Southern Ceremony Readings: Poems
John Allman was born in New York in 1935. His first poetry collection, Walking Four Ways in the Wind, was published in the Princeton Series of Contemporary Poets (Princeton University Press 1979). Allman went on to publish several books, and in 1983 won a Pushcart Prize in Poetry. The following year he earned the first of two fellowships in poetry from the National Endowment for the Arts (the second was in 1990). Through the years, he worked as a technician for Pepsi-Cola and taught at various higher education schools. Today he is retired and lives primarily in Katonah, New York, while wintering in Hilton Head, South Carolina, which inspired his book, Lowcountry, published in 2007 by New Directions.
“The Beach at Windsor Place”
Out of our shoes, across the dunes, watching
the curve of day sink its wheel rim rolling
into the sea, a crescent moon suddenly
crossed by four pelicans, swaying travelers
nearly asleep, though on the wing, their lives threaded to a single beat.
Something in the brain
disbelieves distance, a motion in the sky forever
near. Stillness destroyed in the surge at our feet,
as we step over carapace and weed through the portals
of blandness, striking down mild comparisons,
penetrating the sleep of gulls, something of us
tossed into the surge and returned, footprints swirling
in the signatures of bodies where we walk the wind,
the tide rocking forward, nothing but erasure on its mind.
From Lowcountry by John Allman (New Directions, 2007)
Marcus Amaker was born in Las Vegas, Nevada in 1976. As the son of military man he spent his childhood moving around the country, until he attended the University of South Carolina, graduating with a major in journalism in 1999. He moved to Charleston thereafter, and worked for The Post & Courier newspaper by day while establishing himself as one of the area’s most prolific spoken word poets by night. In 2010, Charleston magazine named the editor, graphic designer, and poet of the city’s most intriguing people. Today Amaker lives in Charleston, South Carolina, and is editor of the weekly entertainment Charleston Scene.
alarm clock (flashing red)
the morning -
as i awoke,
and our language
was the language
of the wind,
what light that shines tonight is lightning -
in the dancing dream of a midnight sky
and the tiny sparks that surround us.
whether or not i am awake, i will focus
on this moment like a first kiss,
walking along the edge of a slippery reality,
ready to fall completely in.
it is our light that suppresses any fleeting flames
and overcomes darkness like a glowing memory.
it's our light that will burn beyond this flash in time
and supersede the lack of sunshine.
what light that shines tonight is electric -
weaving through the endless stream of streetlights
and the irresistible pandemonium of stars
that guided us home.
Alabama native earned a B.A. from Davidson College in North Carolina and graduate degrees from both Auburn University and the University of South Carolina before serving in the Peace Corps in Ghana. After his time in Africa, Autrey taught writing at Tougaloo College in Mississippi and later became a visiting professor at Hiroshima University in Japan. Today Autrey lives in Columbia, South Carolina, and teaches English at Francis Marion University in nearby Florence. His poems have been published in the Atlanta Review, Chattahoochee Review, Cimarron Review, Poetry Northwest, South Carolina Review, Southern Poetry Review, among other publications.
Before the Wedding by Ken Autrey
My daughter sits
in a silk robe beside
the bedroom window.
Her hair is impeccable,
fixed in a bun the veil
will soon cover.
She is passive, hands at rest
on her crossed legs.
She says little
as the attendants
move around her
powdering her face,
preparing her dress.
For long moments
she stares out the window.
The Saturday sky is overcast.
A slight wind troubles
the late spring leaves.
She waits until the last
possible minute to rise
and begin to dress.
At the flourishing
of crinoline and lace,
I leave the room,
closing the door
on a covey of women
As I walk downstairs
their voices blur
like the murmur
of nesting birds at dusk.
“Before the Wedding” by Ken Autrey, from The Southern Poetry Anthology, Volume 1: South Carolina, edited by Stephen Gardner and William Wright (Texas Review Press, Huntsville, 2007)
Seize it; not in a lustful way, but as though
you have stumbled upon something remarkable,
say a winter wren, fledgling grounded under
dense brush almost hidden in morning’s waking
a horse nearby, his nose burrowed in show
Cup it as though consecrated,
Place it in the nest from which
It has taken to the air:
Do not ask it to meet your needs
Do not ask it to choose
Do not ask anything of it
Think instead of how it might be when
finally there is the feel of feet on limb
little wings ballooning out
trusting as it plunges until it can soar—
Grateful for gentle hands
that set it in sheer joy of journey,
grateful for shadows of crisp cedars
pointing toward season’s unspoken Word.
