Cities of Flesh and the Dead

by Diann Blakely
Elixir Press 2008
Reviewed by Allston James

“the Mississippi / pulsing beyond”

Raised in Montgomery, Alabama during the white-heat years of the Civil Rights Movement and living in northern California and New York 30 years hence, I am perplexed when asked, “What was the South like then?” My short answer is, to grow up a white boy in Alabama during that era was to grow up schizophrenic. Westminster Presbyterian Church, where I spent most Sundays, raised hymns on high announcing all men are brothers and then in syncopated breath the congregation voice-voted to keep a black family from joining the church. I recall a birthday party for white kids at a city park where we were denied entry at the gates because officials opted to close the park altogether rather than submit to demands of  “outside agitators.”

Most adults then were terrified either loudly or silently—for themselves, their property values, but mostly for their children. Measuring the depths and shades of prejudice is at best a tricky math. But it always comes up prejudice. A fellow Southern writer once shared that he thought the South is both the “friendliest and most sinister” region of the country. I would add that whereas other regions frame their histories in a rearview mirror, the South’s past mostly rides along right there on the front seat.

To live and die in Dixie. Well, there are all kinds of Dixie and all kinds of dying. Mississippi author Barry Hannah maintained that Southerners started the Civil War not on principle but rather because “they were mostly bored out of their gourds.”

People outside the region also inevitably ask why the South has generated so many significant authors. I come down on the side that claims it is because of the King James Bible more than anything else, the unparalleled language of Shakespeare being a Southerner’s reality—before cable TV—from prenatal murmurings straight through to the grave yard.

Diann Blakely, whose first collection Hurricane Walk was issued in 1992 and cited as one of that year’s ten best poetry books by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, has won two Pushcart Awards and served as Antioch Review’s poetry editor for twelve years. A longtime Nashville resident, she now lives with her husband, the author Stanley Booth, on the south Georgia coast. And while it would be an error to call her a “Southern” poet—an enclosure that limits every which way—her sensibilities are undeniably rooted in the region as deeply as those of any poet writing today, sensibilities that ultimately are dialed-in to all compass points. Reading her work, one gets the sense she could derive an honest trilogy of collections simply by trolling her impressions from a stroll down a single city block in any capital in any country. Whether in Harvard Square or the French Quarter, her instincts are keenly alert to matters of the heart and “How it craves love, also deprivation.”

In her latest collection, Cities of Flesh and the Dead, Blakely continues to range far and wide in her concerns and curiosity. As poet Sarah Kennedy writes in the introduction, her poetry “always promises entrance to a tragic, beautiful world.”  A fair number of these poems deal with popular American culture. Indeed, the opening poem, “Bad Blood”, revisits the Bates Motel.

The actor embodied our worst fears: like dying in the bath—
Or flame, or black winds—
Trusting water like a lover to soothe, to cleanse off the grit
And smudge of ill-spent pasts, to give us new starts . . . .

A poem in a section headed “Family Battles,” recalls an uncle terminally “stuck in WWII, thorazined and crying in the chapel.” Another exposes a perverse Catholic rector, his “chilblained right hand stretched toward my bent shag . . . in confirmation class.”

Blakely’s descriptive power, her ability to lay a scene on stages large and small  echoes Emerson’s admonition that every line of a poem must be a poem. In “Memphis Blues,” a visiting New Englander observes,

“It looks so dirty,” she says, the Mississippi
pulsing beyond like a huge brown muscle . . .

From the outside looking in, our New Englander can not sense the region’s deep musculature, only remark on its veneer. And can it really work any differently for the Alabaman suddenly transplanted to Manhattan? Is this not precisely what poetry is for—to sort out the awful electricity that runs the length of these tension wires? Stylistically, Blakely possesses the formalist’s design and intention, but an intention imbued with the airiness of free association. Venturing beyond her native South, Blakely shines her light on big eastern cities, New York in particular, with incisive outsider clarity: “Again, again,” the siren screams; red lights/Flame the window. I’ll never get used to it.

It is the poems about family—Southern family—that perhaps afford readers the truest measure of Blakely’s strength. There are hard, difficult tales here, of a child’s world gone awry:

“I called home when the social worker asked
How long they’d been married. ‘Near twenty years’,
My mamma sobbed into the phone before
The line clicked. Two lifetimes spent in prison.”

This collection’s catalogue of imagery and motifs resembles a one-off lonely hearts club band: Baudelaire, Antonioni, Hank Williams, Lorca, Brooke Shields, Shakespeare, Warhol, The Who. And, sure, Gone With the Wind.  Springing from Blakely’s imagination, one can easily imagine them meeting regularly for drinks.

The smoky air of the spiritual hovers over these pages, an atmosphere having more to do with hope than evidence that maybe, just maybe, our lives and loves are not in vain. On a visit to London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral:

. . . . I want to kneel:
How is a free life born? ‘Praise Him, all Ye Works
Of the Lord’ arches overhead in Latin.
I ask for blessing in my mother tongue.

“Redemptive” is a much abused catch-all descriptive that can be no less limiting than “regional.”  But the truth is, Cities of Flesh and the Dead affords close readers of Diann Blakely’s transformational poems sure keys to nothing less than personal redemption. It is a redemption that is gained by grasping that current that trembles between regions and races, gods and beliefs. And it is our best poets who guide our hands.