In this issue of Southern Humanities Review, the editors include a selection of poetry from the 2015 Auburn Witness Poetry contest, held in honor of Jake Adam York. In addition to other poems and short stories, this issue features poems from the winner, the first and second runners-up, and the nine finalists. Each of these poems shares a witness’s perspective on issues like race relations, poverty, and humanity in honor of Jake Adam York, an award-winning poet that focused on the triumphs and tragedies of the Civil Rights movement.
In “Southern Tongues Leave us Shining,” the finalist, Mark Wagenaar, creates images of the urban poor through poetry:
Sneakers hanging by their laces.
And a cloud of beating moth wings around a streetlight,
shaking heart of dust & wings
around blue sodium.
Whatever works, forty ounces or pipe dream.
Wagenaar reminds the reader of the endurance of the human spirit because even “if the new shoes never show, / if our angels are still out of reach, [ . . . ] southern tongues leave us shining / for another day.” This leaves me with a belief that even when times are tough, there is still hope that tomorrow will be better.
From the finalists’ poems, one stood out as a powerful statement on race relations. In “Lockdown” by Meghan Dunn, children struggle to learn in class while dealing with the death of an unarmed black person whose hands were held up. She looks at the issue both as that of a student and of a teacher, stating, “We ask what to tell the children. / What do we say? / They will have feelings, we are told, / Acknowledge them.” The way she compares the situation of this black man against how children are told to raise their hands for help leaves students confused, not knowing what the right action should be. She points out that the students are not allowed to walk out of the class in protest even though it is acknowledged that they will have feelings about the situation, speaking volumes about the difficulties children face in a time of tense race relations.
Likewise, Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib comments on the increase in violence against the black community in his poem, “On the Filming of Black Death.” This poem points out how common it has become “to know that another man / won’t come home tonight” because others stated “in the heat of the moment, it’s hard to know what is and isn’t a gun.” This poem is a reminder that too many people are being killed because “everything is a gun / but then nothing is a gun / running is a gun / fear is a gun” and a grandmother telling a child “not to take no lip from nobody who don’t share his blood / is a gun.” Knowing that there are people in our modern day who feel fear at this level is powerful, and the poet truly sheds light on it.
Another finalist, Pamela Hart, also shares a powerful story in the form of a poem about the death of James Foley, a journalist beheaded in a video uploaded online. She compares the color of his jumpsuit in this video, orange, with so many images of orange in our world. Her narrative poem drifts from concrete images to various facts, such as “We blink 29,000 times a day” as she tries to identify what she assumes must be a hidden message in Foley’s blinking eyes on the video. In the end, she finds it hard “to stop thinking about James Foley. // To stop looking.” Can any of us who saw this video ever stop picturing it, set it aside, or forget it? I can understand her torment as a witness in this event and the poem speaks to me because of that.
From this collection, I also recommend a sobering and powerful poem by Ansley Moon who uses a unique format to share the situation that many women in the world have face—that of having to kill a female child. In her poem, the women must drown their girl children and then bury their bodies in a small field. “If you return with the girl, he will beat you and then kill you both.” This poem gave me chills, as I am sure it will for others.
However, Southern Humanities Review shares more than just the witness poems from the 2015 poetry contest. The very first short story in the collection by Sara Schaff tells the story of a shattered family trying to come to grips with changes in relationship between parents, children, neighbors, and the community because of a divorce. Even as some of the family members form new relationships and bonds, other members of the family feel more isolated than ever, and must find ways to cope. I know this has been true for so many—the severing of one family tie can dramatically change how we all interact with one another, which is why I think this story can resonate with its readers.
Patricia Foster’s essay “A Problem” focuses on the relationship between a husband and wife where the wife struggles to recreate in her mind’s eye the childhood of her husband. She imagines this entire scene from her husband’s life. However, when her husband later takes her back to his hometown, she realizes how far off her imagination had been from the truth and is forced to reconcile to the idea that she glamorized his childhood. This reminds me of how too often we create details when we do not know them—we imagine scenes if we did not see them or give others motives that they simply did not have.
This Southern Humanities Review issue ends with a poignant short story about a college student and her sculpture professor who uses his charms, intellect, and position to take his students to bars, drink with them, party with them, and even sleep with them. The student, Livvie, thinks she is special and that the professor is hers, despite his criticism of her work. However, during a tumultuous night where a local special education student is executed, a fight between Livvie and her own sister Hedy takes Livvie down a road she did not want to go. She is exposed to the hypocrisy of her professor and the immaturity of her sister, leading her to find more in common between herself and that executed student than she expected. The struggle of this young student coming to a darker and deeper understanding of art and the lack of “justice”—both for her and for that executed student—gives this story many depths.