Lee Ann Brown’s ‘Crowns of Charlotte’
I have lived in North Carolina on and off for the past eight years. In Crowns of Charlotte, Lee Ann Brown combines her deep knowledge of the North Carolina with her sharp perception of it to recreate a place so well rendered on the page that reading evokes the same feeling I have everytime I return to this state after living somewhere else for a while. I was delighted by the familiar details, mentions of landmarks such as Woolworth’s and Taj McColl. But Brown understands that creating the landscape is more than just buying grapes at the Harris Teeter instead of the grocery store, and the strength of the collection is in her ability to transcend the landscape, to create mystery in the familiar.
Brown achieves this through experimentation with traditional forms. Brown takes form from the song “Pretty Peggy-O” to tell the story of the wrongful conviction of Darryl Hunt for the rape and murder of Deborah Sykes in “Ballad of Winston-Salem.” The strength of the poem is in the blurred lines between the collective history and Brown’s personal history. “This act two lives, entwine, everybody O/ This act three lives entwine, everybody O/ The one who’s false accused, and the one who now pays dues/ We sing their story now in this ballad, Oh.” Brown is able to envision her part in the story of Darryl Hunt, makes this history her own. She gives it back to us in a way that is both familiar and unfamiliar: there is comfort in the rhythm and repetition of the ballad, a form that Brown skillfully disturbs with lines like, “The power of art is great, but can it stop the hate?/ A woman still lies dead in the shadows Oh.”
In “Car Conversation,” Brown weaves fragments of an adolescent’s memories to create a portrait of growing up in the south in the late 40’s. Again, she pairs historical context with personal memories, “We moved from Waxhaw in ‘48 when there was a polio ban/so we couldn’t say goodbye to anybody or meet anybody new.” The poem employs more of an associative logic than a narrative one—each stanza operates independently, united by the associations that are made in between the stanzas, connected by their proximity:
I memorized that Driver’s Ed book
Cover to cover
And all they asked me on the test was
Why do you dim your lights at night?
What is an eight-sided signpost?
My daddy took a new calling
It was still secret that we were going
I got to be valedictorian
Shift it low as possible
Helen Sanford, Terry Sanford’s sister, was our English teacher
and beloved Miz McNeil
The use of this technique results in a poem that feels both expansive and intimate. Brown closes with a list of text taken from road signs on the drive—a move that makes the landscape of the poem feel undeniably true.
The collection is an ode to North Carolina, and even when her poems aren’t set in the south, we still feel everything is filtered through her connection to the state; we feel it tugging us back. In one poem about living in New York, Brown writes about bringing her family lox and bagels. The bagels are hard for her grandmother to eat, so her mother puts the lox on grits. The speaker then daydreams: “I ate there at that table with them both and had visions of revolutionizing the East Village brunch scene, perhaps opening a Grits booth next to the Live Juice stand on First and First where the bands hung out in the day time.”
Crowns of Charlotte is wide-ranging; Brown glosses over no detail. She meditates on the implications of language on our cultural identity, while deeply exploring her own identity. Her extensive knowledge and understanding of North Carolina’s history is equal to her poetic skill, and the collection sings:
I realize what ties us all
and animals too which we are
is the land
The history of what we have done to each other on it
But everyone appreciates their own back yard gardens
and secret caves carved out from inside the bushes