For each issue of The Great Smokies Review, a guest editor from the Great Smokies
writing community selects a favorite submission and explains why.
That’s what I felt while reading the emerging writers in this issue.
But choosing my favorites? I have a word for that, too.
After all, the only truths my “choice” reflects are my unique tastes and goals as a reader. And before I explain these tastes and goals, I must confess that the act of choosing is a little antithetical to my closely held philosophy that writers must not wait to be chosen.
They must choose themselves.
All of the writers whose work I had the pleasure to read inspire me because, as they diligently practice their craft, they choose themselves. And as they publish, they stand by their writing.
That usually takes a tremendous amount of courage.
As a reader, my goals are often layered, mutable, and generally unreliable. In fact, I want the piece to take control, to guide—even dictate—my experience, to somehow be the agent that chooses for me, yet remains ultimately unknowable.
To both seduce and resist.
With this in mind, the two pieces I want to discuss here are the fiction excerpt from “Mr. Diggs” and the poem “Ode to a Shaker Hymn.”
In discussing them, I’ll do some things that are slightly unconventional to describe something that is (and should be) ultimately indescribable—the act of reading a darn good piece of writing.
Surrender, Sardines, and Forgiveness in “Mr. Diggs”
If it were an interpretive dance it would be: a man standing very still, holding his hands over his head in a mudra of surrender.
If it were a food, it would be: a two-year-old can of sardines, some pickled pigs’ feet.
If it were a flying thing, it would be: a cicada, its transparent wings and death songs suggesting both quiet dark and clear rebellion.
The story and style reminded me of the play A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry, Langston Hughes’ “Harlem,” Carson McCullers’ novel The Heart is Lonely Hunter, or some of the poems in contemporary poet (and Great Smokies Writing Program teacher) Vievee Francis’s book Horse in the Dark.
And I recognized it as being in conversation with the literature of misfits and the oppressed, even though race is perhaps the more evident theme. This is a good sign because good work with strong racial themes never simply accepts or reinforces the notion of race, but interrogates it. It usually accomplishes this by humanizing its oppressed figures (which is the exact opposite of what the notion of race tends to do).
The cantankerous Mr. Diggs has moved from the American South to Brooklyn and finds himself a reluctant babysitter for a working, single black mother. And by doing this, in his characteristic cranky style, he becomes an unwitting supporter of both the civil rights and feminist movements.
But does he care about or even realize this? Not really. Because he’s basically just like the rest of us—nursing a broken heart while remaining mired in insignificant desires, personal loss, and the suffocations of mute grief.
The pacing of the dialogue is nearly expert and allows me to leave Mr. Diggs as he slides his long-lost guitar—more a relic and one of the only things he owns—under the bed.
The writer’s patience and her willingness to resist soothing me, provide resolution, or make me “feel better” dignifies Mr. Diggs’ point of view. It allows me to sink into his story and just be with him.
And as the story ends, Mr.Diggs and I stare up together, at a starless, shabby ceiling and we dismiss Bertha’s goodnight statement, “All of us have lost so much in this life. What’s the harm in trying to hold on to what little bits and pieces we got left.”
Together, we lose ourselves in the fairy tale of “forgiveness” and the damaged question of redemption.
Sensuality, Spiritual Ecstasy, and Wedding Cake Toppers in
“Ode to The Shaker Hymn”
If it were an interpretive dance it would be: a Sufi-like spin on a summer lawn peppered with bluets.
If it were a food, it would be: a mincemeat pie, with a wedding cake’s bride-groom topper.
If it were a flying thing, it would be: Pharrell’s song “Happy” in a cappella.
When I read this poem, I just fell into its music. The music is so compelling; you might be able to tap your feet to it. This high degree of musicality is rare in contemporary poetry and its loss is largely responsible for the general public’s declining interest in poetry.
After all, just like music tells you how to hear a thing, it can also tell you how to read a thing.
And this poem offers a lovely, spirited, carefully crafted reading experience with a rather good thrum.
It also creates an unlikely equation. The poem seamlessly fuses the festivity and sexual anticipation of a modern wedding with the spiritual ecstasy and purity of Shaker song and dance.
Now isn’t that a surprise?
Most poetry now doesn’t utilize traditional form, rhyme, or meter. This is probably for several reasons but the one I will mention here is structure. Traditional structure such as form or rhyme pattern often makes it difficult to express a modern voice that readers will relate to. So even though this poem is metered and uses some free and loose rhyme patterns, I love how the poet infuses it with a decidedly celebratory and contemporary voice—that of an expectant bride relishing “being in the valley of love and delight.”
It’s the poet’s blatant sensuality in the first verse that hints playfully at a round rejection of Shaker practice later in the poem: “We couldn’t buy the celibacy,/but oh, the tune, the melody.”
And as she plans her wedding, it’s as though she’s given herself permission to experience everything that gives her heart-pounding, foot-tapping, muse-singing joy, contradictions be damned.
And isn’t that one of the biggest spiritual challenges (maybe even crises) we face now: to simply love what we love without apology, fear, or explanation?