Several months ago, on a trip to Boise, Idaho, I met a young man from Tennessee who was living in Utah. Our conversation quickly turned South. And he asked me: Can one still be Southern while living in the West.
The edge of his question was very real and very familiar — and only in part because of how different the West is from the South.
I knew it because for the better part of the last ten years, as I have traveled for education and employment, I have lived outside the South. During that time I have learned to mute the accent — mostly so I can call out for food and get what I want — and to speak in ways that are intelligible to those who don’t come from Alabama. And, though I struggle still, when I break into a fluency more amenable to Westerners I feel so altered I don’t recognize myself.
At such times I have wondered just how long one can spend outside the South without losing it altogether. I remember Roy Blount, Jr.’s argument, that the only way to be a Southerner is to act outside the South. But I don’t have Roy’s money or charm, so I worry still. And, most of the time, my worry deepens into a homesickness, and I feel that I will never rest until I sit with my parents and grandparents again and the accent deepens instead.
I feel that sickness as I write this. I leave for points South in less than 72 hours — to find relief in barbecue joints and catfish houses — so I can feel it without great pain.
Even so, this evening, I take greater comfort reading the poems we’ve selected for this number. Reading Jack Bedell’s and Chris Tusa’s poems, I feel I know Louisiana better than I have ever managed on my own feet. Reading Beau Boudreaux’s “Electrocute” I begin to return to Birmingham, magnified by lightning. I am already there.
But these poems comfort not most because they abet my homesick’s imagination. Rather, they comfort because in their great distinctiveness and complementary presence, they say that a kind of unity rises out of variety, that in every extremity the bend not only avoids the break but gives the whole a greater scope.
Therein, I think, lies the answer to the Tennessean’s question and my own. And the answer seems so simple I wonder how I could have harbored the question seriously for so long. That is, until I see the “the” and remember the difficulties of the category — the “the South” — which so often seems to demand extreme similitude if its members are to reify the idea.
But I want to do away with the Platonic notion, that all instances descend from the ideal. I want to work from particulars toward an understanding of the idea they constitute. I’ll side with Aristotle. I want the ideal to exist only in and through particulars. Because we need the resistant definition to rise out of supple particularities. Because it doesn’t have to be just so, but is so because things are as they are. So Nature rises out of nature.
A. R. Ammons had it right when he wrote in Sphere:
…. if everything’s put in, the boundary bursts and
one is nowhere except picking up havoc’s fragments, things
nowise as shapely in their selfness as before: but
settling in the beginning for fency definition, that straight
reach across the variable field, chokes the pulse, bores
the tame, excludes the free rush of imagination except as
wind or as a small consistency like sand: the only bearable
fence is the continuum, the scope of oneness under which
the proud ephemerals play discretely in their energizing
laws and play out, transformations taking their ways, bending
their boundaries, giving and losing:
I am happy then to present an extremely varied brace of poems. Some offer only the obliquest glimpses of our South. Others are more straightforward, forthright. Together, and with the other work we have had the fortune to present on storySouth, they begin to form the congregation from which the idea will arise anew.
And I would like to announce a new storySouth project — a literary map of our contemporary South in which we hope to take record of the Mississippis and West Virginias and what-have-yous. I hope that by recording the discrete that the continuum, with its center, will rise clear as Ammons’s sphere, with just as much play.
So, to the poets and raconteurs of our unchronicled states: the inboxes are open: we’re ready to travel: let’s go.