“When you find love” by Libby Bernardin from The Southern Poetry Anthology, Volume 1: South Carolina edited by Stephen Gardner and William Wright (Texas Review Press, Huntsville, 2007)
Mary Elizabeth Lee
Mary Elizabeth Lee was born in 1813 in Charleston, South Carolina, where she lived until her death in 1849 at age 36. She began publishing anonymously, then initialed her work, and by the dusk of her writing career signed her poems and writings with her full name. Pieces by Lee appeared in The Southern Rose, Godey’s Lady’s Book, and the Southern Literary Messenger.
from “The Bridal”
“…It was well,
The soothing touch with which the pastor laid
Her hand within his own, who prest it close
In one long, fervent clasp, that seemed to tell
Of thoughts too deep for speech, as if he knew
The voiceless feelings of her secret soul.
‘Twas well for her! The kindling blood rushed back
Unto its living source: She strove to check
Her heaving frame, but felt the task was vain;
And in one gush of tears, gave her whole heart.”
South Carolina native Beth Webb Hart holds a B.A. in English literature from Hollins College and an M.F.A. in creative writing from Sarah Lawrence College. Her first novel, Grace at Low Tide, was one of three finalists for the 2006 Christy Awards in the general/contemporary fiction category. She lectures on a variety of topics and has taught creative writing on the college and high school level where she received two national awards from Scholastic, Inc. Hart lives with her husband, composer Edward Hart, and their daughter in Charleston, South Carolina, where she serves as a writer-in-residence at Ashley Hall. Her other novels include The Wedding Machine and Love, Charleston.
From Love, Charleston by Beth Hart (Thomas Nelson, September 2010)
A note from the author:
“In this scene the rector (The Rev. Roy Summerall), a young widower, at St. Michael’s Episcopal Church has just proposed to a bell ringer, Anne Brumley, on the top balcony of the St. Michael’s 186 foot tall steeple. To celebrate, the bell ringers are ringing a whole peal and the steeple is swaying back and forth as they look out over the city.” —Beth Webb Hart
Then he took her in his arms, the wind blanketing his face with her soft, sweet smelling hair. They stood this way for a long time until he remembered the plan and stomped his foot four times on the balcony. It was the signal he had given to Miss B. who had coordinated the bell ringers to ring a whole peal if she said yes, and the poor lady had been waiting on a rickety staircase for a half hour before she got the sign.
Then as the rounds began and the steeple swayed the way it did when the bells were calling out to the city, he took the ring out of the box, slipped it on Anne’s delicate finger and embraced her beneath the beautiful arches as Rose and Grannie looked on from the rectory window and clapped.
As he held his future wife in his arms, Roy looked down at the picturesque old city and then out to the Harbor where the sail boats twittered like moths on the water as the sun lit up the surface with little chips of light. He chuckled at how reluctant he had been to move to Charleston. God’s plans were always better than ours, he thought. And he could feel a sermon forming in his mind about how we might miss the blessing if we don’t acknowledge our short-sightedness, trust in His grace and make ourselves downright pliable.
As the bells reverberated filling the air with the sound of God’s glory Roy knew the Almighty had given him a gift he never thought he could have again. Roy loved the city, he had to admit it now, and the city, to his great surprise, loved him back. He had a new home, a very happy little girl, and a partner that he could lean on until the end of their fleeting days of his earthly life.
From The Wedding Machine by Beth Hart (Thomas Nelson, February 5, 2008)
Now Ray rests her head on the shoulder of her husband, and she thanks the good Lord for giving her this man so many years ago. What would her life have been like if she didn't let her mama push her out the door that night the gang invited her to come steal a watermelon?
She supposes they might have gotten together sooner or later, but they may not have had that moment. That memory of the warm wheel well in the back of Angus's flatbed, and her future husband patting her back before putting his hand out flat as if he wanted her to give him five. Then his gentle voice filling the black space between them as he said, “I’m Willy, pretty girl.”
