James Tate on Judy Jordan's Carolina Ghost Woods
Judy Jordan was the winner of the 1999 Walt Whitman Award for her first book-length collection of poems, Carolina Ghost Woods (Louisiana State University Press, 2000). The winning manuscript was chosen by James Tate.
Judy Jordan's book, Carolina Ghost Woods, is a startling first collection of poems—startling because of the bone-crushing violence and poverty, and startling also because of the beautiful and precise language the poet brings to bear on these scenes, violent or not. She is a poet first and foremost. In a moving elegy for her mother, who died at the age of forty-two when the poet was seven years old, she writes:
She knows we've lost the farm she worked her life for.
She hears the auctioneer's thin call,
the banker's paper shuffle.
In the shrink of light,
dirt falling from her hand,
the sun leaving the trees one by one,
she remembers seed rotted in the wet ground one year,
the next so dry even the weeds wouldn't grow.
She's the lone kitchen match
our house burnt for the
she's what's left—four chimneys
and sun breaking across the tin
There is no confessional element to these poems, no self-pity. Rather, these poems strive for compassion and understanding in a deeply wounded world. These poems pray for forgiveness by their very artistry. The uncle who shoots his son, the mother who tries to shoot her son, the father intent on suicide, the pizza man proposing any kind of sex: these people do not come across as sinners so much as failures in a world gone to hell. These poems are hard meditations on how and why life can deal such hopeless hands:
Tell me again the reason for my grandfather's fingers
afloat in the Mason jar on the fireplace mantel
between the snuff tin and the bowl of circus peanuts.
What about the teeth in the dresser bureau,
the sliver of backbone I wear around my neck?
Again the washed-out photo in the family album,
Pacific wind lifting the small waves onto Coral Beach,
clicking the palm trees' fronds.
Again my father's rakish grin,
his bayonet catching a scratch of sun,
his left foot propped on the stripped and bloodied body.
Behind him, a stack of Japanese.
If this is the father's one moment of glory in an otherwise hardscrabble life, then it is the saddest, coldest moment of glory imaginable. The phrase "a stack of Japanese" is utterly dehumanizing. But so is the sharecropping and the loss of the farm. The genius of these poems is that they insist on seeking the human despite devastating circumstances. Even the most wrung-out individual must still have a soul.
Jordan's poems are deeply rooted in the landscape—the river, the fields, the trees and bushes and weeds—and she depicts all this with graphic attention. And the wildlife that inhabits this landscape can be an almost magical presence.
This is the time of year she takes me from school
to glean the lowest branches of the cotton plant,
the time when each small wind shakes spiders to my open
Stunned by cold, salamanders,
raw as the crusted moon,
crouch on the unraked threshold. Splayed fingers and toes,
into the blear light.
The sheer lyricism of the poetry carries the reader away from the chasm of despair into the light of hope. The poems are always clear and always musical. The achievement is singular. I know of no book of poems like this. Judy Jordan has made herself a home in the house of poetry, and we are the richer for it.