Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into an artifice of eternity.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

White Mansions

~After Paul Kennerley~

Something breathes amongst the magnolias
and lingers there in the hickory-scented air —
a musk off old dead Dixie wafts through
the fly-lit dusk and shards of darkness soon fall
from the live oaks and flutter above the velvet lawns.
There's a foul wind coming in off the gulf and it sweeps up
the plains of Texas, drives headlong along the Keys
and then into the swamps and bayous where the waters
rise and brim and the stilted mansions quake ...
You can smell the alligator's rancid breath and taste the piss
of the crayfish, you can hear the fan blades ticking
and clicking the lazy humid hours away.
In the grand ballrooms you can see the ladies fete
the young men who glide and ride waltzing
into war's chaos as they laugh and turn on lithe heels,
and swing singing and tease as they please.
All through Kentucky and Virginia horses buck
at their braces, they neigh and kick and tug at reins
as blood streaks their terror-stricken eyes.

What was the true cost of Sumter? The price
of a false hope like a bugle call sounding up and down
the Carolinas, or blood-soaked meadows where
cotton leans to like poppies into open wounds.
And what a genteel wind was ruffled up at Bull Run
and Ball's Bluff where the farmhands flashed
their bayonets and then marched playfully on
till they trundled into shell-shocked Antietam.
The rains came and the thunders rolled over the fields
of Vicksburg and Gettysburg and Lee lost Tennessee.
Only echoes rumbled into the Shenandoah Valley
and on into Nashville where entire armies fell,
but still the mounted generals swore, 'No Surrender',
even as their boys were running scared, even as the dream
and the victory dance was done — they deserted back
to their mansions tenanted now only by Southern pride
and stubborn blindness. The South fell as a curtain falls
in an old dusty room and across the plains of Georgia
the big Dixie boys went down in ignominy, Lee surrendered
and not even a mule was left to carry off the dead.

In Atlanta and Savannah the old life was gone,
all the big houses were razed and the earth around scorched,
the cotton was burned and mangled bodies rotted as far out
as the shore where hatred cut deep channels into the sea.
All the tears are gone and the chains too are gone,
like a brother's blood smeared across a shredded flag,
and the old men have no stories left to tell
of the world that is gone forever, vanished
like the sad singing in the cotton fields,
or the empty halls where only shadows gather
and the old pretenses hold out no longer.
Ploughs plough truth into furrows of wrong
and what was divided and uncivil is closed again
at the seam of the driving, cleaving blade.
No flag can tourniquet these opened wounds or sling up
all the busted bones, for though old Dixie's done,
and the Southland's dead, the live oaks still sprawl
in the sun and the unshaded lawns [dry as polished bones]
are still haunted by all that should never have been.


Audio, here.


~A Few Words About 'White Mansions'~

It seems another lifetime ago that I bartended my way through graduate school in that little neighbourhood saloon on the corner of 12th and Russell in the Southside of St. Louis. Mostly, it was traditional Irish music they played at John D. McGurks, but sometimes the musicians would venture off into other traditional hinterlands and play French Canadian compositions or Creole instrumentals or plaintive airs from the Shetland Islands. Aly Bain, fiddler with 'The Boys of the Lough', was from Shetland and had a whole repertoire of Scottish tunes, while Peter Sørensen, the 'Mad Dane', regaled us with folk music from Denmark. Noel Shine, I remember, confined his singing to rebel ballads in the pub, but would treat us after hours in 'The Palace' [that's what the musicians called the kip where they stayed] to old bluegrass and country songs.

It was through Noel's version of White Mansions that I first ever heard of Waylon Jennings and Paul Kennerley. He sang songs like 'The Union Mare & The Confederate Grey', 'The Southland's Bleeding' and 'Dixie, Now You're Done' with such passion that he'd have us close to tears. These were truly remarkable songs and more especially when one considers they were written by an ex-pat from Liverpool. One is transported to a different world via Kennerley's ballads.

