Spring / Fall 2010
60th Anniversary Issue—A Tribute to Flannery O'Connor
[Editor's note: Way back before Poetry Daily's first appearance online in 1997, when we began to appeal to editors and publishers to join us in our mission to bring the best in contemporary poetry to the Internet, one of the first to respond was R. T. Smith, poet, fiction writer, and editor of Shenandoah. Since those early days, Rod and his Managing Editor, Lynn Leech, have been a source of inspiration and support for us. As Shenandoah prepares to move entirely to online publication, Poetry Daily honors Rod and Lynn and Shenandoah by presenting a sampling of their 60th Anniversary Issue commemorating the work of Flannery O'Connor: Rod's essay concluding the issue, and poems by Todd Davis, George David Clark, and Claudia Emerson.]
We dance around in a ring and suppose,
But the Secret sits in the middle and knows.
The work of language deserves our greatest care,
for the tongue's fire may devour the world, or may light the way.
—Scott Russell Sanders
Memory Hill, the Milledgeville cemetery which serves as Mary Flannery O'Connor's last resting place, is as innocuous as her family plot—trimmed lawn, cypresses, live oaks, simple stones and flowers, both natural and silk—heavy on manners, short on mystery. Above ground. Under the grass and slabs lie the remains of inmates from the local asylum, slaves, Confederates from the Baldwin Blues, dowagers, sharecroppers, the Bonner Dogs, powerbrokers, outlaws and, of course, one of the world's masters of the short story. Though she's the one I've more than once gone to visit, salute and commune with, as I've grown familiar with that slightly sloping, soothing terrain beside Franklin Street, I've also grown fond of another denizen, who was known by various names, including the title "The Little Georgia Magnet." She was in her day—the late nineteenth century—more widely celebrated than the devoutly Catholic but fierce-witted author of Wise Blood and "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" is even now. The Magnet's story is intriguing.
Dixie Haygood, who often called herself Annie Abbott, was neither the first nor the last Victorian woman to call herself some version of "The Little Georgia Magnet," but this "electric girl" was the most successful of these vaudevillians who astonished audiences and scientists alike. Some of her act resembled levitation, some looked like unbelievable feats of gravity or stubbornness stronger than physics. She also relied upon the conventions of spiritualism. Heavily-muscled circus performers could not lift her nor move a pool cue upon which she had placed her hand, but she could raise chairs with full-grown men in them and perform other triumphs of legerdemain that took her to New York, Moscow, the Court of St. James. She weighed a hundred pounds and off stage seemed possessed of no unusual strength, but she could draw objects and people to her, hold them fast, resist some forces and command others. Annie did not ascribe her powers to any supernatural agency, orthodox or otherwise, and the map of Memory Hill makes no secret of her resting place—plot number four—where despite unsatisfying exposés by magicians who said "leverage," "mass hypnosis" and "electrical charges," she is still something of a mystery.
For many, Flannery O'Connor is also something of a mystery, often considered a Dixie Dickinson, a savant whose saucy wit and intricacies of thought spilled inexplicably from a homebound invalid with a morbid sense of justice. It's an appealing view for some, fulfilling many of our obsolete notions about "sheltered" women writers, but it just ain't so. A self-styled "Medieval Catholic," she believed in the presence of evil, revealed it, dramatized it and struck back with her inimitable combination of comedy and tragedy, satire and sympathy. Though no saint, she had, as she wrote, "a heart of steel."
When I sent out a call for materials to fill a special O'Connor issue of Shenandoah, I had no idea what or how much the mail carrier would bring us, to what extent I'd receive tributes to her "alien nature," as one writer phrased it, and to what degree the submissions would be provocative and persuasive. Perhaps if I'd set up a Google Alert for her earlier in the process I would have been less surprised, as O'Connor is invoked on websites and in blogs on topics ranging from prayer to discipline, diet, heresy, sexuality, race, cartooning, animal husbandry, feminism, pest control, tourism, arson and, of course, writing. For some she is the ideal "you-go-girl" example of determination in the face of challenging obstacles. For others she is a gifted storyteller who skewed and spoiled her stories with her aggressive Catholic exegeses. Some want to explain why she's "so screwed up," others just want to shout "Flannery rules!" In the Internet conversations she's branded a racist, a sadist, a compassionate angel, a role model and a sexist. But, happily, in the middle of all these one-dimensional caricatures, some commentators are able to see her complexity and ingenuity, her near-perfect pitch, her capacity for orchestrating dramatic and moral convergences.
