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Rodney Jones: Elegy for the Southern Drawl

Elegy for the Southern Drawl by Rodney Jones is, as you might expect, not an elegy but a sort of morbid rehearsal–like imaging what you’d say at the funeral of a close relative, in this case a ribald, raucous West Virginia uncle whom you grew up very close to but you drifted apart from because you got a job with an investment bank. Something like that. But that’s what makes Jones a respected contemporary poet–his distillation of southern heritage through the eyes of a poet. And these poems are indeed poetic, most of them in blank verse. It is a rare poet who can merge the high and low (which actually isn’t low at all) so successfully.

The first poem “For Alexis” very much encapsulates the rest of the volume, particularly with the first line directly invoking burial, perhaps of a pet: “I dug a ditch three feet deep and eighteen inches wide,” but the next line surprisingly contrasts it with an image of life and rebirth which refuses to be contained: “From where the roots had broken through.” Already the contrasting themes and tensions that create the volume’s meaning are being established; Southern culture is dead, right? Not necessarily, it’s like the roots forcing their way through “The Orangeburg pipe [that] clogged the line.” These are Jones’ stories that evoke images and memories of a vibrant southern culture.

The poem is ultimately a story about a day spent repairing a broken pipe with his daughter and is filled with conflicting allusions, sometimes in the same line: “Shit or goddam, or an allusion to The Inferno.” Sometimes initial poems are vague or even misleading, but Jones makes no pretense of how this volume will be written and what its themes will be–a powerful mixture of high and low and personal and tall tale.

In other poems, Jones is not so subtle in his lamentation, such as the poem “The Pine Forests” in which he writes, “Any idiot can see that much of the living green/ Has gotten wholly turned into a machine/ For our convenience, like a chicken or a cow.” There is much to be said for this powerfully direct form of address, which recalls southern culture and rejects a highly metaphorical, sometimes obtuse form of writing. Here Jones expresses what can only be understood as anger, and is a surprising entry in what is titled an “elegy,” where one would expect stateliness or lighthearted stories. But here it seems almost as though he is attending the funeral for a murder victim, with his rage still fresh, imploring the audience to not let their pain go to waste. Nonetheless, later in the poem Jones writes “It is going,/ One way or another, to get put back/ Into the ground and eaten up. It is all falt/ As the soul of my aunt who died as a girl.” This machine is not necessarily any more permanent than anything else, even though it may seem to be, and it will eventually die and be consumed by nature as well. So, once again Jones sounds a hopeful note even in the face of furious despair.

I believe that this is ultimately a hopeful volume and I recommend it because it demonstrates how powerful contemporary American poetry can be to invoke a time past while still being firmly rooted in the present. This is a volume where there is just enough of everything without any element becoming cloying. An elegy for the South could indeed fall into cliche, and a poet of lesser skill would fall over himself attempting to prove that he wasn’t “faux-southern” cashing in on some sort of kitsch appeal. But it is obvious that Jones is southern through and through and he doesn’t need to prove anything, neither to southerners or to the poetry world, and these poems read as though they were written by a natural.