December 22, 2021

Sara M. Robinson talks about, Southern Gothic Poetry, What Is It?

Sara M. Robinson

Recently I read an article about Southern Gothic Poetry. I had to ask myself just before diving into the article, is there such a thing? As Southern writers we’ve all heard about Southern Gothic novels. You know the ones: Large white mansion down a tree-lined drive, only the mansion is empty and covered with vines and Spanish moss. The shutters are broken, and the once-majestic staircase is missing steps and creaks at odd times. There is always a ghost or two, an old sword, an ancient caretaker who creeps around and never seems to leave. Oh, and yes, no electricity, but loads of candles. All is climaxed by the raging thunderstorm of the century. You can think of Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor as examples.

You now ask, what does this have to do with poetry? Well, for starters, the language of southern gothic writing is amazing. The visuals must be startling and complex. Everything has to be backed by haunts of historical proportion. The poetry, to not be dismissed as trite or hokey, needs to connect with basic human truths. So, who writes this type of poetry? Here are some names: C.D. Wright, Frank Stanford, Robert Penn Warren, James Dickey (of Deliverance fame), and Donald Justice. The imaginative placement and choice of words strikes me as potently differential. Here is what I mean, from Robert Penn Warren: “A door opening. I see / Your small form black against the light, and the door / Is closed, and I // Hear night crash down a million stairs. / In the ensuing silence / My breath is difficult. // Heat lighting ranges beyond the horizon. // That, also, is worth mentioning… What is special about this is use of night, black, silence, lightning… all good examples of southern writing.

For your reading enjoyment, here is my offering:

Short History of a Southern Mansion

Every Southern mansion with a mysterious past is called Twin Oaks. All have massive front yards with boxwoods and a shiny black gate at the end of a mile-long drive which creaks on rusted hinges when it opens.

In a raked dirt backyard near the kitchen porch a small vegetable garden with heirloom tomatoes and summer squash gourds, lavender-colored hollyhocks and a compost pile home for night crawlers.

Behind the chicken coop, a small green grass cemetery holds children’s pets: dogs, cats, turtles, a bunny. On a knoll tangled fences surround a family of tombstones dating back to before the Civil War. Like returned soldiers the ancient Bur Oak lost
a few limbs & gained a few scars. Thorns and thistles line the path leading down to the river. Spanish moss hangs like old weeping spinsters waiting for a trace of company. Fog and sheer curtains invite misty humid days inside where the damp can find a home on damask parlor chairs.

The fireplace is huge, deep, with a hidden staircase where Yankee ghosts make another pass. An old faded floor globe stands by cast iron Pal, Colonel’s favorite hunting dog.

Something always rattles in a far room on the top floor, followed by a not-so-subtle door creak. Maybe the breeze, then maybe not. Stairs moan a hollow sound of intrusion. Dust flies, then settles.

Luther, the ancient darkie handyman, and his wife, Loretta, who live back behind the kitchen either shell peas or roast a chicken on most days. Their three children, two boys and a girl, are grown and now live-in town. They spend Sundays here, always leave with a box of vegetables, some cured ham.

Colonel and his missus are the same age as Luther. Their children are long gone, too. They won’t come back but send letters imploring their folks to move into town
to an old-age home that fronts main street. The oldest boy is an attorney in the state capita with a trophy wife who heads up the local junior league. Neither like the country and when they have returned they always manage to either attract ticks or trip on an old dog. Some day the house will be too old to keep.

A young couple will buy the property and in the attic will discover an old trunk filled with uniforms, christening gowns, a few yellowed papers. A door will slam somewhere on the second floor. Upon further investigation a secret will be revealed. A secret so remarkable, so horrible that for years books will be written about it. Grade B Movies made. The house will burn down. In smoldering ashes, a lone firefighter will find an old, jeweled ring, still connected to a finger bone. Clean cut.

Until next time…

Sara M. Robinson, founder of the Lonesome Mountain Pro(s)e Writers’ Workshop, and former Instructor of a course on Contemporary American Poets at UVA-OLLI, was poetry columnist for Southern Writers Magazine and inagural poetry editor for Virginia Literary Journal. She has served as guest lecturer at UVA’s College at Wise, Wise, VA. Her poetry has appeared in various anthologies, including We Grew Wings and Flew (2014), Scratching Against the Fabric (2015), Virginia Writer’s Club Centennial Anthology (2017), Blue Ridge Anthologies and Mizmor Anthology (2018). Journals include: Loch Raven Review, The Virginia Literary Journal, vox poetica, Jimson Weed, Whisky Advocate, and Poetica. She is poet and author of Love Always, Hobby and Jessie (2009), Two Little Girls in a Wading Pool (2012), A Cruise in Rare Waters (2013 Stones for Words (2014), Sometimes the Little Town (2016), a finalist for the Poetry Society of Virginia’s 2017 Book Award. In 2019, Needville, her poetry about effects of coal mining on SW Virginia was released and in 2020 debuted as play in Charlottesville. Her most recent publication is Simple River (2020, Cyberwit).

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