Shortly before I embarked on this O'Connor issue, Emory University's library opened a large sheaf of her letters to scholars, and in the midst of my research, honeydipping, spelunking and gawking, her Collected Stories was voted by readers as the hands-down favorite ever to receive the National Book Award in Fiction. Then I discovered that the Special Edition DVD containing John Huston's provocative film adaptation of Wise Blood (the cassette version hard to find) had been released, complete with a skillful and chilling recording of O'Connor reading "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" and substantial commentary. The movie ranks with the PBS video of "The Displaced Person" as the best of O'Connor on film so far, and both productions are likely to send any viewer scrambling back to the original texts, where the ore is even richer. Meanwhile, Brad Gooch's long-awaited biography appeared (followed by a landslide of reviews and reassessments), a character on "Lost" was caught reading Everything that Rises Must Converge and Newsweek listed A Good Man Is Hard to Find twelfth in an article entitled "What to Read Now and Why." Artists such as Bono, Tommy Lee Jones and Lucinda Williams continued to cite her as an indispensible influence, and you don't want to miss the performances on You Tube. So much for sequestering our subject in the shadow of some Southern Gothic corner, though she actually had little interest in notoriety, which she recognized she shared with "Roy Rogers' horse and Miss Watermelon of 1955." But which of those scholars, students, cultists, skeptics and devotees of O'Connor pondering her accomplishments would send work to Shenandoah, and why?
When I was a boy staying on my grandparents' farms in Spalding County, Georgia everyone was aware that one of the world's largest mental asylums, Central State Hospital, was located in Baldwin County just outside Milledgeville, and adults were not above using that haunting fact as a tool for directing children's conduct: "You don't BE-have, we gon' send you to Milledgeville." And we'd turn it on each other, as well. Out there among the honeysuckle, paper wasps and fig trees, "Milledge" was not a nickname you wanted to acquire. It might give people ideas. The one time I did visit O'Connor's town as a child, my grandfather had to go over for "business," one of those shifty words whose meaning I could never decipher, and I gaped at the elegant dwellings and stately public buildings left over from the town's days as the capital of Georgia. I ate catfish and admired the town's obligatory statue of a Rebel sentry. I didn't know that, behind the pines along Route 441, on a small dairy farm, a writer suffering serious pain would return from mass almost every day to type in her bedroom at a wall-facing desk, where she was steadily re-shaping the course of American fiction. And since she wasn't writing about Huck or Uncas, I probably wouldn't have given a plugged nickel. In fact, I didn't read any of her stories until "Parker's Back" bewildered and irritated me in my first year at college, and half a decade passed before I began to appreciate and read the stories greedily, if still somewhat bewildered. I could never have imagined deciding to devote an issue of a magazine to her, even a literary magazine that had published "A Stroke of Good Fortune" and several noteworthy articles about her prose.
The call for submissions we sent out in 2009 found its way to many whose enchantment with O'Connor was older than mine—readers who had come to some clarity or urgency long before I did—as well as new converts, and five hundred of the faithful responded. The texts and images presented in this issue lure me into mixed metaphor, for they represent both the fine cream skimmed off the top and a kind of core sample. When you start to compare poems to stories to photos to cartoons, portraits, jingles, collages, radio plays, memoirs and scholarly analyses, you're bound to get a little dizzy, a little giddy. Categories and criteria blur like the Georgia fields on a scorching August day, and I figured you just have to give in to it, let your eyes lose focus and your compass spin and go on instinct and quirk and hope. The essays, stories, poems, photographs, memoirs and cartoons enclosed in this issue offer their own testimony, and I think the range of tone, strategy, wit, candor, nuance and pyrotechnics convey a pretty fair paradigm for figuring out how academic, religious, literary and popular culture wrestle with the work and the myth of O'Connor and draw sustenance from her, but there's so much more.
