|The Country Below|
|by Simone Muench|
My entire life has been charged with the notion of escape. The place I'm from can't be found on most maps: Benson, Louisiana. The towns I've lived -- or gone to school in -- are minuscule: St. Paul, Arkansas, current population 89; Iota, Louisiana, population 1,200. I lived on the outskirts of Iota for four years in a dilapidated house that was built in 1920, and can be found in old Sears Catalogs.
Even though I've been infused with urban life, I remain a rural poet. It's an intriguing phenomenon, how we cycle back to where we come from or, at least, how we recycle our early lives. I've lived in Chicago for six years. Before Chicago, I traveled for a year -- London to Greece to Turkey to Australia -- yet my writing is saturated with my childhood landscape. The South is embedded in my body. I rarely write "cityscape" poems. Though many of my poems deal with the surface desires between two people, they're as much about our desire for solitude and our love affairs with landscape. But those liaisons, as with people, are imbued with ambivalence. I find the South a charming and insidious entity.
As a kid I alternated between living in Louisiana and Arkansas. My parents considered themselves hippies and built a log cabin in the Ozarks. On winter evenings when the river churned with snow, and salamanders could no longer be found in the musty dusk beneath the porch, my mother would light the kerosene lantern, sing songs by Joni Mitchell and Nina Simone (whom I was named after), tuck my sister and me into bed where we slept beneath double wedding ring quilts -- mine purple, hers green -- and turn on the radio for the nightly story. Usually, it was a mystery, a whodunit , or something along the lines of Agatha Christie.
We didn't have electricity. It sounds like the turn of the century; it was 1978. My sister and I would lie in bed, watching the fire die out. I would dread school, the ride to St. Paul's Elementary on my father's yellow Yamaha. Mike, my father, would usually drop me off at the bottom of the mountain at a gas-station diner, asking anyone going the direction of my school to give me a lift while he headed toward Fayetteville, where he was working toward a Masters in Biology at the University of Arkansas.
During the summers, I would be shuffled back to Louisiana to stay at my grandmother Mammie's house in the country where there was electricity, a television, and a powder-blue bathroom with shag carpet. My parents' house was a mile away, but while they argued and partied, I stayed with my grandparents. I became addicted to Johnny Weismuller's "Tarzan" and the late-night horror show: "Creature From the Black Lagoon," "Trilogy of Terror," "The Fall of the House of Usher."
During the day, I would help Mammie pick blackberries for cobblers to sell at the monthly Benson Baptist church bake, or select flowers from her garden for the graves down the road. Benson cemetery is segregated: whites on the West side, blacks on the East side. The cemetery forms an equilateral triangle with my grandmother's house and my parents' house. All that's left of their house is a crumbling brick fireplace. It burned when I was in my teens, already living in Colorado with my mother and stepfather. Gossip had it that Loretta Shadoin was so pissed at my dad for calling her a big fat whore, she drove over with a can of Aqua Net and lit the place up. It was only recently I learned it was most likely my father who burned it down for insurance money.
I can't seem to write a poem without a religious reference or a plant in it, even though I stopped going to church when I was 10, and the only plants in my house belong to my roommate. That landscape and life are so remote from me now, I feel as though it's someone else's narrative. Yet, when I write, perhaps because of this distillation, that life returns to me, occluding my current surroundings…particularly the sounds I associate with the South: cicadas and 18-wheelers; the snap of green beans and hunters' gunshots; the silence which is never really silent; rain (sleet to drizzle to downpour); woodpeckers and whippoorwills; and, of course, the drawl and the music.
I didn't begin writing until I moved away from the South. I was 16, living in Colorado, slumped in Dr. Brownson's English class, reading Sylvia Plath's Lady Lazarus: "Dying/Is an art, like everything else./I do it exceptionally well./I do it so it feels like hell."
I was mesmerized. My first few poems were published in the Colorado Springs High School newspaper without my permission. The principal of my school called me in to his office to suggest I needed to see a counselor. Writing was initially an apotropaic device for me. Now, I tend to avoid the overtly malevolent poems I wrote when I started, but occasionally a twang of gothic ominousness appears. Perhaps it's those horror movies that seeped through my skin as a kid.
I've been rereading Hopscotch by Julio Cortazar, which is one of my favorite novels, as well as Another Country by James Baldwin. Books of poetry I've read recently that I love for their musical lushness and sustenance are any book by Charles Wright, but particularly Chickamauga; Forrest Gander's Science and Steepleflower; Yusef Komunyakaa's Thieves of Paradise, as well as his book of interviews and essays, Blue Notes, and Margaret Atwood's Selected Poems II. And two of the most elegant, melancholic short stories/essays I've read recently in magazines made me track down the author's books: Jason Brown's Driving the Heart and Jo Ann Beard's The Boys of My Youth.
Simone Muench's first book of poetry, the Marianne Moore Poetry Prize-winning The Air Lost in Breathing was recently published by Helicon Nine Editions. She is the associate editor for Another Chicago Magazine. Her work has appeared in Crab Orchard Review, Many Mountains Moving, Southern Poetry Review, Bloomsbury Review, Calyx, Luna, etc. Originally from Shreveport, Louisiana, she received her B.A. and M.A. from the University of Colorado. Her manuscript “Love’s Apostrophes” won the 1998 Sheila-Na-Gig Chapbook Contest. She was recently selected to receive an Illinois Arts Council Award for a poem published in Fish Stories.
Author photo by Todd Rittman.