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Poetry Review    



Elegy for the Southern Drawl
By Rodney Jones
Mariner Books, 2001
Paperback, $13.00 (102 pages)
ISBN:  0-618-08249-2

Rodney Jones’ sixth book, Elegy for the Southern Drawl, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and a Chicago Tribune Editors’ Choice, further establishes Jones as the perennial southern bard.  The irony of the book’s title is not lost on the reader as Jones moves with ease between topics as varied as poetry readings, coronaries in liposuction and sex, all with the smooth tongue of this Northern Alabama native.  Jones is not on a quest to re-establish the southern language or even his place in the annals of great southern writers, indeed his only goal it appears is to be honest, an honesty achieved through his artful representation of the common place and experience.         

In the poem “Canonical,” in which the writer receives his first Chandler and Price letterpress from a monastery, Jones expresses his place as poet and the power wielded with words, a power he easily invokes: 

                    The lightness of my mallet tapping at the galleys of the Beatitudes
                             and the Twenty-third Psalm,
                    Until the phrases went slack, and I claimed the letters one by one—
                             That was power.

In the next stanza we see the physical representation of what must go through Jones’ and indeed all poets minds as they craft their words: 

                    Then to start afresh, far from the must of the tabernacles, the meanings
                             blazing in my hands—
                    I would learn as I worked.  You can’t just fling them down:
                             they’re lead
                    And have to be set slowly, from left to right, with the fine shims,
                             the ens and ems
                    That stand for silence, nothing so filthy as a word.

We see in the closing phrase the irony of the poet’s situation in that to manifest those blazing meanings onto the page dims a bit of that sacred fire that all ideas and words carry.         

It is this preoccupation with words and their power that drives the title poem “Elegy for the Southern Drawl”.  In this twelve-part poem, which occupies an entire section of the book, Jones shows the ease with which he can move from subject to subject, all within the confines of a single poem.  From a nurse washing bed ridden patients, to Jones as a child hiding his own drawl, to the vagaries of email and Alabama Governor Big Jim Folson and slick words and honest humor.  The underlying theme is again the powers of words too not only shape us, but to become a part of us, and in that shaping we see how the words themselves are changed.  As the poem ends Jones reflects on this power: 

                    I feel odd hearing a tape of my own voice
                    That marks wherever I go, the sound
                    Of lynchings, the letters of misspellings
                    Crooked and jumbled to dupe the teacher,
                    Slow ink, slow fluid of my tribe, meaning
                    What words mean when they are given
                    From so many voices, I do not know myself
                    Who is speaking and who is listening.

Jones dwells quite easily in the particular as well, telling us of his favorite place to play as a child in the poem “Holy Ground,”                  

                    What I liked best were the prickles
                    Of the cactus that bound me to constant
                    Watchfulness and the whorled grain
                    Of the cedar branches scattered by the storm.

In the next stanza the poet then shows why exactly this is his favorite place: 

                    Stripping the bark, I’d find the balance
                    Of a handhold, then the stock and bolt.
                    Others may have seen sticks.  I saw guns
                    To shape and stock carefully among the limbs…

It is this same attention to detail that makes the poem more than a window to the poet’s own experience, but in fact allows the reader to become the writer and experience the scene through the careful crafting of words.         

While not his goal, Elegy for the Southern Drawl has reassured us that the southern language is not dead. As long as there are poets such Rodney Jones to craft the details and nuisances that make the southern language so unique, while at the same time revitalizing it with humor, experience and poetic dialect, the language, and not just the southern variety, has a long life ahead of it.   


William Ashley Johnson
Southern Scribe Reviews

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