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Saturday, December 20, 2014

Lee Ann Brown, In the Laurels, Caught

Author’s note: This blog is becoming a record of poems that participate in a species of seriality.

A lattice of narratives is interrupted, interwoven, as the French Broad River traces hills and coves between hills. A parallel text flows, miming cursive, in  crossweave at the bottom of each page. A coverlet is a product of sewing; swatches are tacked together to form a crazy quilt or a lacey afghan throw like my grandmother made, joining crotchet and sewing arts. Nanny knew and, as ward boss for a socialist leaning democratic party constituency, understood the economic and social history encoded in this sentence from Lee Ann Brown’s In the Laurels, Caught (Fence 2013), ”I think who owns the loom thought they got to claim the coverlet but the fingers that labor own the pattern once they weave it” (129). Here encoded: elementary Marxism concerning the means of production and a romance perhaps concerning the essential integrity of artisanry. This theme is repeated more than once, “’The boss’s brains are under the worker’s cap’” (139).  I feel this way when I look at the Rockefeller Gardens where I once planted, weeded, cut and trimmed, constructing a pattern of drainage canals and flower beds whose grace and beauty was entirely mine, my heritage. But a quilt or coverlet. unlike a garden, and similar to a song, is transmissible. That is the key to Brown’s engagement with the poetics and social history of place, a study I place in the line of Charles Olson’s Maximus, Tyrone Williams’s Howell, and my own The Cranberry Island Series.

I savor notes I can relate to only subjectively. Lee Ann Brown’s writing has an exquisitely delicate touch. Yellow transparent apples, I recently read, have apparently become orchard favorites again; although in my memory, the last of these varietals were the succulent favorites of deer on November mornings, now disappeared. Language gives song a different nature [from that of the perishable tomato]. “Lattice” is a word crucial to this collection, as is the notion of senses being caught, among laurels also known as rhododendron. The botanizing found on many pages of in this collection (also a “day book”) is redolent of the mountains. I remember the little steel pegs on the drying frames for gossamer curtains that pricked my fingers when I helped my grandmother with the stretching and drying of gossamer curtains. Then harvest afternoons in July, Brown writes:

   After tasting tomatoes picked
            fresh from a hot garden
I once wrote:
   Tomatoes like warm bleeding hearts
and could eat no other after that—
ghostlike grocery store “hot house” varietals
did nothing for me
But songs are made from a rarefied material
Language gives them a different nature (21)

Loss of the real is a result of commercialization, “postcards” Olson wrote. Images of bleeding and ghost, life and death, are the products of Brown’s judicious processes of composition. The object is “a coverlet that will not rot or unravel” (21). Her poetry invites the reader to unpack ancient memories, as I have allowed myself to do. She distinguishes between songs and language as between the product and means of production. Unlike the slave, cited in the vignette of the loom and ownership of the pattern, the worker must come to own the means of production. On one level, this is the project of In the Laurels, Caught, one among differently layered projects. Swatches or medallions of language are to a degree resistant to decay and unravelling, although the written word, especially as found in poetry, is not always exemplary with respect normative usage. The meaning may lie in a ghost presence. Emerson and Duncan taught that. One of the finest poems in the series, “How to Pronounce Appalachia” is very aware of the relation between song and language, weaving and interweaving, “I am sick with love for the poem.” Brown is a very analytical poet, “unraveling … is a good thing” as long as the variations on the old pattern is preserved “don’t lose track  / of the old one  / so you can come back to its lovely form / for another variation” (130). This poem has a secondary title, “Overshot Dictionary of Woven Names Drawn from out the Black Box of History.” It is a collage of titles, names and quotations, allusions to texts on Appalachian weaving and music, a musical anthology of found materials. Lee Ann has a beautiful voice.

Comprehension requires reading back and forth among elements, a weaving on the reader’s part. In In the Laurels, Caught  a river of text in a different hand meanders across the foot of each page, a thread that provides metacommentary, “Sometimes Lee Ann rhymes and sometimes she don’t” (22). It’s a peoples vernacular and peoples’ relation to the riverine landscape that is often reordered here, in grayed-out scrawls. Simulated handwriting provides both gloss and remnants from the notebook material from which the poems are constructed, gloss as to landscape and social history and diaristic note as to the weaving and interweaving of meaning.

Writing’s source in dreams takes the form of words discovered upon waking, “Bibliomantic,”  for instance, is the seed from which sprouts the line “The mist hasn’t burnt off the river yet” (89). I quote from “The Elemental Year,” a poem that involves a May Day-like ceremonial dance around a Vitex or Chaste Tree, whose medicinal properties both promotes estrogen production and restrains male sexual urges. The poet’s daughter participates. The rhythms are local to both place and family; they are cosmogonic: “My daughter stood across the circle from me.” A poem retrieved from the seed of a dream offers a compelling reading of human agency as nested within environmental registers.

The last poem in the collection, “Coverlet,” returns the reader to the garden as sacred place. Like much important American literature, there’s an edenic toponymy. There’s a privacy that excludes much of the shouting that characterizes this world in its current form, “While no one is looking / In my own dimension // Find each her own motif / A shady place” (143). Consider the values here as we learn to live in a world without either privacy or empowerment.
Donald Wellman, December 2014

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