Friday, May 05, 2017

`But Southern, Brisk Particular Staccato'

But for a three-year gap I’ve lived in Texas for thirteen years. I never thought this would happen. When I was young I dreamed of living in Ireland and Israel, until I learned that geography is a state of mind and most of the civilized world offers the same amenities and irritations as Cleveland or Saratoga Springs. The exotic has lost its charm and the provincial looks pretty good. Besides, most of us carry our worlds around inside of our heads, and we can be home or alienated anywhere we choose. 

I arrived in Houston in 2004 with all of my Northern clichés and prejudices intact – tumbleweeds, lynch mobs, cowboy hats. On my first day in Houston, I drove to the gas station and saw my first cowboy in full regalia, and he was black. Slowly, I learned that Houston is not Texas. Lots of non-natives, like me, live here, and even natives don’t always speak with a drawl. Nor is there only one drawl. Houston now seems to me more Southern than Western (it was one of the eleven Confederate states). My neighbor John, born in Houston, punctuates his conversation unself-consciously with “y’all.” A colleague was born in the Texas Hill Country and sounds like she grew up in Pittsburgh. There is no universal Texas accent. On a typical day at work I hear more Spanish and Mandarin than down-home country English. 

I’ve been reading Turner Cassity (1929-2009) again. He was born in Mississippi and lived much of his life in Georgia, where he worked for almost thirty years for the Robert W. Woodruff Library at Emory University in Atlanta. Another, much younger poet is A.E. Stallings, born in Decatur, Ga. Cassity befriended Stallings and reviewed her second collection, Hapax (2006). Both poets share a devotion to form and craft. In her most recent collection, Olives (2012), Stallings includes “Lines for Turner Cassity”: 

“Librarian with military bearing,
You’ve left us poems critics call unsparing,

“A wit not merely clever but hard-bitten.
Sometimes I hear you utter, `overwritten,’

“And even at this distance, there’s no choice
But hear the word in that distinctive voice,

“Not circumflexing drawl, dipthonged legato,
But southern, brisk particular staccato—

“Inimitable voice—for never cruel—
Impatient only of the pompous fool

“And vagueness that gesticulates at truth.
Clear and styptic as a dry vermouth,

“You taught the courtesy of kindness meant
By shaming false and floral sentiment.

“Death’s crude arithmetic only exacts
The estimate of flesh and bone for tax;

“You it has taken—and yet misconstrued—
For it has left us your exactitude.”

There Stallings identifies the Texas quality of voice I hear most often, especially among educated people: “Not circumflexing drawl, dipthonged legato, / But southern, brisk particular staccato— / Inimitable voice—for never cruel—.” She also writes a moving and unsentimental tribute to a good poet who was her friend. 

[Go here for a video of Cassity reading.]

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