Summer reading: poems rough & ready

HARD LINES: ROUGH SOUTH POETRY. Edited by Daniel Cross Turner and William Wright. University of South Carolina Press. 295 pages. $49.99 (hardcover); $29.99 (paper).

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Summer is a ripe season for reading poetry. You can nibble a few in between trips to the pool or tennis courts, wander through several poems before nodding off in the hammock, and not have to worry about losing a narrative thread if your summer is full of starts and stops, the comings and goings of visitors, the packing and unpacking of vacation.

“Hard Lines,” a new anthology of southern poetry published by the University of South Carolina Press, offers just such welcomed sips for those of us who feel the South’s adored sweet tea might have gotten a little too sweet of late.

In this thorough and balanced collection, one finds neither the mint-julep landscape nor the polished-silver “new South” that preens from the close-ups in Garden & Gun or the perky pages of Southern Living.

Rather, here are our homegrown literary masters, from James Dickey to Charles Wright to Ellen Bryant Voigt to Natasha Trethewey as well as perhaps lesser known but no less talented poets like Kwame Dawes and Columbia’s Ed Madden. These writers are well versed in red clay reality and racism’s engraved shadows, telling it like it is.

Ain’t no gloss, no photo-shopping. Reading this collection is more like listening to Howlin Wolf or Johnny Cash than Darius Rucker, which is no diss to Rucker, just an acknowledgement that an unvarnished edge has its place.

Here, James Dickey delivers the sex-soaked truths that seep out of a rusted Chevy graveyard off Cherrylog Road. In “Sawdust Pile” Paul Ruffin reminds us how hatred simmers down to the “fierce core.” Janise Ray riffs on the many hues of milk and honey: “meringue on a frothy creek” (milk); “poplar hand-hewn into table, axe-handle and bowl” (honey).

Coleman Barks offers an ode to Luke, “master of small fixing,” the shop sweeper and dutiful counter clerk at every country store. Kate Daniels’ “Autobiography of a White Girl Raised in the South” had me nodding my head in searing recognition.

The themes in “Hard Lines” are hard. They’re thick and dank, freighted with tensions and longings we all know, regardless whence we come. Reading it, you feel like a mangy old yard dog is somewhere behind you snarling. But it also feels real and true and beautiful, the way rust brings a hidden elegance to light.

“These poems do not stew in the sweet-rotten effluence of magnolia in the moonlight,” writes co-editor William Wright. Instead, they offer a lyrical reminder that we southerners inhabit of land of “brutal grace,” where righteousness and decay are ever present.

This is not a beach read. It’s a book for a summer thunderstorm or a purpled night when you’re far enough from the tourists to hear bullfrogs and crickets and howls in the dark. Keep it on your porch’s wicker table, by the bottle of craft bourbon you bought at a pop-up shop and the blue hydrangeas arranged just so in your grandmother’s silver bowl.

Read them in moderation, maybe mix in some Billy Collins or verse from Charleston’s just-announced first poet laureate, Marcus Amaker, because you don’t want too much sugar in your tea or too much grit in your, well, grits.

These poems do, however, offer a sober tonic to the faux-washing of Southernness into a collection of Billy Reid shirts and decorator hunting cabins. They let diesel rigs and chainsaws and black-eyed peas have their say, too, for the rough South ain’t yonder, it’s still right here, and it’s still pretty rough.

Printed in the Post & Courier

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