The material that was hard to resist but which we finally had to decline for various reasons came in many guises, cast many shadows. At no stage in the accepting-and-eliminating process did I think, "This is easy." So much of the material rang true or artfully untrue or beyond truth that I could easily have constructed a second issue from the material we regretfully returned. What follows is a little litany of subjects, phrases, suggestions that showed up in the submission pile and lodged in my mind: Second World, Mistletoe man, a photo of a fan with Flannery's face tattooed on his shoulder, a huge O-shaped poem, Yaddo gossip, Wiccans with pecan pie, legs (purloined and otherwise) in text and image, holy bees, O'Connor's ghost, the Misfit up to further mischief, a skinflint with lockjaw, Good Women found and lost, a sutra for O'Connor, an essay on hog rendering, a miniature Rubic's cube of a narrative featuring characters from every story in Everything that Rises, "The Northern Bitch's Guide to Southern Living," the Pecos Bill Mobile Estates Activity Center, a serial killer targeting peacocks, a monologue delivered by Jiminy Cricket, Elvis back from the dead again, Georgia ornithology, a sequence of letters from Pitty Sing, Lady Gaga, "Non't" (still a mystery), the Miss Christian Elegance Pageant ("Showcasing God's Leading Ladies"), June Star's thing for Huck Finn, butterflies slaughtered for their resemblance to hooded Klansmen, Moon Pies, dirty diapers at the apocalypse, a thief who specializes in O'Connor memorabilia, O'Connor's influence on songwriters, recipes for both Devil's food cake and flan, O'Connor and Dostoevsky on suffering children, a memoir by a former Marine who once dined with O'Connor, a red traffic light locals can't resist shooting, O'Connor in connection with the Holocaust and Catholicism, photographs of Lourdes, tomfoolery, jiggery-pokery, haiku, juba, crossword puzzles and angels galore. This is, as they say, only the tip of the iceberg, and for anyone who wants to delve a little deeper into the connections between O'Connor and popular culture, I recommend Conan O'Brien's 1985 Harvard honors thesis ''The 'Old Child' in Faulkner and O'Connor," which exhibits an adroit young mind exploring the ways that children caught between innocence and world-weariness reflect various assessments of the New South as an arrested, insulated region or as a freshly tested and revitalized realm.
So O'Connor attracts the eccentric, the hungry, the resourceful, the disciplined, the astute, all stripes, all flavors. She wrote that her subject was "the action of grace in territory held largely by the Devil," and we are drawn there to watch him cut up and do his worst, and to watch him lose. O'Connor's sharply etched narratives with their dark humor, pithy dialogue, desperate situations and questing principals exert a magnetic pull. Like the Boyd brothers from "A Circle in the Fire" (and Barry Moser's arresting cover), O'Connor has an open secret: the word, which might either light the path or set the woods afire. She is equally adept with cracker quips and theological intricacies, with chatterboxes and flim-flam artists, enfants terrible and ancients, evangelists and eggheads, and her stories snarl and glare and breathe. While Regina Cline O'Connor always wished her daughter would write more uplifting stories populated by nice people, Flannery has instead brought to the literary arena of our cultural conversation an erudition gracefully carried, an original sense of timing, a broad-based and complicated compassion, a nose for the dishonest, a sensitivity to the deep electricity in the language and a sharpshooter's eye. When one of the felons in "A Good Man" relishes the fugitives' mayhem, the notorious ringleader admonishes him: "Shut up, Bobby Lee .... It's no real pleasure in life." Worldly and cagey as the Misfit is, he's dead wrong. It's too bad he can't read the story he's caged in, as O'Connor's narratives show us how to see and savor the world, and if we do in the midst of our lives come to a dark wood where the way is lost, she is there to light the path, not with a match, a candle or a lamp, but with lightning. I suspect even Annie Abbott would be amazed.
