|"Make Yourself at Home": A Review of Luann Landon's South Bound and Alexandra Oliver's Let the Empire Down|
by Kim Bridgford
surface glance at these two authors would suggest that their books of poetry would have nothing in common: Luann Landon is a Southerner with a best-selling cookbook, Alexandra Oliver a Canadian with a history as a film aficionado and a slam champion. They are two generations apart. Yet what unites them is much more important: their connections as women to their geographical areas, and more specifically to the texture of their environment. For Landon, home is defined as women's role in the mythical South, which has had long-lasting repercussions in the real world; for Oliver, it is defined more broadly as the conventional world in which she has a family while also maintaining her role as a creative person and artist.
The title of Landon's book, South Bound, encapsulates the struggle at the heart of the collection. The South is her beloved home, but it is also constricting, as the cover image would suggest: a corset, a compass, a strand of pearls, and a gun. One important theme of the book is the nature of power, through both men and women. There are various dynamics that cross here—women/men, change/status quo, theoretical politics/real-world politics—to name just a few.
Mrs. Vernimore, the woman who begins the book in "Tobias Kopf," is representative of the Old South, assuming a birthright to culture and a suspiciousness to outsiders. The Kopfs, who are nouveau riche, are eager to become a part of the community. They choose to have a soiree, which Mrs. Vernimore sabotages: "Those vases on the mantel—she'd forgive / Them money, she could not forgive them taste" ("Tobias Kopf" 59-60). Unable to accept change—or others' success—"Mrs. Vernimore, having lost in life, / was adamant that no one else would win" (81-82). Tobias Kopf, the father in the family, is so distraught that he kills himself. Yet Mrs. Vernimore accepts no blame for the misfortune; she feels she has only done her duty.
The book is divided into three sections. Section I addresses the ways in which people navigate the environment, which includes a societal code of conduct. This code can have comical and serious consequences. Great-Aunt Augusta, for example, in the poem of that name keeps up appearances at the dinner table, even as her chair collapses beneath her. While it is funny, on one hand, to picture Great-Aunt Augusta exercising perfect manners as her chair sinks lower and lower, it has larger consequences. Many women are familiar with having the undesirable chair at the table. One way to handle the situation, both literally and metaphorically, is to pretend that nothing is wrong. Great-Aunt Augusta's retort is perfect: '"Southern ladies do not notice / Any flaws in food or service'" (23-24). This is an excellent example of how people will make the best of the situation while clearly there is something larger at stake: like a better role for women, or a symbolic better chair.
The societal framework that Landon discusses is complicated by personality and temperament. For instance, many of the poems in the first section are named for people—in the tradition of the dramatic monologue—and, as individuals, they act from their own sets of expectations and points of view. In "Clara," the characters are literally and metaphorically from "Difficult" (1), and Clara's sensitivity is a point of pride as well as a shortcoming. She understands the divide between herself and her "help," Jo Pearl; she wishes to cross it. Constitutionally, she is incapable of moving far outside the system of which she is a part; but this is not to denigrate the efforts she makes to help Jo Pearl. At the same time, Jo Pearl's offering a photo of a big snake repulses Clara; there are certain parts of life she does not want to see. The upper echelons of society give Clara a dreamer's sense of the world that balks at practicality and real-world dynamics. Like Edgar Lee Masters and Edwin Arlington Robinson, Landon does not judge her characters. The characters judge themselves, beat up on themselves—and even kill themselves. Part of being a Southerner, Landon asserts, is being part of a conservative—and sometimes provincial—system while holding values that come into conflict with that system. How to hold on to the best of both?
The first section of the book ends with varying tales of women who have had to come to terms with being betrayed by love, and deciding what to do in the aftermath. These romantic notions are underscored by stock phrases of exoticism like "Ali…a black-eyed prince" ("Araby" 6), "Count / Carlo 'of ancient lineage iron-clad'" ("Tiffany" 5-6). Given the protected nature of the environment, there is a naiveté to the women as they take risks and are abandoned by their suitors. The women act with hurt and bravado, and rationalize in the aftermath. After all, the mother in "Her Son" attempts to convince us—and herself—that she has done right by keeping her son with her after her husband has left her: "Have I done wrong? Dependency / has stunted him? But he needs me" (29-30). Her companionship with her son is her way of finding life possible to bear.
While Landon's primary emphasis is on women's roles, the middle section of the book reminds us that men can be made prisoners by their traditional roles too. In "Hotspur," the main character Percy is described by his father, his wife, and his mother. His wife points out that, while Percy wants to teach in New York, his job goes horribly wrong:
He was used to Southern manners…
used to a smooth surface,
to people acting gentle
even when they don't feel gentle. (Section II, 29, 31-33).
