Monday, February 16, 2009

Howling on Red Dirt Roads by Sara Claytor

In Howling on Red Dirt Roads, poet Sara Claytor takes her readers on a Hermes-like journey from the land of the living to hell and back. It’s a journey on red dirt country roads crowded with bone and fire images, vibrant colors and memories, some tender and some still raw. Race relations, the Wizard of Oz, sex, snakes and the Bible are all explored either through tight, imagistic poetry or mini-prose narratives that sing with humor and sass. Claytor could be called a "Southern" poet because she's from the south and immerses her words in the land and people of the South, but she's more than that. She ponders cannibalism in "The Last Taboo," a murder that takes place in her former apartment in New York in "New York in the Those Days," and witches in "Salem Pyres."

Claytor uses her memories from childhood to create her "Miss Lottie Jenkins" and her "Miss Ginny May" linked poems — these are tales of eccentric small town women, one the Sunday School teacher and the other the town lesbian — who carved out their own lives amidst piety and sin, and faith and deception. A natural storyteller, she has the gift to inhabit other lives and treat the reader to the drama of a human life told in under forty lines.

In “Flesh from Bone,” we learn there might be a reason why Lottie’s favorite Bible story is Jezebel. Once Claytor paints the scene in the opening stanza, you know the poem will shift into darker territory:

Miss Lottie Jenkins
Lived alone with four cats,
taught Sunday school 39 years to 8-year-olds,
Her fervent Bible tale, Jezebel, wicked queen, thrown
from her balcony for wild street dogs to rip flesh from bone.
Blue eyes glazed when she described screams and growls,
Jezebel’s tiny white hand left intact.


Few happenings in a small town, occasional Saturday night brawl.
Murder seldom graces the scene. Only secrets of the past
Or family gossip rattle a placid surface. Miss Lottie’s father
Died at the kitchen table, slumped in his underwear,
Face buried in a bowl of potato soup. Some said heart attack;
Others said he drowned. His left hand was missing.


When he died, Richmond cousins found her daddy’s clothes
still hanging in an upstairs bedroom, the pants’ leg slashed.
Perhaps Miss Lottie’s soul dried up, too, grass into pale straw?
We mused & mulled, finally decided Jezebel’s evil a minor sin.
Who ever knows what’s being weighed on the scales of the night?

Another place Claytor shines is in her "Julia" poems, fragrant with Clorox and starch. The titular red dirt roads and bone images emerge in all eight poems to symbolize the enduring love between Claytor's and her "black mother.” In “Julia’s Invisible Fences,” Claytor writes, “You didn’t know pain from your belly from me or a stretching/of the thighs; no one told me about invisible fences/separating mother loves”.

Claytor often steps out of her mini-narratives into more abstract territory that creates a certain distance between the speaker and the reader. These darker poems celebrate our human frailties and limitations, yet they also invite a simple acknowledgment that not everything is within our control. In “Contained,” Claytor ponders the concrete and theoretical world of boxes.

Boxes define life’s parameters
Box of cigars at birth; box of candy for love;
box of memorabilia for old age; box of ashes
for death — chose a casket or a urn.

We crowd into small-minded boxes,
elbows banging walls, fingernails scraping,
breaking on the edges. We are lonely in boxes,
Our cells, our punishments, our purgatory.
No matter what red dirt road we travel:
We are boxed in or boxed out.

Claytor is talented poet not afraid to show her vulnerability on the page and takes risks with her verse when she could play it safe. Even though many of her poems deal with her journeys through life, Claytor’s hometown in Warren County, North Carolina is never too far away. Be on the lookout for more Sara Claytor poetry books packed with haints, harlots and photographic memories.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Devil in the White City Book Review

The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America by Erik Larson

My review

rating: 3 of 5 stars
This book is the story of how the 1893 Chicago World's Fair (aka The White City) came to be and how a serial killer (best guess is that Holmes killed at least 200 people) used the fair as a replenishing resource of young women new to Chicago and its dangers. Erik Larson relies on the facts to carry out his ambitious project, for not only does he focus on the chief architect of the fair, Daniel Burnham, he also spends time with Dr. H.H.Holmes the serial killer, as well as the forces and culture of late nineteenth century America. What I found fascinating about this book was all of the "Forrest Gump" moments, meaning all of these great people (Buffalo Bill, Frank Lloyd Wright, Susan B. Anthony, Archduke Francis Ferdinand) converged on the fair at the same time and new innovations (spray paint, the Ferris wheel, AC/DC current, Shredded Wheat) were introduced at the fair. What was also neat was learning that Walt Disney and L. Frank Baum used the White City as inspiration for for their creative worlds.

"Devil in the White City" was my book club's first book of the year and although we mostly gave it 3 out of 5 stars, we felt that Larson adopted too much of a newspaperly tone, rather than a narrative one. We were expecting this book to read more like a Jon Krakauer book, but instead we got more of a history textbook. Now it wasn't dry in all places and Larson definitely has a sense of humor, but this book should have provided more invented dialogue and less direct quotes to give it more of a flow.

View all my reviews.