* * *
The Girl Who Taught a Chicken to Walk Backwards
Mostly she loved hens whose necks grew
too long, curved like gourds, crooked combs
that toppled over the side of their docile heads.
At school when she was bored she stared
at the boy with the wrecked chest, whispered
in his spoon-shaped ears that it was easy to catch
a hen and teach it to walk backwards, strutting,
even dancing with an oblong gait. After the boy's
grandpap ran over his leg, drunk and backing down
the drive, he walked with crutches, later with a limp.
In Ripley's she'd read of a rooster who lived
thirty days with its head cut clean off. She told him
she worried about that chicken's sorrow, its grief
at not being able to peck. She supposed the boy
had to hide his secrets, like a hatchet's head buried
in a stump. Eventually all birds were beheaded:
the family's cook grabbing the flightless bodies,
thrusting them into boiling water, then plucking,
plucking, plucking. Whenever the boy tried to speak
it sounded like a hen's clucking beneath his peach
moustache, which was the same color as the sky
at dawn when she coaxed her hens with meal,
even molasses. Instead of letting the birds aimlessly
scratch, she'd shove her hands into apron pockets,
thrust her head forward, and march straight
as a newly plowed furrow, her stride narrow
as the path to heaven. Upon her approach
what chicken wouldn't take a step back?
The day the news crew arrived to film the bird
the boy came riding on his bike: hair standing up
like wind in a coxcomb, sternum like a chicken's
breast sticking out from under his white-pressed shirt.
She took his hand because she already understood
at some point we must take a step backwards
to see whether we're frying in the fat of our sins,
or whether love, when we try to own it, must become
A Stipulation of Peafowl
George David Clark
... her appearance becomes shortly what it always will be.
If a group of peacocks is,
collectively, an ostentation,
a flock of peahens might be better termed a what?
a penury? humiliation?
Even they, in sepias
(but for their brief green collars), backs matte gray
with mottled underfeathers, preen and strut.
We may know that seven peahens in a shagbark is a pity,
but the four dusting themselves at length
along the driveway, let's call them
that vanity has never been reserved for classic beauties,
that the body wants to be a temple
to no god but itself.
Red Sam in the Days that Follow
"But nobody's killed," June Star said with disappointment ...
And so, after the news that they are dead,
murdered, the lot of them, even the baby,
he relishes telling anyone who will listen
how he was the last to see them alive,
how he served them their last meal, how
the old woman had pretended to dance,
sitting in that very chair, to the "Tennessee Waltz,"
a lady from the better times, that one—
but also, now, in the looking back, how the smart-
mouthed little girl had been mightily impressed
with herself. Yes, the world is early rid
of trouble there; he shakes his head as though
she is still tap-dancing in the middle of that very floor
a memorized routine even a monkey could learn.
About the Authors
R. T. Smith is the editor of Shenandoah. His books of poems include Trespasser and Brightwood. His stories have appeared in The Southern Review, The Missouri Review, New Stories from The South and Best American Short Stories as well as in his collections Faith, Uke Rivers Delivers and The Calaboose Epistles. His new poetry collection is Outlaw Style (Arkansas). In 2009 he was named Washington and Lee's Writer-in-Residence.
Todd Davis is winner of the Gwendolyn Brooks Poetry Prize and author of The Least of These (2010), Some Heaven (2007), both from Michigan State, and Ripe (Bottom Dog, 2002). He teaches creative writing, environmental studies and literature at Penn State University's Altoona College.
George David Clark is a doctoral fellow at Texas Tech University, where he serves as associate editor at 32 Poems and Iron Horse Literary Review. He received the 2008 Guy Owen Prize from Southern Poetry Review, and his poems have appeared in The Cimarron Review, Quarterly West and The Literrary Review.
Claudia Emerson received the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for Late Wife (2005). Her other collections include Figure Studies (2008) and Pinion (2002), all from LSU. Recent work has appeared in The Southern Review and New England Review. She is professor of English and Arrington Distinguished Chair in Poetry at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Virginia.Shenandoah
Washington and Lee University
Editor: R.T. Smith
Managing Editor: Lynn Leech