I had spent some time in Lake Charles, LA, and had visited the gulf, Galveston, Houston, Sulphur, Baton Rouge, Crowley and New Orleans, so I felt [perhaps mistakenly] that I had a flavour of the old South. Kennerley's White Mansions is an album of fifteen songs, all set during the Civil War and narrated by various characters from the Confederate States, who pine for the old way of life, are full of hope for a Southern victory but then return defeated to their burned-out mansions and farms. One spiritual, 'Praise the Lord', is sung by a group of freed slaves. Steven Hull's page [linked above] is well worth visiting, all the lyrics are quoted there.

To be absolutely clear, I have no nostalgia whatsoever for the life depicted in White Mansions and I believe a Northern Victory was the only just and possible outcome to the Civil War, in spite of the heavy cost. But I'm still very curious about the passions that glavanized so many, and their points of view. I'm also fascinated by the moods and tones of Southern Literature in general, because there's nothing quite like it in any other canon -- Welty, Faulkner, Dickey, Ford, McCarthy. It permeates words like magnolia, live oak, bayou, plantation, even cotton itself evokes something very palpable, atavistic, ineffable. A world that once existed and is now extinct.

I can only liken my fascination to Sebastian Barry's theme in The Steward of Christendom. In this remarkable play, Barry has the main character [Thomas Dunne] deliver an impassioned, almost love paean to the memory of Queen Victoria. Set during the Irish War of Independence [1919-1921], Dunne is loyal to the crown at a time when it was tantamount to suicide to be so. And yet, this point of view had never been expressed in Irish Literature before. It always existed and meant something quite visceral and powerful, but it had been repressed, silenced and sidelined. Barry's play shows just how worthy it is as a literary subject. It lifts the blinds, exposes the shame and looks into the heart of the subject.

Kennerley's album celebrates or gives air to a point of view that is no longer politic and has been co-opted by right-wing lunatics and Ayrian Militia Groups, and yet something of it lies at the root of one of the bloodiest and bitterest civil wars in human history. It's a provocative and inspired narrative and there's something intoxicating and unforgettable about the keening pathos of some of his songs. I'm always brought back to those humid mid-Western nights in 'The Palace' when Noel Shine touched a chord in us and we felt at least for the duration of the songs that we'd been delivered into the lost world of the old dead Southland.


susan t. landry said...

john, so interesting that you've tackled such a deeply American topic, altho i know you lived here for quite some years. we have so much to hide here, it's embarrassing when someone from another country so adroitly reveals our shame, our travesty.
i wonder if youve read Edward Jones' The Known World? it's probably the most affecting piece of fiction i've read in the last 10 years. if i had not read this poem, i would hesitate to recommend it. but now; well, you might want to explore more of our 19th century legacy.

susan t. landry said...

the full multimedia experience, yes please.

Penal-Colony said...

Give a listen to the links [time permitting, of course], and you tell me whether he doesn't nab something of the flavour & brio of those atrocious bloody times.

Jennings voice [like Adam Sandler's acting] fills me with a curious nostalgia for something I've never experienced and would never wish to experience. That's the beauty of 'White Mansions', it makes you inhabit a world you know you should despise by a kind of vestigial capability[?].

Penal-Colony said...


I haven't read the Jones book but will get it.

It's a bit ironic that you said 'someone from another country ...' because that's exactly what I thought about Paul Kennerley's songs in his album White Mansions. Paul is from Liverpool but wrote what I consider songs that express the heart & soul of old Dixieland. I always wondered how a non-native could've got it so right.

I never even thought to consider myself an outsider.

There's an essay with Youtube and Lyric Links to accompany this poem, but I thought it best not to post them simultaneously. I wanted the poem to stand alone even though it's inspired by Kennerley's songs and Waylon Jennings' renditions of those songs. To me, the album evoked another time, a lifetime ago now, when I worked as a bartender to put myself through graduate school. So there's lots of resonances in it besides the hideous history. I lived in Lake Charles, LA, for a year and felt I learned something then of that Southern Pride and Stubborn Blindness.

I might as well append the essay, eh.