Two Southern Cliches as Shaping Principles:
On Writing That First Book
Pamela Johnson Parker
"It's a poor sort of memory that only works backwards." [Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass]
I. The Grandmother
From my family are two truths that shaped my school years: You make money, and you make babies. Journalism might be okay for a man, but a girl doesn’t write or draw or make any other kind of art. A rat makes art, and I’ll whale the tar out of you if you become an artist, Grandfather told Mother, who liked to doodle, who repeated this to me. (Note his poetic use of language, as art, tar, rat, are all acronyms, word play). No one in my family had time for art, or music, or books other than the Bible and Readers Digest. A wall of Readers Digest Condensed Books—decades of them, collected prayerfully—divided my parent’s kitchen from the dining room. When my sister and I were growing up, there was never time for either of my parents to read a “whole book.” My father was making a career (and money) in civil engineering. My mother was making a home and children and a career, first as a legal secretary and then, more lucratively, as a paralegal. Like instant coffee and our Amana microwave, the first on the block, Condensed Books were a great invention, a wonderful timesaver.
As the “smart girl” in the family, the sulky one without the marriageable prospects of my sunny younger sister, I was encouraged to read my lessons, to read my Sunday School and Sunbeams circulars, but not to read a book “for no reason.” The only person in my family who liked to read, for “no reason,” for no reason other than pleasure, and who made time for poetry was my father’s mother, Elizabeth. Mammaw shaped my earliest listening and reading. She never finished school past the second grade; family responsibilities as the oldest girl of nine children kept her out of the classroom and in the kitchen, sweating in the cotton fields instead of studying at the local Andrew Carnegie library, working at the local pecan-culling factory rather than attending the teacher’s college as she’d dreamed. However, she was, as Kipling’s elephant, ’satiably curious, and persistent in her pursuits as an autodidact. She helped herself to the texts in her older brother’s book satchel, learned about history and Homer, grammar and geometry. Her love of reading continued all her life; she sailed through her GED in 1989. (“If that hippie Waylon Jennings can do it without studying, so can I!”)
From Mammaw, I learned about poetry. Her favorites (and, not coincidentally, two of mine) were Tennyson and Keats. She could literally quote pages from both their oeuvres. I think her favorite quotes came not from their works but from their tombstones. “Crossing the Bar” and "Here lies one whose name was writ in water” were among her frequent declamations. I’ll never forget one July afternoon I spent with her on the screened-in back porch as we ironed my grandfather’s Sunday shirts, white as the swan in “Tithonus,” white as the Swans Down Flour we’d sift later for hummingbird cake. “What does that ‘writ in water’ mean?” I asked Mammaw. “This,” she said, filching a cube from her ice-water glass. She wrote Keats in loopy cursive across the white rectangle Papa John’s shirt made on the ironing board, pressing the cube down hard into the pale cotton. The letters were faint, but I could read them, silver traces like a snail’s over the sidewalk. “And then this.” The flatiron hissed those letters out of sight. Metaphor was literally pressed and impressed upon me that day. Poetry comes to life when it’s learned by heart, and poetry can touch and break a heart.
When I read Mark Doty’s Firebird, my own Mammaw came to life again—the insistence on looking, on seeing into and through a painting or a poem, and committing it to memory. As did Doty’s, my own Mammaw had a purse she’d take out every Saturday for shopping, every Sunday for church—two purses actually, one a heavy leather the creamy color of a magnolia blossom, the other a crow-black patent brought out Labor Day and carried till Easter. (No self-respecting lady ever had a shoulder bag—it was too similar to a cotton sack.) In each purse was a trove of discovery—polka-dot rain bonnets, pencils worn down to nubs, a tortoiseshell-plastic compact, a small but potent bottle of Tabu, a handkerchief I’d hemmed in daffodils, ballpoint pens advertising the local First Bank, receipts, recipes snipped from Grit and Good Housekeeping, a sewing kit with the smallest scissors that collapsed like the contortionists on Ed Sullivan, every variety of Certs the five-and-dime offered (white disks flecked with pastel colors) and two tobacco sacks. One was light, the other heavy; one was wadded with folding money, the other crammed with coins. She’d let me feel the coins. If I could tell them apart without looking, the Presidential pennies and quarters, the buffalo nickels and Mercury dimes, were mine to keep. My fingers were trained in this way to reach for the edges, to see if the circumference was smooth or notched like gears. This idea of circumference, of telling it slant, of naming it, was the biggest influence I had in poetry until I went to college and discovered Emerson, Dickinson, and Bishop. My Mammaw’s purse and its contents have shown up in my poems time and again: those dimes; the sewing kit and the narcissus-edged hankie; the purse itself, all the ironing we shared, the things she smoothed over for me.
II. The Fallen Southern Soldier
Fini. Done. Kaput. Tel telesti. These are all fragments, all pointing (as does simile) towards the end of something, away from its beginning, toward its conclusion, its summation, its mathematical or musical stop. A simile, like a conclusion, heads irrevocably for its target. Unlike the simile, the metaphor’s a boomerang, and no matter how deft or distant its trajectory, it comes around to its beginning; it returns, like the pets in The Incredible Journey, to its source. The 19th-century Shakers had a hymn for it, “Simple Gifts”: “To turn, turn will be our delight/Till by turning, turning, we come out right.” That’s the coda, the conclusion of the hymn.
