Even though I had severe allergies to pollen and grasses when I was a kid, I grew up doing yard work. Once when my doctor looked at my mother and told her that I didn’t need to be doing yard work, she glared directly at me and said, “Don’t even think about it . . . ” It is part of our lives, in the Deep South, that things grow and must be managed, trimmed, cut back, dug up, and otherwise handled. And yard work has always been a part of my life, always . . . even though those allergies persist to this day.
In addition to his blue-collar job with the telephone company, my father also did yard work – what people try to dignify today by calling it “landscaping” – for many of the elderly people in our neighborhood. My dad had grown up in our little ranch-style suburban house, and inherited it when his parents passed away, so many of our neighbors had known him since he was a boy— the boy who cut their grass and did odd jobs for them. Two decades later, he had gone through the Marines and was grown and married with two kids . . . but to them, I think, he would always be that kid who came by once a week to clean up their yards. And as my brother and I got older, we pitched in, too. Back then, Dad charged $7 to cut the grass, edge the curb, trim the shrubs, sweep the driveway, and bag up any clippings and leaves. He kept $5 and gave $1 each to my brother and me, which was a pretty decent haul back then, considering on some Saturdays during the warm months we cleaned up five or six yards. My folks taught us that your front yard is what people know about you; it’s their impression of who lives there.
Now all grown up myself, the heart of springtime in the first week of May brings two things to my mind: the end of the school year, when students and teachers alike long to be rid of each other for a while, and that annual revival of the Deep South’s natural beauty, which comes teeming back in a yellowy pollen haze as the sun warms up the earth. And for me, there is a third connotation to these two things, which is inextricably connected to both the energetic and youthful urge to live unencumbered and the resurgence of green-ness out the winter’s dead browns and grays: poetry. Yep, when I think of spring, I think of poetry— and yard work, which we’ll dignify by calling it “gardening.” Where the archetypal Southern man can explain the difference between a thirty-thirty and a thirty-ought-six, I would be better at explaining the difference between hyperbole and hydrangeas.
As both a regular reader of Southern poetry and fairly avid gardener, often I have to leave off midway through reading poems by Southern writers in order to go to a book or the computer to look up some flower name to see what it is, to look at a picture of it. I can’t stand not knowing! While many floral allusions are common enough – wisteria or magnolia, crepe myrtle or confederate jasmine – others, not so much: jonquil and bougainvillea, bleeding heart and bird of paradise. Robert Penn Warren had his “Bearded Oaks,” and any Southerner knows what those are, but what about the calyx described in Cathy Smith Bowers’ “Aphasia”? When you think of Southern literature, you probably don’t think of poetry, you probably think of novels: The Sound and the Fury, To Kill A Mockingbird, Big Fish . . . But when you do think of Southern poetry, you have to think of the plants and flowers, farming and gardening.
In addition to the single-poet volumes on my shelves, I have four Southern poetry anthologies that I like to thumb through when I don’t know what I want to read: the 1999 second edition of The Made Thing, edited by Leon Stokesbury; the 2003 Fellowship of Southern Poets’ collection Locales, edited by Fred Chappell; a 1979 collection called simply Contemporary Southern Poetry, co-edited by Guy Owen and Mary C. Williams; and the one that is easily my favorite, the 2003 farming- and gardening-themed Working the Dirt, edited by Jennifer Horne.
About nine years ago, when I was at the end of my tenure at NewSouth Books, Working the Dirt was in-process, being assembled and edited. I wasn’t working on the book personally, but I remember reading galleys of it and also all of us passing around a small, typewritten note from Wendell Berry giving permission to include his poems. The anthology’s table of contents is a who’s who of Southern poetry – Randall Jarrell, CD Wright, Fred Chappell, Nikki Giovanni, Rodney Jones, Andrew Hudgins, Miller Williams – but probably the best poem to start any discussion of Working the Dirt is Dannye Romine Powell’s “Primer on Digging,” which actually appears in the last section, Yards and Gardens. (I didn’t grow up around farming, so for me these poems about the kinds of work I did do are the most meaningful.) The poem is a sense-image-heavy advice column of how to garden, which begins with “Listen: when you dig / in the garden / expect to be bitten.” You’re going to encounter roly-polies and you’re going to have to resist the urge to get the spade— you’ve got to get your hands dirty. Moving right along is Andrew Hudgins’ “Compost: An Ode” and Miller Williams’ “Politics,” George Garrett’s “The Mower” and Fred Chappell’s “The Garden.” What more could I ask for?
I realize that National Poetry Month ended a few days ago, but poetry doesn’t only exist one month out of the year anymore than you have to wait until February to encounter black people. Southern poets are among the best writers there are. In Alabama, where I live, we have a poet, Jeanie Thompson, as the director of our literary arts state agency, the Alabama Writers Forum, and that shows when we have poets at the Alabama Book Festival like Sonia Sanchez, Sebastian Matthews and Frank X. Walker.
Yet, I can’t belabor this point. In one of my favorite poems of all time, the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda wrote in “Ode to the Book” that he didn’t learn about poetry from reading poems, that he didn’t learn about love from reading love poems . . . and he is exactly right! Poets may enjoy and value and create poems, but we all know that poetry isn’t made up of poems— and that, way too often, there is no poetry in many poems. Here in the Deep South, poetry is alive not so much in the names of George Garrett or AR Ammons but in the purple wisteria blooms that sneak up on me by popping out of those dead vines when I least expect it, in the white honeysuckle blossoms that I pull apart so my kids can savor that one tiny droplet of nectar, in the sweat and dirt that relieve me from a long week of grading papers and lecturing about literary forms and devices, in the stubborn refusal of my arch-enemies those yellow nandina roots to ever stop producing new sprigs, in turning over the compost and seeing the roly-polies turning my broccoli stalks and apple cores into black richness. Anybody who has ever written a poem or turned over a winter garden for springtime planting knows what I am talking about. And if you don’t, I would suggest that you should.