The Carpet Bagger's Journal — moving from NYC to Mississippi

November 3, 2015

On Southern China (Not Kowloon, But Plates and Cups)

The Bible Belt is not a place particularly welcoming to astrology, due to scriptural admonitions against witchcraft and all, but there is one cultural equivalent to asking a lady if she is a Leo or a (pardon the presumption) Virgo.  That would be the time-honored practice of discerning personality by selections of wedding china and silver patterns.  Marilynne Schwartz, in her Southern Belle Primer, offers a look at wedding silverware patterns as a map of a bride’s heart.  Allow me to say she is not wrong.  One can tell a lot about a girl based on how she sets a table, more than most Yankees think.

A good crockery criminologist could tell you that the possessor of this plate loves Jane Austen too much to commit murder.

A good crockery criminologist could tell you that the possessor of this plate loves Jane Austen too much to commit murder.

Allow me to confess I am the Yankee exception to the rule — you can tell EVERYTHING about me if you know how to read my china, not the tea leaves in my cup but the tea cup itself.  You can tell my heritage, my erogenous zones, and the probability or the lack thereof that I would commit a crime.  Victorian culture believed that phrenology, the study of the shape of skulls, could tell one whether or not a certain individual had a predisposition for criminality.  The Nazis used this pseudo-science to justify their claims to master-race status.  But the skull men had it all wrong.  You want to tell whether or not I am likely to join Bonnie and Clyde on a shoot-out filmed by Arthur Penn?  Look into my choice of Spode Blue Italian and see a woman capable under wartime conditions of something akin to undercover Mata Hari moves but a total lack of inclination to direct acts of gunpowder-fueled violence.  Some girl who chose Villeroy and Bosch’s Basket Pattern for her wedding china, on the other hand, if pressed by enemy troops, she could lob Molotov cocktails out her dining room window, no prisoners, no quarter.

Other indicators in my china pattern are complicated by my Irish-American heritage.  I come from a family willing to fight over flatware and crockery, not to break dishes but to break heads over dishes.  I inherited my mother’s austere china pattern — a Danish mid-century eggshell-blue silver-rimmed affair, about which I wrote this award-winning poem, which appeared in Grasslands Review:

WEDDING DISHES

Given to you in exchange for the breaking of the saucer between your thighs,

The set of bloodless-blue silver-rimmed mirrors, salad-, bread- and dinner-sized,

Enough for twelve guests, you

stashed them under tea towels and in earthquake-proof canisters,

afraid of what a jury of your peers might do to them,

promising yourself their use for some grand occasion, grander than your wedding,

than the births, the anniversaries, the prize-winnings,

the high holy days, the moveable feasts, the raises, the graduations,

the leave-takings.

You never once set them out.

Don’t touch them, you warned me.

Those are for special days, days impervious to the passing of the hours,

the cycle, then the cessation, the graying of hair, the drooping and wrinkling,

the liver-spotting, for special days, not today, you told me.

Then, you got the news — you were waning,

and still you left them under heavy wraps, cryogenically sealed for some future

where you would not partake in the breaking of bread.

They sit now in my cabinet.

I inherited them all virginal, still uncrossed by a single butter knife.

I set them out like flat full moons every twenty-eight days or so.

Though they are the ice blue for which you registered,

I heap on them my roasted red peppers, my scarlet bruschetta, my berry sorbets,

my purpling beets, my bloody meats, my ripe nectarines, my marinara and my moussaka.

They have finally entered the coursing stream of the family, a place where at last the

good things are fed to the good people who waited so long to be invited to the table.

You see?  My mother’s inherent reticence and distrust of joy is evident in that wedding china, now mine, now repurposed, or rather, purposed to original purposes.

