My Southern Sister and Her Words

Van Henderson and I met far from our native state of Georgia in Bronxville, NY at Sarah Lawrence College.  It was hot and humid that summer, but she and I were quite comfortable, being Southern and accustomed to muggy heat.  I was full of anxiety, afraid to speak because I assumed all the Northerners would dismiss me and my blond head once I opened my mouth.  Thanks to the talented and exuberant Joyce Maynard, Van and I found ourselves introduced to one another on the patio of the dining hall.  It was love at first sight.

You know how it feels –when you are a stranger among many and you suddenly find a soul mate, or at least someone who speaks your language.  This is what Van was for me – a soul sister from the South.  To this day she refers to me as her lil’ sis.  We bonded instantly, returned to SLC the next summer (both of us studying poetry) and then conference hopped down to the West Palm Beach Poetry Festival one January, where one of our favorite poets (Tony Hoagland) mistook us for a couple.  We loved it.

Motherhood, aging, distance, and life in general  can all take their toll on staying in touch.  Van and I met occasionally in Atlanta, but as our children have grown and other circumstances arose, we stayed in touch only sporadically.  Yes, there’s Facebook.  But that’s not the same.  However, Van blazed right back into my life when I received her two lovely chapbooks last month:  A Drop of Leftover Rain and Rusted Yellow Memories.  When I read these in the silence of my home (a rare thing), she was by my side.  More importantly, as any poem worth its existence should do, her words entered me and made a home of their own, residing within like a melody from song that you listen to over and over because it makes you feel alive and less alone in the world.

In fact, one of my favorite poems in A Drop of Leftover Rain is “Adagio for Strings.”  “A cello weeps from the radio, / A melancholy day made even more” as the persona revisits the scar of a connection that has since gone “shallow,” has lost its power but not so much that the weeping cello doesn’t bring it back to life with a “sly smile.”  The rain that falls in “Adagio” is also present in “Weather Report,” where the honesty of the poet’s voice hits the reader in the first line, “I prefer gloom.”  Wind and lightning and the “metronome” of “drops on a tin roof” are paired, making the storm both full of excitement yet also soothing.  The voice continues with its brutal honesty until the end, “I don’t need the sun / to see my shadow.”

As I’ve mentioned, Van and I are from and of the South.  Yet the connection goes deeper, in that we are both PKs (preacher’s kids).  Rusted Yellow Memories addresses both these themes, and the prose poem, “Country Church” puts me right back into one of the churches my own father had (a charge, to be specific, where he had threes churches in which to minister).  “We were Standing on the Promises, Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” opens the poem.  I can hear the hymns, and relate to being “the only child in the church.”  The poet’s voice creates a scene that could be made into a short film.  Regardless of denomination, anyone who has worshipped in a small town church feels a rush of tenderness and familiarity when reading this poem.  For me, the ultimate poem of this collection, the one I keep returning to, is “Southern Women.”  That honest voice comes out yet again, examining the complexities of  the Southern woman – for whom “homemade guilt” is “spoon fed by their mamas;” who “wear pantyhose and slips / Even if it is 98 degrees in the shade.”  The descriptions move deeper and further, though, as the poem progresses: “Southern women prefer politeness over honesty, any day.”  The poem ends celebrating the beauty of the Southern woman, “You can always spot a Southern woman. / She’s the beautiful one.”

There is beauty in connection.  And these two lovely chapbooks provide connection on many levels – not just for soul sisters, but anyone who has worshipped in a church, raised children, dealt with aging, has health-related issues, or has shaken a fist at the world at times.  The voice is honest, observant, musical, and will seep deep into the reader like the scent of magnolia blooms.

You can learn more about Van and her books at her website.  Thanks, Big Sis, for sharing your creativity with the world!

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4 thoughts on “My Southern Sister and Her Words

  1. Hey Rosemary. This is Van’s son, Kea. I just read the review you did here and it is so nice and good. I’m glad you two get/got along so well. Very proud of her for getting this kind of stuff done (she’s been working really hard at it). I haven’t read the chapbooks yet, cuz I don’t know if I really wanna see what’s in there, haha. It’s kind of nice for right now, leaving it a mystery. But I just wanted to say thanks, and I hope we can meet some day. Have a good one!

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  2. Pingback: The Luxury of Trees | Van Henderson Poetry

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