been little comforted by that knowledge.
In the first episode, I saw, to my own horror, that the show actually promotes the notion that the witches were real, that women stalk and creep around Salem in their gothy costumes seeking out converts and colleagues in their demonic business. George Selby is a cretin, to be sure, but when Mary shoves a live—and rather large—toad down his throat to bewitch him, she’s become the villain. Or has she? The witches are attractive and seem to get away with wearing dresses that no woman in the historic Salem would have ever been allowed out of the house in. Mary Selby carries a torch for John Alden, who glowers handsomely and yearns from afar. Gorgeous Mary is, of course, the witch ring-leader, and when a truly abhorrent Increase Mather hits the scene, viewers will no doubt root for her.
What bothers me about this show is that, in this version, Mather is right. In this Salem, there are witches (along with open pits for dumping bodies to provide a nice gruesome spot for organ-munching), and these witches have real paranormal powers. George Selby is disgusting, but pity the poor nice man who marries a witch and angers her—he’ll probably get the toad-down-the-gullet treatment, too. And now we discover that being a witch might even be genetic, passed down from parent to child, like brown eyes or crooked teeth.
It’s not the super-powers per se that bother me, though I confess that I regard contemporary ghosts and spooky things and super-heroes as easy, light entertainment to pass a summer afternoon when it’s too hot to weed the garden. They’re what I watch when there’s no serious history or historical fiction on. And they’re fine, for what they are. What bothers me about Salem is the fact that real women and men were charged with the acts that the TV show presents as “normal,” and they were killed under those charges, either by starvation or illness in stinking, hellish jails or on the scaffold. And there was Giles Cory, who expired under a pile of stones.
The show purports to be an analysis of “otherness,” and that’s a laudable goal. But why use a very real, and literal, witch hunt in our history to do it? Even as metaphor, these characters are too convoluted in their aspirations and too gruesome in their means to achieve the rank of social commentators. For me, it has finally gotten to be too much. Witches are not oppressed minorities, and they are not marginalized subgroups. They’re not real. So I’m turning off Salem, in protest against this sort of exploitative, silly pseudo-history and out of respect for the very human women and men who were killed in that sad, isolated Massachusetts town.
Salem’s a blip at the tail end (sorry
to say) of the burning times, and now we
host pagans and pirate fans, devotees
of Hawthorne. But these days we’re exorcised—
the park’s stone benches are flanked with flowers
and visitors can sit at their leisure
right on top of the victims’ last words. You’d
never know from the black hats, capes, and brooms
displayed in the sidewalk sales that thousands
were flogged or burned or hanged across Europe.
Some say fifty thousand, a hundred. Some say
twice or three times that. You have surely heard
the beliefs, the crazy scholarship: all
those thick demonologies prescribing
suspicion or torture of anyone
who questioned authority. The sure signs?—
there’s nocturnal flight, of course, on sticks
or dogs or goats, there’s attendance at feasts
and unsanctioned dances (i.e. “sabbats”).
There’s always disagreement with a church
or king or court. So the world went, and so
it goes: racking, stripping, beating, terror-
izing. Have you seen the reproduction
relics? Take this little gem, for instance—
this is Joan of Arc’s immaculate heart,
left whole beneath the smoldering remains
of her famous fire! Did you guess? You know
the story, you might call her an early
political prisoner (the English
soldiers didn’t really think she conjured
the devil, she just seemed a little weird,
a little touched, you know, disposable).
Let’s see: there’s the Witch of Berkeley, Witches
of Stedlingerland, of Lombardy, of
North Berwick, of Chelmsford, of Lancashire
(1612), of Lancashire one more time
(1633), of Brescia . . . oh, I
can’t keep track. *sigh* Does anyone here still
smoke? Those New England jurors recanted,
but the dead are still dead and now families,
maps and ice-creams in hand, gaze, enchanted,
at the shiny windows of the judge’s
house, making scary faces at themselves.
During the “Enlightenment,” the witch turned
into a ghost. The poltergeist “Bell Witch”
of Tennessee chatted by the family fire
with Andrew Jackson, the “Blair Witch”
is mostly a jiggly camera. Wiccans
own many of the souvenir shops here
in Salem, you’ll know them by their flowing
robes. I’m sure you’ll want a look. The children
Part the First:
My wife has been keeping me up to speed on the Farcebook chatter concerning the appointment of Charles Wright to become our new poet laureate starting in the September now rushing our way on heat waves, and I notice that many commentators and wags — mostly poets, werepoets, poetasters, ranters, humblebraggers and poetry lickers — are both taking the announcement quite personally and responding quite cagily. As a longtime reader of Wright’s elegant wrestlings with ultimate questions and immediate circumstances, his pilgrimages in words and his evasions, confessions, explorations and cautious approaches to ecstasy, I take it all personal, too. If there’s any one poet who can address the ineffable in lively concrete terms and tease a response out of it in ways I yearn for but can never manage myself, it’s Charles Wright.
