On the 10th anniversary of its publication, Neal Bowers’ collection of poems, Out of the South, remains a seminal book that explores the contradictory, often painful, legacy of the Old South.
Neal Bowers’ 2002 Out of the South is situated at the intersection of private experience and the social upheaval and change brought about by the Civil Rights era. The book combines narrative poems, based on the poet’s reminiscences of growing up in the South, with elegiac reflections on the death of his father.
Bowers recalls the racial tensions of the Civil Rights–era South from the perspective of a white Southerner who is just coming of age. In the poem “Integrations,” for example, he describes the animosity he and other white students felt toward one of the first African-Americans to attend his high school. He states, “… we clattered and mumbled around him/ and ate our bitterness and liked it.” Bowers goes on to say that the memories of those times still haunt him as he tries to reconcile who he is today with the boy he was then: “In the dark wake of years I cling to him, / that boy I was whose hate could drowned us both.” He feels a complicated mixture of guilt and sympathy when he thinks of his younger self now that age and societal change have given him a new perspective about race and fairness.
In the elegiac series of poems about his late father, Bowers shows the increasing gulf between his father and himself in the poem “A Word With my Father.” The first two lines read “Cerulean is a word my father never knew / he would have scoffed at it and said “Say blue / if you mean blue.” / Well, I mean blue, / but I mean cerulean, too.” At the same time he expresses his love for his father in poems such as “Black Walnuts,” a poem in which he describes his father’s joy in finding a windfall of walnuts: “… in that moment / I wished with all my heart he might live forever.” These poems serve as meditations on mortality and the conflicting feelings people often feel about past relationships with family members who have passed away.
In the long title poem, “Out of the South,” Bowers shows his increasing alienation and eventual break with his Southern upbringing. He describes a secret visit to his hometown of Clarksville, Tenn. He is in search of some indefinable connection to the place. He looks up neither childhood friends nor relatives. When at the end of the poem he hears someone calling his name, he flees as quickly as possible: “Without looking in the mirror, I pull out / and join the morning traffic, / headed elsewhere.”
Even the title of the book shows Bowers’ conflicting feelings about his Southern roots. He is both made “out of the South” in terms of his formative experiences and “out of the South” in the sense that he has—to a certain extent—escaped from his upbringing.
When I visited Neal Bowers’ website, I discovered that this book was his swan song. He states, “When I gave up poetry, I did so for two reasons: (1) I felt that I had said everything I wanted to say and would simply repeat myself if I continued. (2) Poetry (with a capital “P”) had become an academic insider’s game, and I felt more than a little complicit.” His website contains links to other websites where you can purchase his books, as well read some musings about digital media.
I recommend Out of the South for its accessibility, important social themes, and the depth and complexity of its emotions. You can read Neal Bowers’ poem “The Future” at the Poetry Foundation website.