Turning points and turns: Thinking of what turns, of dancers en pointe, jewelry-box ballerinas twirling on mirrored surfaces, the cranks of the Victrola, carousels, watch gears and cogs, hoops and halos, circles. I’d like to end as I began—thinking about a diary entry and an heirloom, not the engraved ring I wear daily to remind of my marriage vows, not the little wheels of coins that fell out of Mammaw’s tobacco pouch and skittered across the wooden planks of the pews, not the steering wheel that turns the flat-bed Ford in “History and Prehistory: My Father’s Bureau Drawer.” I want to consider not a ring, but a bracelet, one I wore in the 1970s, its history and its broken circle, its edges that don’t meet.
Here’s an excerpt from my journal on October 17, 1996, which was the seed for a poem:
Before I could get started writing, I had to move my copper braided bracelet from my left to my right wrist. It left a braided indentation, the way a rope might, or a chain. Sometimes I feel manacled, usually not, but sometimes, handcuffed by habit or routine. The bracelet slides up and down my arm whenever I write; no matter how tightly I press the ends together, it slithers over the boats and moons of my wrist, bangs against the bumps on each side, leaves impressions indented like tooth marks, molars grinding into my skin. I wear this copper cuff to help the arthritis pains that sometimes flare in my hands and wrists, ghost pains from writing or typing or keying in chains of figures on a calculator for too long a span.
There’s a beauty in bracelets, cuff or chain, brass or Bakelite bangle, clasp or charm. I’ve always loved them, always collected them. In my collection is one I’ve had since high school. It’s a POW bracelet that I wore all the time, an aluminum cuff with letters and numbers engraved into its surface and inked in. Without looking, I can see the name, the MIA information: Major Dale Johnson. The coincidences of this bracelet are many. My father’s middle name is Dale; my son’s last name is Johnson; my son was born in October, two decades after the major went missing. I found out through research that Major Johnson’s middle name was Alonzo; that he hailed from Elizabethton, Tennessee, not too far from my own home; that he’d loved his country. I wondered if he’d liked the Beatles or the Stones better, if he preferred snap beans to baby limas, if he had a favorite book or a favorite baseball team.
Every night I prayed for Major Johnson, and I wondered if he believed that someone bigger, better than us listened to the words or to the silences between the words. Every day I twisted that cuff, that broken circle, onto and off my right wrist. It slid up and down my sweat-slathered arm when I served for the match on the tennis team; it slithered from side to side as I made movements like windshield wipers when I tried out unsuccessfully for flag corps. As the college kids chanted Ho Ho Ho Chi Minh on the news between the sports and weather, Dale Johnson twisted around my wrist like kudzu winding around a water maple. In the shower after a softball game, when I was sitting for my college boards, when I went for a fitting of my first wedding dress, he accompanied me.
Around and around and around: I didn’t stop wearing the bracelet for years; the paint flaked from the engraving like tarpaper peeling from a sharecropper’s sagging porch, the metal dented and scratched like the bumper of the first car I learned to drive. Eventually the bracelet became too torqued to wear; I still keep it safely with the rest of my jewelry. I hope someday to return it to his family. Even though I stopped wearing Dale Johnson on my arm, I thought about him often. I met other Vietnam veterans in college, one of whom I dated. Ken pushed me down when a car backfired in college. Memories of Dale Johnson are linked to that night I scarred my own hand. I still have the marks of the beer bottle inscribing the lifeline of my right palm. That’s the end of the “real” POW story.
Coda. Codicil. Codex. The root for these words is the same for unbound manuscript, a text formed of leaves of paper or parchment. This type of text is a form similar to first folio, rough draft, outline, notes, beginnings, scratched in and scratched out text, scar tissue, if you will, codex as cicatrix. In “Triage,” my memories of a dented bracelet, a broken beer bottle, and a scar I carry with me always coalesced into a sonnet. Like the POW bracelet I wore, the sonnet turns on a memory. Like that cuffed bracelet, it circles and circles and doesn’t close. “Triage” is the most formal of all the sonnets in my first book, where I’ve made choices to consider art, memory, and poesis—the made thing—in a historically formal shape. As are coda, codicil, codex, many of my poems are molded into less traditional shapes—haiku, sestina, syllabics. Most of them are in form, like the Wooldridge Monuments in the cemetery where my great-grandparents are buried, like the gardens I’ve planted throughout the thicket of my backyard, like the cluttered contents of my grandmother’s purse. All of the poems are inspired by what I remember and what’s shaped my memory. Here is my memory palace; here are some things I made and made Southern.
Pamela Johnson Parker, MFA, is an adjunct professor of composition and creative writing and a medical language specialist from Mayfield, Kentucky. Her flash fiction and poetry have appeared or are forthcoming in Anti-, qarrtsiluni, New Madrid Review, Six Sentences, Broadsided, and Pebble Lake Review, and she has been nominated this year for a Pushcart Prize.
Pamela Johnson Parker