May 26th, 2008
Review by Michele Battiste
by Teri Youmans Grimm
University Press of Florida
15 Northwest 15 th Street
Gainesville, FL 32611-2079
2004, 60 pp., $12.95
Teri Youmans Grimm has got religion. She also has trailer parks, road kill, cotton mouths, crazy neighbors, chiggers, gators, okra, quirky ancestors, swamp mud, red dust and good ole Georgia earth. To hear me tell it, you'd think that Dirt Eaters was a collection of trite poems that are grits-thick with southern cracker clichés. But Grimm does reveal a fresh and captivating south, and she does it with many of the standard tropes associated with the region. Drawing on her own childhood and family history, Grimm reminds the reader why the images of the South are so evocative, but she doesn't rely on them. She works them hard.
With Down South Vapors, the first poem, Grimm frames the collection, letting the reader in on the fact that she is contemplating her Southern childhood from the distant Midwest, stating
the delicate escapes me - so
the prairie seems
and the plains distal
in ditches, skunk
on the Buick,
an aunt who bit
for stealing figs.
No matter that this depiction of the South is similar to the one drawn over and over again by Hollywood. Grimm earns her biting aunt and skunk cabbage, earns the right to allocate entire lines to alligators and cottonmouths, highlighting their danger. She has to get vivid quickly to support the poem's heavy lifting--conjuring the beautiful and sinister ghosts who haunt these poems, "where my dead / will pin what they / want to on me."
Grimm is at her best when she explores her own childhood and the lives of her ancestors. Most of the poems are free verse or in loose couplets or quatrains, all of which are well suited for these poems of memory. An odd villanelle or sonnet makes an appearance, and though they are done well, they seem out of place. Grimm accesses her childhood perspective on her family and surroundings, offering no analysis but instead enabling the reader a visceral experience on which to draw her own conclusions. In Mayport, 1975, a poem about a housefire that killed three children, Grimm offers this simple description of the mother:
In baby-doll pajamas she swayed. It hurt,
watching her hand shudder a cigarette
to her mouth, ash poised over her bare feet.
She knelt among the small bodies.
And while the poems that explore her earlier ancestors present a more interesting narrative (such as a great grandfather named after the doctor who delivered and who arrived in a summer so bad he was "freckled / in dust, like red pepper--no chiggers"), it is the poems about her parents that work best. When writing about her less immediate family, it seems as if Grimm feels compelled to document fully all the interesting bits, to not leave anything out, causing her to lose the lyric intensity and sharp imagery that mark her best poems. The following section from Consanguinity reads like a note to herself of what to include.
This puzzled lore assembled
becomes the Polish sailor Aunt Deebie married
then abandoned when he was out at sea.
A missing piece: the reason
Uncle Edward laid out newspaper
before he shot himself, hours after the police questioned him.
Uncle Seward's stuttering, Uncle Joe's moonshining,
Aunt Lela and her men.
Compare that to the beautiful catalog in a later section of the same poem when discussing her father's funeral:
Cousins far removed, the great-
Aunts, uncles, grandparents,
Generations of dresses,
Hats, shined-up shoes
And costume jewelry. I let
Them bathe me in the hot air
Flutter of their paper fans.
Without the burden of documenting, Grimm is free to craft, to choose her images, pare them down, and shine them up. The stories of her parents are found less in the facts and artifacts than they are in the intentions and emotions.
But the collection isn't overwrought, and Grimm doesn't shy away from wit, especially when exploring the religion that permeates the collection. In Testimony of a Childhood Dream, she affects the cadence of a Baptist preacher and the voice of herself as a young girl, creating a disjunction that is at once amusing and disturbing. She dreams of dancing with the devil, of throwing herself off the pinnacle of a temple, but wakes in panic to the childish "smell of burnt / licorice seething my head."
In other poems, she speaks of her aunts and uncles who handle snakes and speak in tongues. Aunt Sula "slipped strychnine / into her tea like sugar." And while she assumes a voice of adult objectivity, she doesn't let the reader dismiss Sula as a religious nut. She writes simply, "I believed / in her," and while she doesn't ask the reader to believe, she does ask that we consider what it would mean to a child who believed.
In some instances, Grimm uses bible citations as her titles, such as "John 9:39" or "Proverbs 16:33." Not strong on bible references, I had to look them up; they were germane to the poems they titled, but possibly superfluous. However, for those who were raised to know the bible, these citations would be instantly associated with their own experience of the texts. Grimm is the weakest where the poems examine religion not within the context of her own personal experience, but philosophically. Unlike the ambivalence that her childhood experiences conjure, the questions and dilemmas in the philosophical poems are posed straightforwardly:
Who am I anyway?
I am afraid
to tell you. What I believe
But these side trips into the theological are rare. Grimm is firmly rooted in the experiential, and it is easy to imagine an adolescent’s wonder and faith as she "pored over Revelation like tea leaves / from the top of the monkey bars."
While the dirt eaters in this collection are attempting to fill themselves up with the culture and history of Grimm's childhood place, readers of Dirt Eaters will close this book with a taste of Georgia soil solid in their mouths.
Michele Battiiste: Formerly the MFA Poetry Fellow in Wichita State University's master of fine arts creative writing program, Battiste recently returned to her native New York to pursue a career in indentured servitude. Her chapbook, Mapping the Spaces Between, was released in the summer of 2005 by Snark Publishing, a small press located in O'Fallon, Ill. (www.michelebattiste.com)