John Lane (Photo by Helen Correll)
John Lane is a poet with the eye of a naturalist. Quarries. Cottonmouths in a creek. Civil War battlefields. Suburban lawns. These are the places he turns to for meaning.
Lane understands that our relationship to the environment is a symbiotic one — that there is a connection between the plastic objects we put into our shopping carts and a strip-mined hill in Kentucky.
“John Lane has created poems that lament what’s lost, praise what is, and prophecy what could be,” writes poet Gregory Orr. “Reading them, we hear a clear voice that does what the best poetry always does — persuades and sustains.”
As a native Southerner, I was struck by the gritty descriptions of sweet tea and Southern landscapes in Lane’s most recent book, Abandoned Quarry: New & Selected Poems. (I must confess that sweet tea is the first thing I order at a roadside restaurant when I cross the Mason-Dixon Line.)
These vivid poems about Cumberland Island reminded me of the Spanish moss, wild horses and boar, and crumbling mansions on this breathtaking barrier island in Georgia, one of my favorite places on earth. Few writers have captured this beautiful, haunting island as well as Lane.
For today’s Sunday Poem selection, I’ve chosen five poems from Abandoned Quarry to share with you. These poems were written between 1978 and 2010, and represent not only Lane’s range as a poet, but also his deep passion for the environment and place.
As Kate Daniels writes, Lane “shows us how to make stories and music out of what remains, and how to thrive in the small epiphanies still to be found chopping wood, climbing rocks, or drinking sweet tea on a shaded front porch.” I hope you enjoy these poems as much as I have.
Happy New Year!
My Dead Father’s Bypass
In high school I lied about my father’s death,
said he died of a heart problem. I couldn’t say
the word suicide. But it was heart trouble
that took him so low he couldn’t come back up.
He owned the ESSO on the main highway, Number One,
from New York to Florida. This was the Fifties.
Southern Pines, small town south, and my father,
with a station on the highway. Then the by-pass
shut him down, traffic speeding past the local,
the beginning of the end for the slow life.
So I believe now it was speed killed my father,
not the gas from his car exhaust. His heart
was with the land, not the road, a farm boy
from the country, where land is slow like blood,
the pulse of spring through the plowed fields.
I didn’t lie in high school. I told a truth
slower in coming. I was only five. Like a by-pass,
the traffic flowing around my heart, my daddy’s death.
The Country House
Even here, deep in our overgrown
country yard fenced by cedars
I can’t lose the suburban drone
of a mower making an agreeable
lawn, establishing order.
The mower cuts back fresh grass
of spring, uncovers my first
junctured childhood memories:
the April after my father’s suicide,
me five, and the grass gone to seed
around our frame house in North
Carolina; my mother practicing her
loneliness in a whiskey bottle.
By fall, we had left that house,
leaving the brown, broomstraw lawn
unbroken, but beaten flat with use,
over lost boards, long-necked
bottles, abandoned toys.
Last week wind lifted yellow
pollen from the branches of cedars
and you laughed, never knowing
before that moment of spring’s
first sexual movements, tactile
as the dust covering the car,
the cats, the ground between us.
Then in your face was the flush
of grave awareness: so much lost
in that clumsy mating of conifers.
You shook your hair and walked
inside, giving up the day.
At four a.m. my mother called
and I stood in the blowing darkness
from hearing the same denials
of my life away from her.
She is still practicing loneliness
and the phone keeps some hold
on the child I was, keeps her close
to the one who would never leave,
never twist her grief back to its source—
that emptiness again—
never mirror her pain with anger,
only take it in, hold it deep inside.
Even the frogs near the pond
knew sadness when it came like
human voices through the night;
they rattled grief, grief,
as I talked Mama down from a white
hell of her own isolation.
I gripped the wood rail of the porch
and tried to ground the pain I felt
in something solid, something
once rooted and green.
Late last night with you away
working third shift at the hospital,
I read William Bartram’s Travels,
lost in a world of first light
where North America stretched
wild and balanced into the purity
of animal and vegetable indifference.
Tennessee was the prop for every sunset,
and Asheville, just another border town.
I stepped out on the front porch
half expecting deer or even bison
in the cleared space of our yard,
but across the acres of darkened
second-growth forest and gravel roads
I caught the rank lowing of cattle,
then car lights scything the highest cedars.
The noisy neighbor mows
up and down his lawn as ragged
evening shadows stain the small pond.
I fish, for only in fishing, and the soothing
repetition of cast and spin cast and spin
can I forget it is April and in a month
I will be gone.
I cannot see you lost inside the house,
moving in the occupied rhythm of your own
indifference ever since the light
between us failed.
I stand reeling
in a small bass to throw back
and the sun disappears.
For a second, the air goes
perceivably still. The mower stops
worrying the evening
with its own pitch of sanity.
Early Spring on Cumberland Island
For David Scott
Friends for ten years, we know without saying
to walk the edge, to watch ahead for herons,
to check the low limbs of willows for snakes.
You motion across the marsh’s width and I wade,
waist-deep in stained water, to where you’ve
stopped a cottonmouth at the margin of grass
and dry deer path, and with your simple presence
twisted the snake into its quick defensive coil.
Then it strikes deep and decisively, but misses,
directed toward the nearest pocket of heat.
I want to joke with our first words in an hour
that now we can be sure another spring his here,
that our first snake each year calls back
long days and warm nights, the click of cricket
frogs, and the quickening crawl of green.
Every purchase a little wildness
goes out of us
and the world gets smaller.
