Saturday, May 31, 2008

Island Cemetery

Daufuskie Island Cemetery
In moss-draped oaks
near the marina
souls hover
above sand
and sawgrass,
then return
on the wind
to Africa.
The stones
rest lightly
on the dead,
drowned in cotton and indigo.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Daufuskie Island

Hilton Head - Daufuskie Island Ferry
One of many gorgeous live oaks on Daufuskie Island

First Union African Baptist Church - 1882

Mary Fields Elementary School (1930) , where Pat Conroy taught

I've spent the past three days in and around Hilton Head. The occasion was the annual meeting of representatives from the 11 universities in the Peach Belt Athletic Conference. It took place at the Crowne Plaza Resort. I was one of four reps from my fine institution. I had little expertise to bring to the discussions of athletic scheduling, conference expansion, annual budget, and so on. But I found the deliberations interesting and early next week will pass my notes along to our president (whom I was sitting in for). Plus, the food and accomodations weren't bad.
Because the fun didn't really commence until the Wednesday evening reception and dinner, I decided to leave home early that day and make time for an afternoon excursion to Daufuskie Island, just across Calibogue Sound from Hilton Head's Harbor Town. I've been interested in the island and its history since reading Pat Conroy's first book, The Water is Wide, shortly after it came out in 1972. It tells the story of the year he spent as a teacher in the two-room schoolhouse on the island (which for some reason he calls "Yamacraw"). It's a fine book that yielded a mediocre movie, Conrack, starring Jon Voight. For years it was nearly impossible to get to Daufuskie without a private boat. (There's no bridge to the island.) But now there's a regular boat service for $23 round trip aboard the Captain Eulice. It takes an hour, and the ride over and back alone is worth the fare.
Upon arrival at the marina, most visitors rent gas-powered golf carts to motor around to the 13 points of interest shown on the laminated map available at the general store. I chose to rent a thick-tired bicycle, which provided me with a superb three-hour workout as I pedaled over the partly paved, partly dirt (or sand) roads winding around the island. The dimensions are about 5 miles by two miles, although parts of the island are private and off-limits. Of greatest interest to me was the old schoolhouse where Conroy taught at about the same time I was teaching in even more primitive conditions as a Peace Corps volunteer in Ghana. Also worth the pedaling were the various cemeteries, the beautiful old Baptist Church, the pristine, almost-empty beach, the miniscule Silver Dew Winery, and a massive eagle's nest (with no eagles in sight).
The island has far fewer year-round inhabitants than back in the 19th century when slaves worked the plantations to produce fine quality Sea Island Cotton. After the boll weevil did in the cotton, and indigo and lumber were no longer big crops, the population dwindled even more. Now, there are only a few hundred residents, some of them Gullah descendants of slaves. But upscale resorts, condominiums, and houses are now encroaching on the now-undeveloped expanses of palmetto/live oak/pine woodlands and the attractive island beaches. No doubt, it's just a matter of time before Daufuskie, like Hilton Head itself, will become essentially a densely populated gated community where only the well-heeled are welcome. It would be a shame and a disgrace to lose the wild acreage and the reminders of the rich history (sometimes violent and often oppressive) that give the island its character.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Writers' Obsessions

I've been reading Li-Young Lee's Book of My Nights (See also my March 30 entry). These poems, published in 2001 by Boa Editions, mine a relatively narrow range of elemental topics, though their forms and effects vary widely. Again and again these poems refer to mother, father, the seasons, night, the sky, death, and birds. A selection of opening lines suggests these concerns:

Who lay down at evening
and woke at night
a stranger to himself?
In the dark, a child might ask,
I never claimed night father me.
Say night is a house you inherit,
and in the room in which you hear the sea
declare its countless and successive deaths,
tolling the dimensions of your dying.
Another word for father is worry.
The birds don't alter space.
They reveal it.
Someone's thinking about his mother tonight.

The effect of this uniformity of interlocking themes and motifs is powerful and cumulative (even obsessive if not excessive) through the book. Lee's other work shows that he ranges far beyond these concerns, but the concentration here makes the the volume read almost like one continuous poem. I'd like to get that sort of intensity into my own work, which to me seems sprawling, unfocused, all over the map. Maybe others could see in my poems a uniformity that isn't evident to me. Certainly, I've found that others' comments and suggestions can be startlingly perceptive, teasing out threads or problems I don't initially see.

Some writers seem to return to a set of obsessions repeatedly, in work after work. I think of Ron Rash's frequent returning to Lake Jocasee and how when it was formed it covered over a number of rural communities and forced the disruption of a culture. His first novel, One Foot in Eden, addresses this in part, as do some of his poems and stories. Most recently, in Chemistry, his stories nominated for Pen Faulkner Award, the story "Not Waving but Drowning" returns to that theme. To sustain a novel or even to cultivate a successful body of work in any genre, a writer needs to confront and make use of obsessions.
Today, Kathleen Parker's column addresses the issue of a "boys' crisis" or a "girls' crisis" in schools
In the May 26 New Yorker, Ian Frazier writes about his experiences teaching writing once a week at the biggest soup kitchen in New York, located in the Church of the Holy Apostles, at the corner of 28th St. and 9th Ave. He writes, "... I am one of the teachers of a writers' workshop that meets there after lunch on Wednesdays in the spring. I started the workshop fourteen years ago, with the help of a grant. I wanted to do something with the soup kitchen because I admired the people there and the way it is run and the whole idea of it. There are so many hungers out there; the soup kitchen deals, efficiently and satisfyingly, with the most basic kind. I consider it, in its own fashion, a work of art." Frazier discusses this work in a 14-minute on-line interview.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Mom's Birthday

Max, Nell, Trey, Mom

My Mother’s 90th Birthday

She never gets out of bed.
Her lifeless left side
keeps her there at the mercy
of her daughter and her nurse,
providers of food, drink,
cleanliness, fresh bedclothes.

But this one afternoon
she stirs and seems to hover
in the air, suspended,
as a parade of visitors
comes bearing cards
and good wishes: for comfort?
a long life? the year ahead?
She asks, “Aren’t we lucky?”

I photograph the guests
entering in clusters. She never tires
of posing with them,
her good right side smiling
to spite her passive left.
For once, her appetite is enormous.
South Carolina Poetry Initiative Online Chapbooks

Monday, May 05, 2008

Dargan's Pond

To celebrate the almost-end of the semester, Lynn (also a native of Auburn, AL), and I went kayaking on Dargan's Pond, about 15 minutes from campus. As shown in the above photo taken by Lynn, one end of the pond contains a maze of tupelo and cypress trees. Paddling among them was like gliding soundlessly in an old forest. One section was noisy with the calls of nesting great blue herons. It was a bit windy but otherwise idyllic, balmy but too early for mosquitoes. In addition to the herons, we saw nesting ospreys who wheeled and cried out shrilly when we approached. Best of all, Lynn directed my attention to two bald eagles perched in a tall tree. One of them pushed off and glided for several minutes over our heads. No alligators.

News photo of the week from Newsweek: a man stacking rice bags, illustrating an article on rising food prices
Katrina Vandenberg's Mix Tape on Organizing a Poetry Collection