Later, when he returns from war, she points out that "He could be charming if it was a gift—gratuitous—/ he couldn't be charming for pay" (142-43). She goes on to say that
Mister Sir and Miss Anne didn't make clear to him
that it's all right to come down a little
off his elegance and high ideals just to live in this world,
it's all right to get his fingers dirty
to survive. (145-49).
The section is bookended by the attitudes of the parents, both of whom have an idea of who Percy ought to be, but are in opposition to each other: business versus culture. Percy, in the end, is lost to alcohol and his own lost youth. When does everything go wrong? Is it possible to go back and find the moment to make it right? We think of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and The Glass Menagerie.
In the last section of the book, the role of the unconventional woman is once again more prominent, and here there are better outcomes for some of the characters. One woman is better suited for masculine pursuits, and, when her marriage falls through, says to herself, "Thank the Lord for Texaco" ("A Bridal Veil" 92). While in the first section women choose the romantic ideal, only to be abandoned, in this section there are other results. For example, in "The Woman Who Read Books," there is a choice to go with a sure thing—security—only to realize the romantic choice would have been better. Landon emphasizes that there can always be regrets. Pride can also be an issue, as in "Sally's Shoes": "Being too rich in lip and brow and eye / She could not learn to beggar and to die" (17-18). But while this is a Southern book, these are not Southern choices, but human choices.
The book ends with the poem "The House in Nashville," indicating that there no easy answers about how to live our lives, do the right thing, or feel good about our progress. We can take the conventional path and bemoan our loss of creativity; or we can follow a creative path, only to be left out of our community. The last poem describes, literally, the resting spot of home, the way Mrs. Ramsay does in To the Lighthouse:
We mother's daughters traveled far and deep
Before we understood her kind of wealth.
Mother knows that all her children sleep
Tonight in this wide net of rooms, in health
And peace. Firm house, full house that can contain
Our leaving and our coming home again. (25-30)
While for some people it is not so important to have a family home, others need to have a place to return to that symbolizes family and tradition. Landon prefers the latter, but whichever the reader chooses, something always will have been lost.
While Landon's book is about returning home, Alexandra Oliver's book, Let the Empire Down, is about leaving it. Like Southern culture in Landon's book, the Empire (Oliver is a Canadian) plays a monumental role, in Oliver's case more of a Stepford Wives convention. Yet while Landon's book has more of a genial overtone, Oliver's, more generally, feels the sting of imprisonment and weariness. Oliver's book is made up of two parts: one about travel and family and the other about movies. Both address a home for her.
The book starts out, as so many journeys do nowadays, with a Megabus. This contemporary reference would feel out of place with the feel and framework of Landon's book. While South Bound is focused on a range of characters who struggle with the same issues, Let the Empire Down has a more clearly defined central character, who has made it out of stereotyped culture: "I left it all. It won't remember me" ("The Megabus Goes by Sherbet Lake" 8). What Oliver's poem does is remind us subtly of the loss of the individual through community. However, her book also reminds us that we are all more interconnected than we may realize, and the initial response may be disingenuous.
As it is for Landon, the role of women is central for Oliver. Because Oliver is a proponent of education and creativity, she can place herself in a dynamic outside the life of the norm. At the same time, she is a woman who is a part of her culture in other ways. As the speaker gets her nails done in "Plans," she recognizes, with some impatience, that women all end up doing jobs they do not long for:
Look, I want to say, I've done it too,
sold candlesticks I didn't care to clean,
told women that a lipstick made them young,
gone drinking with the after-hours gang;
I've told admirers things I didn't mean
and said to students, It'll come to you!
The wrong direction never treats you kindly. (33-39)
Oliver is more direct about commenting on how cultures and environments destroy over achievers, particularly women. In "Achievers' Cradle Song" she sets up a punishing dynamic that is present from the girl's childhood: "The neighborhood came for that girl. / It was tucked in the cracks of the road, / and it stirred in the obstreperous trees. / It climbed the infirmary walls" (1-4). While the tension seems to be between her social class / achievements and the harsh nature of the environment, it is also more broadly about being different. However, the society, being the larger entity, only has to wait until the achiever makes a mistake. When she has to return home to get a job, she will "get hers." The dynamic shifts further (and unexpectedly) in that she refuses to be a victim, ending up, through her difference, being a source of sexual longing for her old hometown. The last line of the poem, "They were both so extremely alike" (33), speaks to the way in which the environment shapes her and she shapes the environment: in short, they are both victims and adversaries of each other, as is the case in a bullying dynamic. They become each other's mirrors.
