Tuesday, August 7, 2012

What We Call Frog Hunting by Jane Springer

This is the last 2 a.m. song fit for poling a johnboat through the swamp
so we may glide, quiet enough, to catch frogs with our hands.

It’s the year Robertlee can’t afford a suit to take me to prom.

Our flashlights tell the difference between alligators & sunken logs
adrift in the dark.

This year Emmyjean’s daddy shows us how he guts a deer.

As for the girls, we’d rather be kissing. We’ve practiced our kissing
on each other—shy as spotted fawns.

We know the boys sometimes meet for a circlejerk in an empty barn.

This is the canvas bag we keep frogs in, once they are caught. It
will hold thirteen by dawn.

It’s the year we learn to sew a pleat & stew a coon in Home Ec.
T.J. Corbett has such long arms—the boat don’t tip when he leans out
over the rim.

This year, we can’t all read well enough to fill in class ring forms.

We’ve never been so aware of skin—the full bag is an organ beating 
on the floor of the boat.
                                        We barely contain our joy.

This is the year the principal measures the acre between our knees
& the hems of our skirts.

We dock the boat & break the backs of frogs against a stone.

We know they are dead when their tongues unfurl. This is the last
newborn light licked between cypress trunks.

Lunch ladies from here serve fried okra & jambalaya.

The round spot behind each animal eye is an ear—here we circle
the head’s globe with a single knifeslice.

Though all year we’ve swerved to miss guineas by the schoolyard.

We push our thumbs under the edge of skin at the throat to loosen
slick bodies from the green.

This is the year: the dark, the boat, the sunken suits & watery forms,

the catch & kiss, damp canvas, split rib, dawn & entrails in the grass—
we cut the feet last—in the pleated heat—

        then wipe our blades across our thighs & call this happiness.

                                                                   Editor: Eileen Moeller

Jane Springer’s new book, Murder Ballads is masterful in its depiction of the sensuality and brutality of the American South. Springer’s long lines, and vivid images of place, place her work in the Southern Gothic tradition, alongside that of William Faulkner and Flannery O'Connor. These are poems that face the darkness that abounds in everyday life, they express a love of the colloquial, and they give us glimpses of humor and irony.

Murder Ballads is deeply original, and full of old rituals, of the rural as it mixes with a more contemporary sense of liberation: trailers, and deep freeze units sitting out on porches,  fields fill with rusty farm equipment, while Marvin Gaye’s Sexual Healing plays on the radio, and teenagers give each other “necklaces of hickeys”.

Titles like “Looks Like The Hound Who Caught the Car”, and “You Can’t Tell Nobody Nothing That Ain’t Never Been Nowhere” bring us into a different time and place, an older sensibility that Springer, as "other", uses to make meaning on her own terms. Lines like “that’s all chigger, / no shade”, or “crazy as a shithouse rat” are pure delight.  But Springer's work is also intensely lyrical, as in “I’ve heard a river waltz through laced hands of the levee toward a grand new / partnering of earth & water –“

In the title poem, “Leave It Lay Where Jesus Flung It”, a mastodon skeleton is being unearthed from the swamp, and like an archaeologist, Springer has been digging into the past, to unearth lost times, lost innocence, lost loves, lost selves, a dangerous, possibly calamitous task. Though she wants to tell them to “Leave her bones”, the final turn in the poem comes to the acceptance that “Each misstep unearths / a miracle”. In the end, the mastodon finds her music, and the book leaves us feeling optimistic that harvesting the past, with all its painful missteps, remaking it from the safe distance of a new time and place, may bring a few miracles into the light. And like the women in the murder ballads, that have lived on beyond them, the stories in these poems will be remembered, the lives they depict affirmed.

There are some longer poems in this collection that achieve the level of myth, coming from a larger impulse, more akin to the epic. In fact, Murder Ballads, read as a whole, became, for me, a post-modern version of The Odyssey. It takes us on a perilous journey home, a woman's journey, one filled with monsters, shape shifters, scenes of mythic proportion, and epiphanic transformations for better or worse.

The poet/reader is both Odysseus, bravely facing being wounded at every turn, and Penelope weaving a tapestry of her memories, and then unraveling it to dispel their power over her. In the final poem, “Small Cosmos”, the heart is open. Springer writes: “Love, / come as a cloud & I will stay in the country below you. If you are, by night, / a fire, I will follow your fragrance of ashes into the wilderness. / I will eat your cornbread, pomegranate & fig. I will put away my ghosts & move / into whatever stone house you provide –" It’s a wonderful book, a beautiful book, and fierce.

When you've enjoyed Frog, make your way into the other Tuesday Poet poems in the sidebar. 

Jane Springer’s two books are Dear Blackbird, (Agha Shahid Ali prize, University of Utah Press, 2007) and Murder Ballad (Beatrice Hawley award, Alice James Books, 2012). Her other awards include the Robert Penn Warren Prize for Poetry, an NEA fellowship and a Whiting Award. She currently teaches creative writing at Hamilton College, in upstate, New York where she lives with her husband, son and their two dogs, Woofus and Maple.

 Eileen Moeller lives and writes in Philadelphia PA. Most of her poems can be found in Ars Medica,  The Paterson Literary Review, Paterson: A Poet's City, Umbrella, Melusine, Women,Period, Poems of Awakening, and on the CD Snow White Turns Sixty by composer Dale Trumbore.


Helen Lowe said...

I enjoyed this poem very much; it's very evocative and captures that childhood/teen divide. Thank you Jane and Eileen for selcting it for the Tuesday Poem Hub today.

Michelle Elvy said...

Brings me back to the deep south-- a place of my roots. Really enjoyed this. The mood, the memories, the very tangible juxtaposed with the intangibles. And memorable lines like this --

We’ve never been so aware of skin

Wow I just love that. Thanks for sharing this poem. It gives me the shivers in all the right ways. American Gothic indeed. Neat-o.

Kathleen Jones said...

This is a fantastic poem - such strong imagery. I shivered through the swamp with the poet. I loved the way it linked the growing awareness of sex with knowledge of the darker side of being human too.

Ben Hur said...

Very visceral and evocative of the bayou. Thanks for posting this, Eileen.

Anonymous said...

It's strangely beautiful and sensitively written...in fact although it describes violence it does it in an non judgmental way. It is true poetry. Thank you for sharing Eileen

Leif G.S. Notae said...

Wow, this is some great work here. I love poetry like this, and I get lost in the details as well as the overall feeling. Makes me look like a grade school child still learning.

Thank you so much for sharing!

Mary McCallum said...

I love reading poems about the work people do - they pull me in deep... what it says about the people in the poem, their very different lives that are also, at core, very much the same. I like how this poem curves in and out of the work at hand - into the wider world ... I like the form alot - the single lines and couplets like fragments of memory. Thank you Eileen and Jane.

Cattyrox said...

Loved this - the rhythms and words and pull of the poem. Thanks!