In the Midwest, people are afraid of death, they ignore it until they can’t, they tuck it away in little boxes in their attics, they buy roses for the funerals with all the thorns pre-cut. But Erica Wright’s poetry collection doesn’t take place in the Midwest where I grew up, it emerges from the Southern Gothic tradition where, let’s face it, all the bayou stories do end with the word—drowned.
In Wright’s second collection, death arrives in a thousand and one forms: from tsunamis to volcanos, spontaneous human combustion to beheadings, from bullets to simply time or disease, death is ever-present. Interestingly, what is not ever-present is despair or even grief. And this is where the particular genius of Wright’s poems surfaces, her poems refuse to be mawkish, except perhaps in the original meaning of the word—maggotry, as in the decay of a corpse. Death instead, becomes a muse, and Wright’s poems in All the Bayou Stories End with Drowned pay homage to the macabre.
In the opening poem “Lola and the Apocalypse” Lola “sees catastrophe in every crow / in every knocked down clothesline” and as far as she’s concerned “her epigraph will remain / unwritten because there’s no one left to scrawl platitudes.” And though Lola only returns in one more poem in the collection (sadly as she is a wonderful character), her vision sprawls across the collection. When Lola thinks “”maybe the devil stalks me / right this minute, wants me to run, make it more exciting,”” Wright is teaching her readers how to read these poems—the devil will stalk these poems, and that truly does make these poems more exciting.
All the Bayou Stories End with Drowned embraces the majority of the classic themes encountered in the Southern Gothic tradition: small town living and a quirky cast of characters, moments of grotesquery, surreal elements, and how the innocent encounter the larger world. Several of the poems are told from a child’s perspective, recall memories from childhood, or are about children/adolescents. These children play pranks on neighbors, prod with “convenient sticks” at the carcasses or animals, hang out in abandoned doll factories, they are drawn towards discovery, even if that discovery leads to understanding that death and decay are common, their traces everywhere. “There’s a sound like swing-set chains / unwinding,” Wright writes in an early poem in the book, and this sound of innocence unravelling haunts the rest of the collection.
The closing poem of the collection “Communion,” brings several of these Southern Gothic elements together; the poem is in a collective voice of “we” of the town and yet ends with the image of an injured child, creating tension between the individual and the community:
When we shift our loneliness to another hip,
the skin left behind is imprinted,
acute angles that pulse until the blood pushes
everything smooth. This is not like scarring,
not like running as only children can run,
without looking to see what’s ahead, trusting that no one
would throw something toward an abandoned well
for knees to hit with such force that,
for a moment, nothing hurts at all.
We all know that feeling—that first moment of extreme pain that the mind has not yet processed, and most of us know the feeling of running as a child unable to see the dangers lurking ahead. Wright leaves the child suspended in pain that has not yet become pain, with an injury that has not yet scarred, and near a well the depths of which are yet understood; she preserves the child in a moment of broken innocence, they will never run with such abandon again, they will never not be aware of the dangers lurking everywhere, even within the self.
These dangers must be confronted the moment one “exit[s] through the screen door, / the endless field of injuries,” and yet the door is a screen door, it is permeable and suggests the fluid membrane between the interior and external worlds. For loneliness only exists amid the possibility of a collective, and Wright’s poems are steeped in American loneliness. A loneliness that exists along highways in “billboard country,” and in museum stores, at weddings, on farms, at the “Winn-Dixie,” on “dust bridges” and “dust rivers,” in cars, in abandoned doll factories, within a mirror:
I recall the monsters of my youth, the mirror faces,
waiting for mistakes, one name said three times,
but I taped my mouth shut, too clever by half
for the girl’s bathroom. There’s a name for shouting
at funerals or imagining you will until your only hope,
is digging the hymnal in your thigh.
Erica Wright’s highly imaginative poems are obsessed with the ways the body denies itself, the ways it disintegrates into non-being, and yet remains often in dismembered pieces like dolls with “heads forever piked,” reminding us of the ways death cannot be hidden, ignored, tucked away neatly in those Midwestern attic boxes. But while the poems in All the Bayou Stories End with Drowned are saturated in death, they rise above it through their thought-provoking homage to the Southern Gothic tradition and their own stunning musicality.
All the Bayou Stories End with Drowned
Black Lawrence Press
Brunch: Last night I made sockeye salmon, so today I took the left overs and made a little salmon salad with capers, mayonnaise and mustard, which tastes great on crackers or even cucumber slices. I served it with a side of raw sheep’s milk cheese, and a Greek salad with tomatoes, cucumber, Kalamata olives and feta. Which I enjoyed with a ginger kombucha, my favorite drink.
*All Fork and Page reviews are by Anita Olivia Koester