Murder Ballad by Jane Springer

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Because a book of poetry can do anything, I am going to propose that Jane Springer’s Murder Ballad open a hole in the Mississippi River. An impossible hole. Because the poems are going to vacate and fill in the space that was left in the Mississippi at once. Let me make this more true‐to‐life. Imagine a perfectly cut square held on the river’s surface, and imagine the water marking it and hollowing it out and running through it all at once. It’s the way I imagine the South treats a river it loves and curses and adores and curses and pulls into itself when the night has discovered the right part of quiet for sleeping.

Murder Ballad is about a crime. It is about The South. But not that ironically distanced South that comes up in a certain brand of Southern Literature. Jane Springer is not your David Bottoms’ South. Or, put more appropriately, Jane Springer is inside the South David Bottoms is holding at arm’s length. Need I remind you that the sublime can be found in the terrible? And that there is a tradition accounting for how unreasonable the sublime is? Murder Ballad is a crime so deeply wrought in the book’s flesh that I would prefer, as a reader, to make that flesh a river. But Springer won’t let that happen. Read “Hindsight’s Ballad…” Where to say the crime were “inevitable” would be cheating the poem of its full scope of bewilderment. Inevitability implies the event will be coming into view at any moment. But for Springer, the crime is a horrible rape, and it’s in full view, at all times, from all angles. It’s in the unexceptional negligence a 16‐year‐old girl has for what she can make of her future. It’s in the mind of a stone marker commemorating a slave who died on plantation. It’s in every piece of inventory at the Dixie Dandy Grocery. It’s in the despicable laughter of six men, one of whom had a rodeo belt buckle.

What is truth in the South? Why does it feel like the most proper and honest way to look at trauma is to let it lie with everything else the South produces, arranged so the trauma thinks it’s getting a pass on real trauma, not because real trauma doesn’t exist, but because real trauma is so common in Tennessee and Louisiana. Tragedy in the South is endemic and innate to what the Southerner believes in herself. It is a thickening. Why make anything of it? It’s part of what people there live through. Death, or tragedy, or horrible crime feels like the color green. And in the real South, where don’t you see the color green?

For me, Murder Ballad feels like an apology. This horrible, ironic apology the speaker is writing to these Southern roots that ruined her adolescence. Yes, the South is broken. It is used up. It is every broken relationship her family ever fit into the DNA of these poems. Why is it the speaker who needs to apologize? You must not be from the South. Because, from what I can see that’s what they call love down there. That dark, immovable, unmistakably swollen river that is love loving you thicker and thicker. Et tu, Existence? the Southern writer proclaims. Who else would this speaker be writing her “Letter to the Dark” to? On every “tendril of incense allemanding through the first ambrosial jasmine” on every “hair of space parting to make way for the barge,” Springer has lodged a letter onto the fine grain of existence so she can articulate her love to its most minute substance.

Have you read Springer’s first book, Dear Blackbird? I have. And let’s just say mythology is personal. And whether this is a Southern thing or not, I’m not concerned. The landscape, the family, the incidental characters that enter both books have this fantastically grounded reality where you doubt and believe their existences at the same time. I give you the poem “Ether,” “a flammable mix of ethyl alcohol & sulfuric acid.” Also the name of the speaker’s grandfather. Also the man who would wait for a caged squirrel to bite his hand so he could break its back. Also the man who would carry a full wash tub of water to the second floor to save his infant son from fire. How’s that for a family patriarch?

I have seen deep‐throated Southern poetry like this before. Carolina Ghost Wood by Judy Jordan stands as one of my favorites. Filled with a similar population and landscape. For me, Springer’s book is one step higher. Like if you were using semiotics to analyze a Wes Anderson film, but the critic keeps filling his notebook with dried moths taped to each page as a method of signifying the unsignifiable Anderson has in each of his movies. That’s the texture of the South in Springer’s book. But I would say there’s a difference between the two books. Jordan gestures at the South, as though to say, Lo, South, you have reaped the death of my Mother, as you have reaped your own land. For my ear, Springer is more an inhabitant. For Springer, the South is a chorus that she is a part of, that she will forever sing with and through, even as she suffers such a horrific crime at its hands. There is nothing that could take the South out of her. She is the dead grandfather, the ghosts who merely crave cocaine but don’t need it, the bride who has drowned in a lake holding the pictures of everything she could have wished to see come true.

Kent Shaw's first book Calenture was published in 2008. His work has appeared in The Believer, Ploughshares, Boston Review and elsewhere. He begins teaching at Wheaton College in Massachusetts in Fall 2016. More from this author →