Born in Lynn, Massachusetts, Mt. Holyoke College and New York University graduate Marjory Wentworth has lived in South Carolina since 1989. Twice nominated for The Pushcart Prize, she was appointed South Carolina Poet Laureate in 2003. She has published numerous books of poetry, and in addition to running a public relations business, she also teaches poetry to cancer patients at Roper Hospital, and also taught at the Block Island Poetry Workshops, Furman University, and Emory University. She has also read poems at Yale University and the Library of Congress. Today she lives in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina.
“The Coming Light”
The wedding procession passes through the shadows
of an old oak growing between a graveyard and a church.
All day the sun burned through its branches. Flowers shriveled
on the headstones. Little flags hung limp on black sticks.
Now it is evening, and a wind moves off the sea.
It is a wind filled with tenderness, moving
across the bride's face like his breath, in the night
when he is kissing her. Sometimes,
when she looks at him while he is looking into her
it feels as if she is staring at the sun,
and she has to turn away. But it is too late.
She is already a woman in flames. She has forgotten
what life feels like without love. No ache and no hunger.
They have waited for twilight: to marry
in the copper colored air that feels like water
all around and holds them up like water does.
At the doorway, she isn't thinking about the veil
slipping off her head, or whether
her grandfather's wheelchair made it over the steps.
She sees the groom waiting at the end of a tunnel of light.
At the altar, he is turned away from her. A thin crucifix
lies flat against the beige cracked stone wall.
She is certain, that before everything and everyone
there was God, filling the air
where she walks into the coming light.
“The Coming Light” by Marjory Wentworth from Noticing Eden (Hub City Writers Project in 2003)
Tears falling that no one sees familiar
voices voices you love and the bells
ringing at the end of day seedlings
sprouting on the windowsill the future
fish scales iced branches after
the storm a choir cloud covered stars
everyone’s soul white candles glowing
at the church entrance desire unspent
coins in a saucer hair filled with sunlight
or water what the diamond means
“What Shines” by Marjory Wentworth from The Endless Repetition of an Ordinary Miracle (Press 53, 2010)
If sleep has a smell, it grows here
when flowers raise their heads in the mist
to eat the light pulsing at the edge of the sky
where tapered tails of wind unwind
like roots stumbling through darkness.
After the green silence of dreams
I rise and drink the warm rain failing,
dig two holes in the ground
to plant my tired feet,
because I need to live for awhile
in the black bed of earth. On this island
rolling beneath unfurled tongues of fog,
where the scent of wet salt can turn the air
to bread in my mouth, or blanch
the dark fisted vines that never wither.
All winter, jessamine and honeysuckle
holding petals in their closed mouths,
were waiting for desire
to open them, in the wind,
to lose themselves in rain.
When he is gone my heart rearranges
within my body, where nothing seems
to move for weeks or months. Alone
I wait for his scent to return
to the empty pillow beside me.
I am like the morning glory
embedded on our fence slats,
collapsing her purple flowers
that will resurrect and inflate
with mouthfuls of air.
The smell of grass releasing
after hours of warm rain
enters the open windows of our house.
Odors move from room to room like music.
My husband listens in his sleep.
On a couch in the living room, he listens.
With children curling like kittens around his feet,
he sleeps. Beneath pages of the Sunday paper,
cradled by all that is familiar, he sleeps.
Knowing the color of love, he sleeps.
“Homecoming” by Marjory Wentworth from Noticing Eden (Hub City Writers Project, 2003)
A bride beneath a backpack
bigger than her body, holds
a vase of red and yellow
roses in front of her heart.
The groom, dragging a suitcase
on wheels, hugs a shopping bag
stuffed with still-wrapped gifts,
wedding cake balanced on top.
They run through the airport,
ribbons spilling thin white streams
through the air behind them.
“Newlyweds” by Marjory Wentworth from Despite Gravity (Ninety-Six Press, 2007)
“The Unkempt Garden”
To find love
you must stumble many times
through its unkempt garden,
until roses growing wild along a fence
unfold and offer themselves to the wind.
Tear at the flowers with your teeth.
Let the sharp-tongued thorns
fill your mouth with kisses.
And petals, thick as rain, will slide
their offerings into you.
“The Unkempt Garden” by Marjory Wentworth from Noticing Eden (Hub City Writers Project, 2003)