I also inherited my great-grandmother’s dishes, German plates made before World War I in Bavaria, white with Tiffany blue trim and gold rims.  It’s elegant, no longer manufactured, and precious as a symbol of female power in my family.  My mother’s funeral was not attended by one female relative who coveted the plates.  After the funeral was over, she had the temerity to send her son to ask for them for her, claiming they ought to be hers by right, never mind that my mother left them to me.  I told the man to tell his mother that if she wanted those plates, she could come see me about it — translation: come and look me in the eye if you dare; my mother just died, and I am in the mood to cut a b#!(h.  She never came.  The plates are still mine. She is still alive.

I believe I feel about that old china the way that the “best” Southern families take pride in beat-up flatware, which they proudly announce was hidden in the well when Sherman’s troops marched through their plantations.  In those dinged-up forks, they see a big fork-you to enemy looters from their great-great grand-mommas.

While most women in the South don’t inherit plates and spoons hidden from the Yankees, the choice of the pattern of such items is as important a choice to most women as the choice of college they attend.  When one receives a guest, it says everything about the hostess, if one can read.

Of course, divorce happens in the South, alas, as frequently as it does in the North, and then the meaning of the wedding china becomes bittersweet for some belles.  I think that in a society that believes that no matter how many times the bride has been married beforehand, a big, poofy white dress is never in poor taste on a new wedding day,most women of the South find a way to live with the old plates after the marriage ends.  After all, it is usually the woman who has chosen the pattern as a representation of her own proclivities.  However, I know at least one Southern woman who hates the china that reminds her of the broken covenant.

I prefer to see all plates hidden from Yankees, exes, or bitter female relatives as a sign of feminine power, a sign that the bearer of the cup is not so much a Kappa Kappa Gamma as a Cappa de tutte cappe, or as a friend of mine and I once coined, a “chippie de tutti chippies.”  A woman who lets go the man and keeps the bone china has perhaps gotten the best of both worlds in certain cases.  The china pattern then becomes the emblem of the matriarch, the one at whose table one must take Thanksgiving dinner and Easter brunch.  A woman with multiple china patters inherited or remaining after divorces, don’t mess with her.  She will fork you up.

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December 7, 2014

Becoming a Southern Writer

Simone de Beauvoir wrote “On ne nait pas femme; on le devient.” — one is not born a woman; one becomes one.  What DeBeauvoir thinks is true for women is not what Southerners generally think about Southerness.  One is born a Southerner.  “You can take the boy out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the boy,” some used to say.  I wasn’t even born in South Brooklyn — so how can I become Southern, much less that paragon of the intellectual Southerner, post-Jefferson — a Southern writer?

This blog surely began about my total and devastating culture shock moving South.  I was already a writer, already publishing a great deal about New York and particularly about the immigrant experience.  I wrote a chapbook of poetry that was about 9/11 and its aftermath, its roots in a cultural tension between Islam and Western values, Counterterrorist Poems, which received some notoriety.  I was a New York writer.white trash pantheon cover2

I decided that the beauty of being a writer is that one has the right, even the duty, to make stuff up.  I am not really a journalist.  I have written non-fiction.  This is creative non-fiction.  But that trend, so prevalent these days, to believe that the modern (or post-modern) writer in America is supposed to be confessing some memoir of his or her experience, I buck that.  Like a New Yorker, I said, “Buck the buck out of you, you bucking buck,” or something like that.  I decided if Mark Twain could move to Connecticut and be a Southern Writer, I could, despite being quite the Yankee, move South and write what I observed and heard and be some kind of a Southern writer.  I have no desire to pretend to be more Southern than I am, but I am interested in all kinds of people.  I do indeed pretend that I can observe people and things in a Southern landscape and respond artistically to them.  Try and stop me if you can.  If I am breathing, I am writing about the South as long as I spend time there.

So what did I do? I moved South as planned when my Southern husband proposed to me, and I listened.  I listened to everyone and everything, observed (as evidenced in earlier posts of this blog) the differences between the way Southerners do things and the way I was used to doing things.

I wrote a bunch of poems inspired in part by the simple fact that Southern towns are so often named with classical Greek names — part New Testament, part ancient democracy.  In the South, one finds Athens, Corinth, Ephesus, Troy,Thebes, Sparta, and so many other places that testify aspirationally to either a time of early church revelation or noble Hellenic origins of philosophy and golden age.

