Sunday, August 9, 2015


How can any thinking person not read Harper Lee’s Go Set A Watchman?

Now that I have read the book, I believe that: 1) Harper Lee wrote every word of it; 2) no one coerced her into having it published; and 3) she did so to help us, like Scout, lose our innocence. I believe I have. And it hurts.

For what we get in Lee’s other novel is a true portrait of the South during the 1950s. Also, an unvarnished look at the conscience of Southern liberals. This is the South as it was, not as we might wish it had been.

In Watchman, Atticus Finch, the hero of a novel that has become a sacred text, is unmasked by his own daughter as a flawed human being. Scout’s loss of innocence about her father mirrors our own, while forcing the reader to reconsider everything we ever believed about To Kill A Mockingbird.

I’m relieved to say that, for me at least, Harper Lee’s masterpiece survives unscathed. I’ve always wanted to believe that a white lawyer in small-town Alabama in 1936 would take on the whole white world to defend a black man charged with raping a white woman, even though I never truly understood where Atticus got the courage to do so. In an odd way, I find Atticus’ stand in Mockingbird even more noble now that I know his whole soul, not just a part of it.

Even after all the spoilers from the opinion makers, this reader was stunned to discover that sixteen years later Atticus Finch has become a member of the Maycomb County white citizens council. We learn that the county’s most respectable men are members, whether or not they subscribe to the vile racial epithets spewed at meetings.

Even worse, though, is that Scout’s beloved, perfect father once was a member of the Ku Klux Klan. Only to find out who his enemies were, we’re told, but what a fall was there.

Far more damning, alas, is Atticus’s current blaming of the NAACP and the Supreme Court for fighting Southern bigotry. It is truly nauseating to hear Atticus and Scout agreeing that the nebulous doctrine of state’s rights justifies segregation and all the evils attendant upon it.

After a soul-wrenching struggle with her conscience, Scout still loves her father, despite his flaws, for he is otherwise an exemplary man. But we understand why Calpurnia, the African American woman Scout loves as a substitute mother, now distances herself from Scout and the whole white world.

Once again, at the end of her long life when orthodoxy cannot reach her, Harper Lee has blistered our souls with her honesty about America's ongoing struggle with racism.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015


Kathleen Driskell’s Next Door To The Dead (University Press of Kentucky)
          Living next door to a grave yard, as Driskell does in a converted country church just outside Louisville, is a good way to glean insights into Kentucky’s historical culture. While many poems in this volume are profound ruminations, some of the shorter ones are delightfully pithy.
          One “Epitaph,” for example, reads, “He Never Killed a Man That Didn’t Need Killing.” Another is for Dave, who chased a bear into a cave, “oh, bless his heart,” meaning poor Dave “really wasn’t all that smart.”
          In “The Death of the Snake Handler,” a dying preacher has the snake’s head cut off “to show the snake / that in the end, he was but a worm.” But the snake gets the last word: “then surrender please, / only a worm was needed / to bring you to your knees.”

          And then, for the more profound among us, there’s the slim sea trout swimming just beneath the surface of the Irish Sea, who from the cliff above appears to be twisting in church glass as if “newly buried, / not yet admitted.” It makes one wonder: What God looks down from on high waiting to digest the dead?

Monday, August 3, 2015


Kathleen Driskell’s Next Door To The Dead (University Press of Kentucky)
          Living next door to a grave yard, as Driskell does in a converted country church just outside Louisville, is not everyone’s cup of tea. Those who believe in ghosts, for instance, or have a morbid fear of the unknown might shy away. Not Driskell. No sir, she relishes the opportunity to mingle with those in the hereafter.
          In the title poem, the poet’s persona thinks of “next door” as if it was a place to borrow sugar, an egg, or a green thread. When she tells her husband she’s going to walk next door, he understands that she’s gone to visit their “nearest neighbors” in the cemetery, like Mrs. Luck (1818-1898).
          Less amusing are the living who visit the grave yard late one night to “hoot, howl, chest-bump, bellow, stagger, and weave through the stones.” And when one intruder topples Aleta Shallcross’s headstone while riding it like a surfboard, the poet’s husband confronts them. And in the “prickling moments” that follow, she waits to see if they will fly or fight.
More on Kathleen Driskell’s new poems next time.

A bit of grave humor from Kathleen Driskell

Kathleen Driskell’s Next Door To The Dead (University Press of Kentucky)
          Driskell’s poetry in this volume is not limited to the grave yard next door to her home in a converted country church just outside Louisville. And sometimes it’s downright light-hearted.
          “Love Poetry,” for instance, tells the story of Dante Gabriel Rossetti burying some of his best love poems along with the body of his adored young wife. Years later, having not made copies, the poet hires “two scruff-bearded men with shovels” to dig the poems back up. While digging, the men surprise themselves with thoughts of their own loves. One hums a hymn while the other barks at the sky. The poem concludes: “While all must know the lesson / that life must go on, a few had learned / so will love, and, others / had learned, so much art.”
          Driskell writes an “Epitaph For Colonel Sanders” (whose body we all know is buried in Cave Hill), who was so smart “to retail each spicy secret!” Driskell’s poems also can be biting (no pun intended), as in the one for the Colonel’s wife, Claudia, whose all too brief inscription “reads as if they’d said, ‘fuck it, let’s just throw her bones into this old bucket.’”
          More on new poems by Kathleen Driskell (center below) next time.

Sunday, August 2, 2015


Kathleen Driskell’s Next Door To The Dead (University Press of Kentucky)
          In the famous final paragraph of James Joyce’s story, “The Dead,” snow was falling “upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”
          “The Dead,” of course, is prose but poetic prose, and in it the quiet calm of snow covers both the dead and the living. In poet Kathleen Driskell’s new collection, Next Door To The Dead, we again find ourselves in a cemetery, the one next door to Driskell’s home in a converted country church just outside Louisville.
          But instead of snow in the “sleet and darkening day,” it is buzzards among the 112 tombstones in her poem, “In Praise.” A “dark congregation” roost in the bare branches … in worn-shine coats … pallbearers … [a] greasy black prayer-circle.” And instead of lamenting the paralysis of the dead and the living, here the poet praises death, reserving her “highest praise” for the “dark angel” who squats atop the monument of a mother of six, “all dead and lain before she.”
          Like Joyce, Driskell in these 80 pages explores death, the meeting point between life and death, and the process of remembering the dead—which would probably be impossible not to do if you were a poet who lived next door to a cemetery. And like Joyce, Driskell is a story-teller, one whose lines are both accessible and filled with intensely vivid imagery. This poem, “In Praise,” is ironic, rather than ghoulish, for it expresses her gratitude for a perhaps less than tender mercythe removal of road-kill (a dead doe) which has been lying in a culvert for a week and is finally being lifted into the “grave weeping sky” by the buzzards.

          More on Kathleen Driskell’s new poems next time.