Deep in the heart of Dixie, words are art
SALISBURY — Cathy Smith Bowers has an ear and a word for the South.
Born and raised in Lancaster, S.C., in the shadow of a giant cotton mill, it’s as if the warp and weft of the South flows from her mind when she writes.
Speaking Monday as part of Rowan-Cabarrus Community College’s Literary and Fine Arts Festival, she talked about why and how she wrote some of her poems and read them aloud. There’s a reason she was N.C.’s poet laureate in 2010. She speaks with the voice of our state, as much as she does for our southern neighbor.
One particularly striking poem’s long title tells a story: “After Being Commissioned to Write a Poem for the Centennial Celebration of Springs Cotton Mills, and To Make It Uplifting.” Bowers looked over the top of her reading glasses at the audience as if to say it was an impossible task. But she did it. And then she wrote a poem about it, explaining the first poem was rejected for “sexual overtones” and the second “because the editor doubted/those people would recognize a metaphor/if it hit them in the face.”
She writes this about the men in the mill: “And let’s say the stringed instruments/of our father’s chests,/that old symphony of bass and fiddle/always tuning up,/was not disease’s preludes/aubades of brown lung.”
How beautifully she paints the image of men suffering from cotton dust disease, using aubades, which is a morning song (serenades in the evening).
Bowers said she begins each poem with an “abiding image,” which uses all five of the senses, visual, smell, taste, texture, sound. That is the impetus for the poem. “I begin with the abiding image and work into the mysteries” of the things.
Sometimes she starts with an image, but it disappears as the poem goes on. She told a story about being in Nova Scotia with her then-husband and another couple. The topic of a compass arose, and she asked why anyone would want one, since it can only help you go north. Stunned silence followed and her friend explained you can go any direction with a compass. “Imagine, 40 years old and I never knew that,” she laughed. The image she started with was the look on her friend’s face when she made her statement. “Then this is the poem that ended up writing itself,” she said, as she read “The Compass.” The only image that remains is the idea of only going north.
“Traveling north. That’s how I became poet laureate of North Carolina, not South Carolina.”
Bower’s most recent collection is from 2010 — “Like Shining from Shook Foil,” a great title that conjures up a host of images. She took the title from Gerard Manly Hopkins’ “God’s Grandeur” — “The world is charged with the grandeur of God./It will flame out, like shining from shook foil.”
The foil, Bowers said, is the thin gold foil that lines the edges of some books. The grandeur of God will shake the beauty of the world loose, “it will flame out like shining from shook foil.”
“I write more and more of place. It’s so important to us, those called to be Southern writers. And it’s so important to have extended family who inspire poems like “Kwanzaa.” Her uncle, Bowers writes in the poem, is a simple schizophrenic, no danger to anyone, though off enough to earn a small check — “payment for staying out of the loony bin.” Bowers sends him cards that echo some of her experiences. One is a Kwanzaa card because of its striking images: “... black cubist Christ,/each angle of his visage full and visible/like the fractured-back-together-again/women of Picasso...”
The poem tells the story of the called family meeting she is not invited to, the hand wringing and shoulder patting that went through the group, due not to the image, but the words “Peace and Light” scrawled above her name. They decide there is nothing they can do.
Her large family has always played a role in her poetry — Bowers is one of six children, born to an alcoholic millworker and a mother who loved Elvis. When her youngest brother died of AIDS, she started writing poems in the minute form — the entire poem has just 60 syllables. Bowers said it took her four or five years to write a collection of minute poems, “I read it in 25 minutes,” she said, shaking her head. “I hear grief takes about three years to process,” and it was close to that time that she stuck to the minute form, but the poems started to get funny and silly.
It’s funny the things that come into her head. She read in a South Carolina newspaper not long ago that 957 deceased people appeared to have voted in recent elections. In the poem that fact inspires, she pictures all the dead standing in line, the mammies, the lynched, the old soldiers, Old Hickory himself, James Brown and Eartha Kitt and Dizzy Gillespie, all natives of South Carolina.
An hour with Bowers’ poetry will leave you with clear-as-day images, irony and humor, brilliant tableaus she paints, “Like shining from shook foil.”