Alan Papprill: Words and Witness

           WORDS AND WITNESS
           100 Years of North Carolina Poetry.
           Edited by: Sally Buckner
           Afterword by Fred Chappell
           Published by: Carolina Academic Press. Durham,
                 North Carolina. 1999
           Price: $US24.15 (including p&p)

It is no accident that the centennial anthology celebrating North Carolina's Poets is called: Words and Witness for North Carolina is a Southern State where protestant religion runs strong and constant with a drive to witness faith through words and actions.

In a similar vein the N.C. poets, in this anthology, have used words to witness the growth and development of their state over the past 100 years.

The editor, Sally Buckner, argues, in her introduction, that although North Carolina has been in existence for 400 years with poetry recorded spasmodically from 1698 the first book of verse by a single poet did not appear until 1810 so the celebration of 100 years of NC poetry is wholly appropriate.

As one reads this very accessible anthology the strong internal religious background of North Carolina becomes apparent in the witnessing of the state's history and change over the past century which Sally Buckner's introductions to each time section complement, thus setting the poems in their historic and social contexts.

She has divided the anthology into four sections: 1900-1916; 1917-1954; 1955-1979; 1980-1999 based on the social, cultural and economic events that affected the State and gave inspiration to the poets. This division allows the reader to appreciate, at once, the external - both national and international - as well as internal pressures, within the State, that gave impetus and a sense of place to the poets while allowing an "external" reader, in this case from New Zealand - a country very conscious even from "infancy" of an involvement and obligation to a world outside of the South Pacific - the opportunity to appreciate the ways the United States, individually and collectively, have grown from isolationism to involvement in the greater scheme of things.

The juxtaposition of poems like: Robert Morgan's very personal, yet so Southern,

Gift of Tongues.

The whole church got hot and vivid
With the rush of unhuman chatter
Above the congregation,
And I saw my father looking at
The altar as though electrocuted.

no one rose as if from sleep to
be interpreter, explain the writing
on the air that still shone there like
blindness None volunteered a gloss
or translation or receiver
of the message. My hands hurt
when pulled from the pew's varnish
they'd gripped and sweated so. Later,

I clenched my jaws like pliers, holding in
And savouring the gift of silence.

Celebrating his response to his father's glossologia with Guy Owens' When We Dropped the Bomb recounting the horrors of the Hiroshima bomb.

When we dropped the bomb on Hiroshima
It roasted pumpkins on the vine
and baked potatoes nicely underground;
deep in the vaults the x-ray plates were spoiled;
men became sterile; women miscarried,
but sesame and sickle throve in ashes and puke.

When we dropped the bomb on Hiroshima
the soldiers' eyes ran from their sockets
and smeared like honey down patient faces;
unnumbered thousands lay in the streets
In vomit and died politely
under the darkened sky.

When we dropped the bomb on Hiroshima
it worked; it was altogether good.

So we turned to Ngasaki.

Is a graphic demonstration of the growth from "sandlot baseball, breadmaking, a day at the beach and Sunday services" to the exploration of the personal and national reluctance and horror of involvement in international conflicts, to the deeply felt angst of Vietnam, from the internal isolation to the external involvement of the State and Nation that marks a Nation's development and growing maturity.

They also demonstrate the truth of former US Poet Laureate, Richard Wilbur's statement which concludes Buckner's introduction: "Because poems are made out of our common language, they inescapably deal with the ways in which men have sought to order the world, and are inescapably engaged in examining the present force of all our concepts. Poetry - as in Yeats, for example - can help us to live by eschewing propaganda and by focusing, instead, on the contradictions and incertitudes of human life. It can be enough, in short, for poetry to express us fully, and to rescue us in some measure from being inarticulate about our lot."

I found this anthology with its wide ranges of subject matter, of poetic style, informative introduction and section comments a pleasant delight, accessible and an insight into the culture from which the poetry sprang. It is, as Buckner concludes, a "hallelujah moment" an encounter with a truth whose name has been pronounced.