I take for my title a phrase from the cover of one of James Wright’s books, but the New Wright (like “The New Poem”) seems as much consumed by the problems of “we” and “gather” and “river” as vexed questions as the late James Wright was. Charles said many years ago of the “new poem” that it will not be able to save us, but he can’t get shed of the question “what will?” and the hope that there’s an answer and, like the hymn the title also refers to, involves matters of the spirit.
In the first part of this improvisation, I want to say something on the record about Charles Wright’s history. In the second, more focused post I want to try to find words for what has transfixed me about his themes, methods and hypnotic, you-can’t-not-listen voice for over three decades. I hope you won’t hold it against me that, even thirty years ago, I was late to the dance of Wright’s music. I’m still reeling and jigging, trying to catch up.
This is Charles before I encountered his work. I’m guessing it’s a photo from his Irvine days or before but not an official U. S. Army photograph from his Italian period. It might be the image of the character behind The Grave of the Right Hand, but by the time he’d written “Dog Creek Mainline” and then Black Zodiac this stance has faded, only to be revived as self mockery. I think.
This photo is the update I enjoy looking at as I consider the paperwork on why Charles Wright is a natural choice, the natural choice, to stand for us poetry addicts in such a fraught, conflicted and tangled (emotionally, spiritually, aesthetically) era as we have conjured in our desperation to do and think and feel something of consequence (without missing a single tweet, text, post, tag, like, rant, reality series scuffle, foodie swoon or sniffle.)
It would be foolish to make book on who the next poet laureate will be or the one after that because the mist-covered (“shrouded” wouldn’t be right) committee who make the selection seems, even as new invisible voices replace old ones, to favor two or three sets of criteria. Think of Dove, Hass, Trethewey — all at the time of their election young, energetic, newly arrived at the center of the poetic conversation, recently tapped for a major prize. Then think of Levine, Merwin, Wright — veterans of many decades, oft-laureled, widely anthologized poets whose published books fill whole shelves. A third category might be popularity — Billy Collins, who is, like the others above, an original, which I hope is an important consideration. He is also widely read and imitated. I have no suspicion that the laureate search anyone’s idea of a process for declaring someone “the best American poet this morning.” And this scheme I posit makes good sense to me, though one can never be certain that the younger laureate will bring more energy to the vaguely-described “job” or that the older campaigner will bring more dignity to it. Some of the honorees over the years have written poems that now live deep in my heart’s core, and others have not, but if this distribution according to weathering and career stage is in operation, I trust it in the long run, which is not to say I wouldn’t volunteer right now to be on next year’s version of the committee. And I’m pleased that (as best I can recollect) none of the poets who aim their poems at people with no interest in deep study of the art of poetry have been appointed to the post.
What criteria dictate that this poet should be tapped and knighted or crowned or burdened with this responsibility, which is “high profile” only in the poetry world (which can occasionally resemble Wayne’s World), but small potatoes to the NASCAR crowd, J Lo’s fans, Honey Boo Boo’s followers, the Freemason Brotherhood or the Episcopal Church? We civilians will never know, but we can say some things about the poet’s work and impact.
So suppose Charles Wright is a selection from the senior crowd (my generation) who somehow escaped election back when he was the Next New Thing. The critical community reaches consensus on almost no one, but evidence and testimony accumulate, and Wright has written about a score of poetry collections and enough public-fare journals and articles (counting interviews) to fill two U. of Michigan Press books in the Poets on Poetry series. He’s received the Pulitzer (and been “bridesmaid” multiple times — 4?), the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Griffin International Prize, a couple of Library of Virginia annual prizes and their Lifetime Achievement Award. Chancellor of this, archon of that. He’s been written about by enthusiastic admirers like Helen Vendler, Peter Stitt, James Longenbach, Henry Hart, J. D. McClatchy, Mark Jarman, Willard Spiegelman and Lee Upton. Joe Moffett has written a book for the University of South Carolina’s Understanding Contemporary American Literature series called, pro forma, Understanding Charles Wright (though that’s a boast few would make, or want to, as “grappling with” is more to the point). Robert Denham has published a two-volume companion to Wright which explores the poems one-by-one up to 2007; it’s a project seemingly dedicated to the idea of drawing the reader closer to the poems with background information, but again, “understanding” would seem simplistic and somehow misplaced. Perhaps the best companion to Wright’s work is High Lonesome: On the Poetry of Charles Wright, edited by Adam Gianelli, dedicated to his “undisputed importance” and filled with reprints and news essays and reviews. There are others, plenty of exhibits in the evidence locker, and they’re worth perusing.
This is a quick sketch of the public record for those who have posted their disapproval or a cunning “interesting” or “well, well” upon the announcement of Wright’s appointment and who would want to know why it’s only natural to consider him, has been for years.
In my next post, I’ll make a more personal statement about why I’d be willing to buy a bumper sticker that reads “Honk if Charles Wright’s Poetry Rocks You.” I promise not to say he always writes the best poem ever or that I never turn away from a Wright poem wondering what has just happened or not happened on the page. I’ll try to articulate what he’s serving that I have an abiding appetite for, though I cannot rustle such dishes up myself.