Author: James Seay
Publication Date: 1970
How I Heard About It: Bookstore Browsing
All writers have, or will tell you they have, a conversion narrative like this: a small independent bookstore, an afternoon of mindless browsing, the welcome discovery of a great book. Mine is no different really, and perhaps even a bit more cliché. The bookstore was Square Books in Oxford, the book was a yellowed paperback lightly imprinted with a bottle ring, and its author was the kind of Southern poet too many male poets born in the South want, at least at some point, to be. Including me.
Let Not Your Hart by James Seay looked just like a book from the 60’s should look, with its sepia-colored cover and Warhol-like illustration of a (VW?) bus. And hell, the book even smelled like an old poem should. But that wasn’t why I bought it. Three other reasons: it was dedicated to Lee, which is my wife’s name; it was a first book; and, most importantly, I liked the first stanza of the first poem, which was about fishing, a subject I was trying to write about in my own scribblings.
I admit that I am a sucker for fishing poems, with their natural, if obvious, metaphorical resonance. But here was a fishing poem, “Grabbling in Yokna Bottom” about a different kind of fishing—catfish noodling—which was enjoying, in the cult documentary Okie Noodling and in the television series Hillbilly Handfishin’ and Mudcat, a popular resurgence in American culture forty years after the publication of this book.
The subject matter was all well and good, but it was language and form that made the poem distinctive.
The hungry come in a dry time
To muddy the water of this swamp river
And take in nets what fish or eel
Break surface to suck at this world’s air.
The spondee that opens the fourth line enacts perfectly what the poem is saying, what it describes—that is, the words themselves break the surface of the line, the same way the spondaic “Rough winds” blow into the fourth line of Shakespeare’s famous 18th sonnet.
I only get this technical because conscientious spondaic line-openings are a hallmark of Seay’s style, in the way they are for many great poets—Sidney, Shelley, Hopkins, et al. This was a poet, I realized, who was paying attention to form and therefore couldn’t be idly charged with only being a “Southern poet.” (This charge always has imbedded in it condescension: the belief that Southern poets favor, or rely on, subject matter more than form).
I read through the book, and I loved its intensity of language and content. Here are poems that aren’t shying away from the world and the materials of what some might call “the masculine South”—hunting and fishing and manual labor and football and moonshine (not to mention characters with names like Speedo, Punk Kincaid, Champ, Sam Boy, etc.)—but they confront these subjects without nostalgia or sentimentality.
Take, for instance, the fifth poem in the collection, “Turtles from the Sea.” It is a poem, no doubt, that will make many readers cringe—especially readers who have already cringed at a term like the “masculine South”—but you can’t deny its honest depiction of illegal turtle hunting and the strange, beautiful way the guilt takes hold in the last two stanzas. And I think it took me a second reading before I heard it for what it was: a ballad.
Cast-off vital parts grew black, then green,
And simmered in the Florida heat.
Buzzards circled, swooped, and took what parts
The dogs or wildcats would not eat.
Fang and beak devoured my flesh each night
Until the Cuban workers came,
Turned the spoil of rent and rotted heart
Onto the newly planted sugar cane.
In the bookstore I asked my Mississippi poet-friend, who was playing the part of Virgilian guide in his native state: Who is this guy?
Or was, as it turned out to be. James Seay shot himself sometime in the 70’s or 80’s, my friend told me. I bought the book immediately, half-anticipating this essay—here was a gem of a poet needing to be resuscitated. Someone who was too good to lie unnoticed in the vaults of time.
Or is, as it turns out to be. James Seay didn’t shoot himself. He’s been teaching for forty years at UNC-Chapel Hill, and I am guilty of being a dilettante for not knowing his work. And where did my friend get that rumor? And the ability to say it so casually?
But I have only been able to unearth two essays about him, and only two interviews. An online bibliography brings up a picture of the man—shaggy-haired and one-eyed. Yep, a poet with an eye-patch.
And so the emphasis in his poems on vision. In the poem “Options,” a doctor offers the speaker a choice of replacement glass eyes. The poem is one of anger, the hardest tone to control:
Not for all the purple velvet
That could be cut to lay them on
Was there an option
Able to resplit my sight
He tried, eye after eye;
They lay like bogus coins
In my forehead
This is good, especially in the way the rhythm works against the anger, but I like the subtle anger even better in another poem, “Were You Wise, Awake?”
Your conch beside the fire
Sings it desire, yet sings no such fury
As the quickened one
In the moon’s half-light or in the torn eye of the sun
Beneath the turning sea.
Here the anger gets transferred onto the natural imagery, which is lovely. And though I hate to speculate on such matters, I wonder: would his poetry have been as good without the missing eye? That is, I think his vision of the world is made stranger thereby. As when he notices that an old governor (the machine, not the political figure) “lies like a broken animal, / the needles of its red eyes / fixed steady on the sea-shell road.” Or, in “The Starlings,” that the tile birds “peck / at crumbs, hard and stale as cinder rocks, / on the snow beneath the Kotex box.”
Let Not Your Hart contains some bad poems too, as expected of any collection and especially a first. Sometimes his staccato rhythm and inverted syntax sound stilted. But the book also contains many great poems—poems that linger in the mind well after their reading—such as my favorite fishing poem in the book, “Others of Rainbow Colors”:
The taloned hooks were mullet-baited
And dropped into the glacial
Brilliance where old night awaited
New day in waters crystal-
Green beneath out whiteflashing bow.
Spiraling up it came in troll
Toward our knifenosed prow,
Had taken the mullet whole
And came as a gift, however dumb
From the seawomb.
Its invisible helix came others
Of rainbow colors,
Free, yet caught in all the prisms of the sea.