But if one looks at the towns with these names, there is more Waffle House than Pauline Epistle, more Piggly Wiggly than Socrates under a tree with his young minions dropping knowledge.

Then, there is the Lost Cause Mythology of the South, the belief that (white) Southerners belong to a noble confederacy that lost its way only when Sherman burned Atlanta, that they were sucked into a Yankee capitalist Babylon only after they surrendered at Appomattox Courthouse, leaving behind a halcyon nobility for the grasping, prosaic greed of an industrial economy.  In truth, the South did only begin to seriously industrialize after the war, but as for grasping greed, it is hard to imagine anything more greedy than the captivity and forced labor of many people for the benefit of a very few.  The poor white farmer in the South was surely trampled underfoot during the Civil War, made into cannon fodder for the interests of slave-holding millionaires, but halcyon?  Nobility?  No — it was hard to live in the South for the majority of its residents before the Civil War, both white and black, and it was hard afterwards.  The cause that was lost was neither noble nor mythic.

And lastly, there was all that ancient literature from the older places named Athens and Corinth that I taught my students.  I kept telling them, “The Greek Gods don’t behave like law-giving paragons of virtue.  They are like Jerry Springer guests with unlimited power.”

After explaining this enough, a lightbulb went on above my head — what if the Greek gods were ACTUALLY Jerry Springer guests with unlimited power?  What if this reported nobility evoked by both lost cause mythos and Grecian names were a way to unlock the South?

The light bulb above my head attracted bugs.  I was in the South on a sultry night, after all, I swatted them away and started writing.

I started a series of poems, all dramatic monologues, writing back to classical literature.  My Dionysus was a moonshiner.  My Helen of Troy was a beauty contest winner who ran off with the wrong guy.  My Artemis liked to hunt with Annie Oakley’s gun at night.  The Southern pictures I painted were both based on composite observations, careful, careful listening to Southern voices, and a writing back to the ancient Greeks and Romans.  They were at once noble and perverse, simultaneously dignified and slatternly.  I called the collection The White Trash Pantheon.

When I read them aloud for the first time for a Southern audience, as so many of them had been published by Southern literary journals, I was reasonably sure I wouldn’t be tarred and feathered.  The Southerners who heard them recognized these people and laughed with me.  It turns out that in the South, “White Trash” is a cultural category that everyone believes exists, and nobody believes they belong to, whether others think they are trashy or not.  In declaring my pantheon of contemporary classical figures white trash, I insulted nobody personally.

A Southern Press, Vox Press, is publishing this collection next year.  At this year’s Southern Writers Southern Writing conference in Oxford Mississippi, I won a prize for selections from the collection, a prize given for not only the best writing, but also for the writing that is judged to be the most Southern.  I have become a Southern writer.

Mark Twain, I may not have worked on a riverboat on the Mississippi.  I may not have been born in Hannibal (another Southern town name with classical world aspirations), but if Tom Sawyer can fake his own death and resurrect, if he can get the whole neighborhood of boys to participate in his games, I feel I have learned from you the recipe for being a Southern writer, anyway.  i have listened carefully.  I have responded to a cultural need to feel attached to legend.  I have, like someone wading out into a river in a white choir robe, allowed myself to be ceremonially buried and resurrected, not in this instance as a new creature in Christ Jesus, which bless the Lord, I already am, but as a new creature in Huckleberry O’Hara, in Rhett Singer, in Blanche Christmas, a newly baptized Southern writer, a witness to things below the Mason-Dixon line, not uncritical — for who among the great Southern writers offers no criticism — but ever lyrical, ever hoping that the great ancients actually start to inform vernacular life, ever watching for the rapture, ever believing, not that South will rise again but that it may actually get up and stretch a bit, walk around and look out in all directions for the very first time, a distinct cultural entity, self-aware and genuinely penitent, and love its neighbor as itself the way I have grown to love the South as my neighbor.

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