Review by Missy McEwen
Some poems are bigger than the page and need to be brought to the stage. If I had to pick a poetry book that could be turned into a film (or a play), it would be Randall Horton's The Definition of Place. The soundtrack: the blues.
The Definition of Place is divided into six sections: The Backstory, Elvie & Rosetta, Sydney Merrill, First Street: Attalla, Alabama, Colored Water: 1963 and Scrapbook. The poems in this book are meant to be read from beginning to end, like a short story, but each poem can stand on its own. However, you'll want to read it like a story because In The Definition of Place, with each poem, a family tree grows and lives unfold. We meet the Fennels (they killed a white man), Elvie and Rosetta, Sydney and Emma (Rosetta's folks), and others relatives. The Fennels (Percy and Wiley -- related to Rosetta and them) are something like heroes in this book. They killed a white man and got away with it and their story is told in the section titled Backstory:
(Guntersville, Alabama, 1912)
I. According to Marshall County Clerk of Court
On June 9, twenty-five peg holes were dispensed into the
body of Major King and he dropped to the ground deader
than a cigarette ash. King was reputed to be a wildcat
distiller from Hobbs Island who believed coloreds to be
no better than coons staring owl-eyed down the tip
of a shotgun. Buckshots were the handshake given when
King, inebriated from honeycomb moonshine, disrupted
a peaceful buggy ride, thought he could square dance
right up to old colored Wiley Fennel and his brother
Percy's wagon and invade family space with whiteness.
For the record: Sunday is when Negroes tote Jesus in the
front pocket and Remington in the back. It is not clear
who shot King as neither of the Fennel's discarded lead
matched the body holes. In the meantime there is unrest
in the Negro Settlement."
The killing of the white man by the Fennels is mentioned in several poems throughout the book. It gives Percy and Wiley's kinfolk a sense of pride and they brag about it every chance they get. Even Elvie, related to Percy and Wiley by marriage, mentions it. In "Elvie Horton Stumbles into Rosetta Merrill, Age 26, 1929":
In "Dialogue with the Tennessee River," Rosetta's brother Sydney recalls with pride the bravery of his relatives:
"It was common gossip how
her kinfolk had shot a white man and escaped death.
Right then I knew I had a thorn of a woman. She come
from that proud stock, straight-backed, never lay down."
"I think back to the day when my kinfolkAnd just like family, place can mean so much, too. It can shape you. It makes you who you are. The other main character in The Definition of Place is a place: First Street in Attalla, Alabama. A section of the book is dedicated to it, so you know this street is major. On this street, "gossip is dispensed freely./Everybody is aware of somebody's dirty blues." First Street is where everyone goes after a hard day at work or a hard day at home, or when life in general is just plain hard.
told he how they made buckshots softly float
in the air like pillow feathers until
they covered a white man's chest full of holes.
Said, we Merrills come from a special breed
of colored that is too proud to bow down."
In "The Sanctuary of the Boogie Shack":
"On Friday evenings workers pour
out Republic Steel Mill, make a beeline
down First Street to the Boogie Shack
where malt syrup tastes of home-brew
waits for those who have grinded against
the stone all week…Music
is metal slide of blues on stringed guitar;
the way blown wind streams through a
muted trumpet or curls around a tenor
Thank God for First Street and the sanctuary of the Boogie Shack and Blues music because In Attalla, Alabama, a "soda pop town" where the "front porches…hold history," life is hard; it is where "men…been working since they stopped sucking milk from their mama's tit" and everybody "cries the blues," and everybody "got nothing but the blues," so they go to the Boogie Shack and listen to the blues. What is it about blues music that makes you listen even when you got the blues yourself? I am reminded of a poem by Cornelius Eady "I'm a Fool to Love You." He puts it this way: "This is the way the blues works/its sorry wonders,/makes trouble look like/a feather bed…"
Randall Horton's poem "Town Crier" even sounds like a blues song:
And the poems in The Definition of Place are what blues songs are made of. When I read "Rosetta on Her Brother Sydney," ("…my brother Sydney has been/known to tip-toe out the rear door/as husbands walk in the front…"), I thought of the blues song "One Way Out," that goes: "Ain't but one way out baby, Lord I just can't go out the door 'cause there's a man down there, might be your man I don't know." And when reading "Rosetta on Elvie" (he…want to be discovering things don't need finding;/but he always double back--scratch on my door/like a saddle-cat, come in easy-footed…"), Big Mama Thorton's "Hound Dog" came on in my head: "You ain't nothing but a hound dog, been snooping 'round my door." The blues are all over this book.
"On pay day, Mr. Fred is dead drunk, pockets
thick like a wash pot full of clothes….
Come Monday morning he can't afford a shoe shine.
Big Friday got his wife and he got nothing but the blues."
If you can read and listen to music at the same time, I suggest you turn on Miles Davis' "Tout de Suite," sit in your favorite chair, and enter the world of Elvie & Rosetta. I guarantee by the time you close this book, you will feel as if you've just come back from somewhere else.
Randall Horton's The Definition of Place, published by Main Street Rag, can be purchased at http://www.mainstreetrag.com/store/books.php. A signed copy can be purchased at http://www.randallhorton.com/.