Monthly Archives: June 2015

Where the Southern cross the Yellow Dog

A few weeks ago, my mother sent me a picture of a poem by Charles Wright, America’s (previous) Poet Laureate, about the writing down of Blues Music, which supposedly happened at the junction of the Southern and Yellow Dog railroads in Moorhead, Mississippi.  She had visited this site and bought me a bright yellow tee-shirt to commemorate it, only a few weeks prior. The photos don’t really do the poem justice, so I’ll just post a final excerpt and link to the poem in Google Books, “Poem Almost Wholly in My Own Manner” found in Black Zodiac. 

screenshot of end of Charles Wright's poem

from Charles Wright’s poem “Poem Almost Wholly in My Own Manner” in Black Zodiac

And here was my analysis and poor reply…


Dear Mom,

We can all be thankful Dad never had an iPad but instead had the patience of a secretary. When a poem struck his fancy, he would type it out for me in Word and attach it to an email. Not in courier–that was his font, for his words–but in Geneva or Palatino. Something lightly serifed to give it a touch of published authority, but not as pompous as Times New Roman. Transtromer was a favorite. And Szymborska. For a while it was Merwin. I miss those words even when they weren’t his, or when his well was dry. This is not intended as a slight to your pictures but I think typing out a favorite poem helped him hear it and filled the void of a blank slate.

Sometimes he would look for a word, a key, the unexpected word like a foreign rock planted in a corn field, to unlock the poem. “Nightwash” does that here. Other times his message would be unrelated to the attached offering, a riff on coincidence and memory. “Leland” would be that here: Leland, Mississippi of Wright’s mother’s origins echoes unknowingly of Leland Avenue in Visitacion Valley.

Then on ornery days, like the one I just got out of, Dad might find the fatal flaw, the line that shouldn’t be. For me that’s this one: “Poetry’s what’s left between the lines…it’s all in the unwritten, it’s all in the unsaid.” But to write that makes it too obvious, no? The line negates itself. Like a character in a movie insisting out loud that the shadows we have all been suspending in our disbelief are “real life.”  If poetry is all that’s left unwritten, then unwrite. Let it be unsaid and silent. Why write anything at all? Art shouldn’t tell you what art is, it should just BE.

And after drawing some wise and obnoxious conclusion like that, Dad might turn it all on its head with a dirty joke or self-abnegation. What WOULD Robert Johnson say? What a crossroads they must have faced, those men who rode the rails, between the Southern and the Yellow Dog, between the blues as sung and the blues as written, between folk culture and popular culture? And we and WC Handy and Charles Wright are caught between two yesterdays. One remembered, and one dreamed.

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