A few days ago as I made my way through the last of this reading period’s poetry submissions, I thought a bit about what in the thousands of poems I’d been privileged to read this season might entice me to reread a work. There are so many things: a haunting image, a clever turn of phrase, a combination of sounds that beckons me to then repeat a line aloud, a brilliant yet subtle revelation imparted. But sometimes, many times, it’s simply the identification with the personal experience. Such is the case with poems from Steve Myers and Sarah Kennedy in our summer issue.
Steve Myers’s “Our ‘In’ at Paballelo,” set in South Africa, opens:
As Mrs. Nosizwe’s “distinguished guests,”
we had an “in” at the vigil for the young man
dead of cancer, or so they said—everyone
there knew the real reason…
I thought about my brother Kevin, who in 1989 died of AIDS, here in America, where, at the time, fear and prejudice often made it impossible to die of the disease; instead he asked that we tell people it was cancer. Everyone close to him knew the real reason.
But this was only what initially drew me to Myers’s poem. Once past those first lines and immediate associations, I was led by the assured hand of a gifted writer into more unfamiliar territory. Becoming part of the group of American students in the poem, we enter “the flatland / beyond the shack-and-scrabble township” where “the sun plummeted toward the horizon / as if rushing to get the day done” so as to escape the death that is “Everywhere,” the papers proclaim. Unable to distinguish if people are “speaking in Afrikaans, / or what we took for Setswana, or Xhosa,” the students are uncertain of the language around them just as we are uncertain of the language of pain and loss both within and outside of ourselves.
Inside a room is a mother who has lost her son and who offers her chair to “the only black student” in the group, which he turns down and insists she sit in. Upon leaving the vigil, the local driver scolds the group for their insensitivity to the ceremony and culture but more so to the woman’s grief, could they not “see the mother’s chair / was the only gift she had left to offer,” had they “never met / a woman weeping for her dead?” It’s a beautifully rendered poem about the universality of grief and, always, our failure, willing or unwilling, to comprehend what others are attempting to communicate in those moments.
Likewise, but on a much lighter note, I felt an immediate connection with Sarah Kennedy’s “Swarm,” a seven-stanza meditation on ladybugs, having once awoken also to find my apartment “invaded by / the thousands.” However, Kennedy’s poem takes the subject beyond my own amazed then annoyed experience. She presents a visual and aural landscape of “furred windows” and the “boat of a body floating / in the evening wine, wafting in the waves / made by the vain scoops of my silver spoon.” The poem moves from the mock-solemn incantation, “My enemy, my enemy, I was / in a habit… / to say a prayer,” to the darkly humorous resignation, “But I vacuum / up hundreds of you now, millions, alive / or not, I don’t discriminate.” Ultimately, no matter how loftily they may be described or eternized in verse, the bugs must go.
Both Steve Myers and Sarah Kennedy have previously appeared in The Southern Review, but additionally, as always, we have many writers in this issue who are new to our pages. Some of those writers have accepted our invitation to contribute to our audio gallery here on the website. Included here are Kimberly Grey, Richie Hofmann, Jared Harel, Steve Kistulentz, and Phillip B. Williams. I hope you will take the opportunity to enjoy some of the best emerging voices in poetry read their works from our summer issue.