Sunday, January 31, 2010

Kerry James Evans on "Leaning in from the Sea"

I tend to remember quite a bit of what I hear. When I began writing “Leaning in from the Sea,” I started with this idea of the “heard” thing: the emotion and the physicality of an experience strained by voice. In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Macbeth speaks mostly in iambic pentameter before he meets the witches. After he meets the witches, who speak in trochaic tetrameter, his speech changes, and he begins speaking in trochees and often in spondees. He loses his mind. What he hears he then speaks. His actions are then confused by his speech. Often I see this in my work: this disjointed narrative caused by what my narrator has heard. I am a young poet so it comes as no surprise that my narrator—especially in this poem—is struggling to form an identity.

The section breaks offer a shift in tone and logic. This poem is about poverty and class and race and the speaker in this poem has a difficult time understanding the words he heard as a boy. His own syntax imitates what he has heard. However, the real struggle is for him to put these pieces together and come out of the narrative with a hold on his experience. He claims responsibility in some sense I suppose, but he also looks for a way out. He in fact is leaning in from what he has heard—a protective measure—but the underbelly is much darker. His actions are influenced by what he has heard.

For me, this poem came out of a need to understand the landscape that in many ways has shaped me. As a Southern poet I am also writing from a tradition that questions the blood, the decisions and the history of a scarred agrarian society.

I just returned from a visit to Mississippi, where my mother still lives. She has adopted two foster children who are behind in school. She lives in double-wide next to a cornfield next to pine thicket next to another field. There are deer nesting in the pine thicket right now. The fields won’t be plowed for a couple of months. About two miles over, a chemical plant hums day and night. It also glows something awful.

Obviously these are images relative to the trope of this poem. Right now, in “Leaning in from the Sea,” I have yet to come to terms with this “home.” While there is beauty here, I am sure, there is no beauty in what I see, and there is nothing beautiful about this poem. Here there is an inherited blood that moves in my work. And there is a gun. There is mange on the land and there is poverty and racism and ignorance. This is where the poem comes from. As I reread this poem, I am often struck by how flat and void of music it is. I’d like to find that music in future poems. Which is to say that maybe we can broaden the discussion on this forum beyond this particular poem.

When is music necessary? Is lyricism all there is to poetry? In this poem, the narrative strangles the lyricism. These are my thoughts lately. When I wrote this poem, it was catharsis and a search for responsibility, the notion that I could end the narrative with silence. Silence must live in poetry as it must live in the poet. Often a poem wants to escape from what is heard, and in the lyric, we often find beauty and space. Here there is yelling and there is violence. I don’t know that the political can ever be comprehended in a poem, but sometimes what matters must be screamed there.