An iconoclast herself with her red shoes and handbag even in childhood, Oliver speaks from experience. She is conscious not only of herself and her own problematic role, but of other girls like her. In "Why Girls Need Poetry" she uses an unexpected gender image—damaged, radiated insects from Chernobyl—as a starting point for the way girls are damaged by society—metaphorically legless, wingless, all but destroyed:
these creatures of the great, soft, poisoned wind
that had its way with clay and putty genes
and left a blind and mouthless mass behind. (13-15)
The nuclear fallout from Chernobyl is similar to the societal fallout that destroys the girls. Oliver feels sorry for girls younger than herself, tied to phones, truncated messages, and emoticons. People can be defensive about their participation in the technological layers of society; yet there are costs we do not fully understand, and will not for some time. Oliver's prediction for the future feels like 1984:
They feel the DNA of speech relax
and fall apart, rebuild to monster form;
their hundred eyes and mile-extended stings
not saving them from knowing that a storm
of gentle dust has robbed them of their wings. (28-32)
Oliver not only recognizes weaknesses in others, she does so in herself. She wants to be strong, to stand up against the environmental forces of life. In "Fearing the Stalk" Oliver addresses the "girls of the stalk" (1), those who "sway" (Mao Tse Tung epigraph) and are
"shrill" (2). Ironically the poem is framed by two epigraphs: one is a sobering epigraph by Mao Tse Tung about people who "sway whenever the wind blows" (the equivalent of sheep in American culture), the other about people's interest in dramatic and hysterical people (interestingly, for our purposes in this review, the quote is from a book entitled Confessions of a Failed Southern Lady). The poem expresses her fear that she is one of these "stalk people" with a pun on "stock people." She is not, but her worry about it signals her own unease about what we recognize about ourselves and what we do not. She might "be like a dancer from Chinese Ballets" (25), but even they can be "stalk people." Where does it end?
The book vacillates between the primacy of feeling and of form, of home and art. What if one gives up oneself to art and it is cold and mediocre? What if, harsh as it sounds, the child sops up all of one's energies and there is nothing left for creative achievement? Oliver goes so far as to set up her own version of "The Road Not Taken." Oliver complicates her choice but indicates that she chooses to go home, take the "rougher path, back to where I was born" ("Two Roads" 4). She both wants to go forward and go back. Yet, whether she is Canada or in Scotland (where the book travels), she runs into the same issues: convention versus risk/creativity. As she writes in "Entertaining the Locals,"
You cannot bear their kids, their dumpling wives,
the questions on your hair, your fear, your war.
Beware the bottle that they bring, the store
they recommend, the island-knitted gloves
they knit or Christmas. Try to flee and fail—(5-9)
Ah, there's the knitted rub.
Strangely, sometimes the only way to move forward is to stay out of other people's business. For example, in the haunting "Grocery Skipping Song," the speaker observes domestic violence, and, while pondering the scene, thinks: "Stop him, speak, I'll do it one day; / I check out on someone's daughter; / Butter. Sugar. Flour. Water" (18-20). The grocery item refrain in the poem provides neat and eerie rhymes for the unfolding situation, as a ballad does. In the way of local culture, such rhymes become a jump rope song, laden with tragedy, remembered with a beat.
The first long section of the book ends with family. As in Landon's book, Oliver stresses a return to the immediate source, and for Oliver it is her son Gavra. In "Job Proposal for Gavra, Aged Seven, Who Has Been Given a 452-Page Science Almanac" continues to stress idiosyncrasy over convention:
Next time we're in a room of lurching bores
discussing stocks or Taylor Swift's last show
or why their past liaisons never jelled,
I'll pay you fifty bucks for three whole hours
to tell the buggers everything you know
(plus bonus, when the last one is expelled). (9-14)
Of course, this is not serious, but it shows how much Oliver prizes her son, in the middle of convention's stultifying pull.
The last section of Oliver's book, Movies, is starkly different from what we have been discussing so far, since it addresses the film world. In some ways, it seems a fitting way to end, as the film subjects and directors Oliver discusses are outside the realm of the "real world." In another way, they are the artful rendering of what is and what can be imagined. To that purpose, I will focus on 8 ½ by Federico Fellini and White Ribbon by Michael Haneke. On the one hand, Fellini embraces the surrealistic aspects of the everyday and re-contextualizes them: "I let my loved ones dance, aloft in white, / imprisoned in the holy martyr's crown" (19-20). While Fellini is about the astonishing, frenetic perspective, Haneke presents the evil world underneath the surface, in our most innocent banality. Here the innocence is found superficially in children, who go on to commit violence:
And so, the children glide from house to house;
They hover under windows, blank as bone,
Transparent lashes fluttering. They ask
No favours, just (they say) to help their own. (13-16)
The world is not what it seems.
In the end, there are no easy ways to solve gender inequities, convention, boredom, or even evil itself. Luann Landon and Alexandra Oliver, as different as they are in generation, attitude, or approach, show a similar sensibility of grace and wonder. If the structures they take on are beyond their grasp to change essentially, they have already improved the conversation by the issues they raise in their memorable books. Wherever we are from, they take us home.
Landon, Luann. South Bound. Cincinnati: Turning Point, 2016. 67 pages.
Oliver, Alexandra. Let the Empire Down. Windsor, Ontario: Bibliosis, 2016. 69 pages.