Shampoo, Q-tips, rice cakes.
Pushing the cart
we’ve already dammed
a river inside us,
strip mined ten acres.
Suppose we pulled back,
found a dry cave, ate huckleberries,
cooked pan fish on a flat rock?
The world still surrounds us.
Only in some distant kingdom
would people pass the racks of Time.
But just beyond
the electric doors and cinder walls
a blue sky is hidden by clouds.
The smaller we get
the more we buy.
God rested on the seventh day, but early in the morning,
before the sun strained into the Southern sky,
she made sweet tea from scratch. She boiled the water
in a black kettle, put in the orange pekoe bags
and let them stand as the water perked, and then
she did what gods know to do: she heaped in Dixie
Crystal sugar while the brew was still warm as the day.
For God so loved the world she made sweet tea. For she served
the tea to anyone who admired her creation. To anyone
walking down the street of the wet new neighborhood,
to the mailman delivering early on that next day
of that second week, to the milkman in his truck, the black
man working in the yard, to the white man selling peaches
door-to-door. On God’s sidewalk there was an X scratched
by hobos. They knew to come to God’s back door and you’d
get a plate of leftovers and all the sweet tea you could
drink. They knew the sugared pints of contentment. They drank
sweet tea from God’s back steps and went on their wandering
For God knows sweet tea fills with love and refreshment from
any long train. For sweet tea is safe as an oak forest
camp. Sweet tea, clinks in jelly jars. Sweet tea,
sweeter as it stands. For God’s sake we brew it
like religion. For God’s sake we carry it now in styrofoam
cups in cars. We drink it in winter. We drink it always.
And this poem would not lessen sweet tea’s place in the creation.
Sweet tea is not fading from the Southern towns
like the Confederate flag. It lives in houses all over town.
Black folk brew it often as white folk. Take the flag off
the state capitol. It doesn’t mean anything to me.
But leave me my sweet tea, a recipe for being civil.
This poem stands cold sweet tea up as God’s chosen beverage.
The manifest Southern brew. When sad I draw figures
in the condensation of glasses of sweet tea. I connect
the grape leaves on the jelly jar, cast out any restaurant
that will not make it from scratch. When lonely I go
to the house of my beloved.
For I love a woman who makes sweet tea late at night to eat with
Chinese food. For her hands move like God’s through the ritual.
For it is as if she had learned it along with speaking in
tongues. For I love the way her hands unwrap the tea bags
and drop them in the water. For I love the unmeasured sugar
straight from the bag, the tap water from deep in the earth.
For the processes are as basic as making love.
For our bodies both are brown like suntans inside from years
of tea. For sweet tea is the Southern land we share, the town,
the past. When we kiss it is sweet tea that we taste as
our lips brush. When we are hot it is sweet tea we crave.
When we have children it will be sweet tea.
And they will learn tea along with Bible stories and baseball.
Small Change Over Deep Time
How finches peck at the spilled seed, beaks shaped for browsing pods of grasses.
How the tube feeder’s continual bounty, and the perch of wires
and low branches, shapes a winter that does not dissolve into lasting hunger.
How Darwin chose the lowly beaks of finches to ground his observation
of small change over deep time.
How finches prefer the “The Classic Mix”
over two or three other brands of seed available at the bird watching shop.
How each day I refill the long clear space with seeds, how finches clear
fences, visit the feeder. How clouds cover the blue winter sky out back,
and the sky answers with its own theory of light.
How I push beyond the expectations of my thirties into the certainties
of my forties, how disappointment burns deep and satisfaction warms short.
How finches push their red vestment
deep in the spoil of seeds and choose one to crack, and leave husks below.
About John Lane
(Drawing by David Gessner)
John Lane is Professor of English and environmental studies at Wofford College and director of the college’s Goodall Environmental Studies Center. Also poet, essayist and author of numerous books, Lane has been teaching students in English and creative writing since joining his alma mater in 1988. He continues to develop Wofford’s environmental studies major, a program entering its third year. As director of the Goodall Center, located on the Lawson’s Fork Creek in the historic Glendale textile mill office, he has seen the renovated and restored facility receive the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED Platinum certification – the first academic building and only the third non-residential facility in the state to achieve the highest achievable level of LEED.
Lane is the author of a dozen books of poetry and prose. His latest, Abandoned Quarry: New & Selected Poems was recently released by Mercer University Press in Macon, Ga. The book includes much of Lane’s published poetry over the past 30 years, plus a selection of new poems.
John Lane (Photo by Les Butchart)
Lane has won numerous awards and fellowships, including the 2001 Phillip D. Reed Memorial Award for Outstanding Writing on the Southern Environment by the Southern Environmental Law Center. In 2011 he won the Glenna Luschei Prairie Schooner Award for his essay, “Sardis,” and in 2012 Abandoned Quarry: New & Selected Poems won the SIBA (Southeastern Independent Booksellers Alliance) Poetry Book of the Year prize.
In 2008, his literary papers were acquired by Texas Tech University’s James Sowell Family Collection of Literature, Community, and the Natural World. He is a co-founder of the Hub City Writers Project.
His latest prose books are My Paddle to the Sea, published 2011 by The University of Georgia Press, and Begin with Rock, End with Water: Essays out this past September from Mercer University Press.
For more information about John Lane and his work, please visit his website.
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All poems © John Lane. These poems appear in John Lane’s Abandoned Quarry: New & Selected Poems from Mercer University Press © 2010. All rights reserved. These poems were reprinted with permission from the author.