Saturday, January 29, 2022 Jan 29, 2022
50° F Dallas, TX
Arts & Entertainment

How an SMU Poet Straddles America’s Cultural Divide

A product of rural Arkansas and liberal academia, Greg Brownderville navigates differing sides of two worlds.
By  |
Scan This: When he was young, Brownderville found he had a special affinity for words, a kind of synesthesia that he began to experience after a series of head injuries.

A few days after the November presidential election, I meet the poet Greg Brownderville for a coffee near the campus of SMU, where he teaches poetry and runs the Southwest Review, the century-old quarterly literary journal. We are here to discuss Brownderville’s latest volume of poetry, A Horse With Holes in It, published in November by Louisiana State University Press. Our conversation, however, inevitably turns to the recent election.

“Snark is having a moment in this country,” Brownderville says. He is wearing a sweater under a sport coat. With his beard and slicked-down swoop of brown hair, paired with a soft-drawling, buttery Arkansas accent, he looks and sounds every bit the part of the campus creative writing professor. “People just get on Twitter and send out these snarky one-liners that are very dismissive and mean-spiritedly denying the basic humanity of everybody on the other side of the argument. I see it on both sides.”

Brownderville is uniquely positioned to see into America’s much-commented-upon cultural divide. His life—a childhood spent in rural Arkansas, an adulthood lived in liberal academia—has straddled America’s two worlds.

Brownderville grew up in Pumpkin Bend, a tiny community of about 60 residents on the fringes of the Mississippi Delta, where oceanic fields of cash crops were framed by shadowy cypress swamps. It was an appropriate setting for an adolescence that sounds decidedly Southern Gothic. His father was a farmer before farming went bad and he became a funeral home director. His aunt did time for trying to hire a hitman to kill her husband. Brownderville and his brother and sister spent plenty of time in a Pentecostal church that, just a few years before he was born, in 1976, quit practicing snake handling. For fun, they hiked through the swamp to find a country store where an old man sitting next to a potbelly stove made change for candy out of the coins in his pocket.

These poems take up residence in the gaps that exist between the past and present, youth and experience, the concrete and the ephemeral, poetry and prayer.
These poems take up residence in the gaps that exist between the past and present, youth and experience, the concrete and the ephemeral, poetry and prayer.

Pumpkin Bend was a very poor, deeply religious community, mostly Pentecostal, but its brand of Christianity frayed at the edges and mixed and mingled with superstition and mysticism. His grandfather told stories of ghosts appearing near the Pumpkin Bend Cemetery. His grandmother once saw an apparition of an angel who came to visit her in her living room dressed head to toe in khaki. “But it wasn’t like no earthly khaki,” Brownderville remembers her saying.

“My family is about as far away from being Shakespeare lovers as you can imagine,” he says.

While that may be true, there is a rich tradition of music, songwriting, storytelling, and folklore in the country around Pumpkin Bend. Brownderville soaked up all of it, and as he did, he also discovered he had a special affinity for words—a kind of synesthesia that he began to experience after a series of childhood brain injuries.

“Words were the most powerful trigger of these delightful multisensory experiences,” he says. “I would sit and think about the simplest word all day. I think about ways to use it. It was like having a dessert all day or taking a drug. I just remember sitting in bed at night thinking nobody can take this away from me. It is totally free and incredibly delightful.”

Beginning in junior high, Brownderville’s teachers noticed his interest in poetry and began to pass him anthologies of poetry, as well as works by Mark Twain and William Shakespeare. Also in junior high, Brownderville was introduced by some of his African-American friends to another local religious tradition called the mirror saw. The mirror saw was a strand of folk religious voodoo practice that traced its roots directly through the former-slave communities around Pumpkin Bend to Haitian and West African religious cults. After graduating from Ouachita Baptist University and before pursuing his MFA at Ole Miss, Brownderville traveled around his home county gathering stories of folk religion and storytelling that were compiled in his 2012 book, Deep Down in the Delta: Folktales and Poems.

A Horse With Holes in It is, likewise, filled with spiritual experiences of all shapes and stripes. There is Pentecostal singing, blues lamenting, sexual exultation, ritualistic abandon, voodoo-induced transcendence, and love, loss, and loneliness. Its poems are populated with lost lovers and wandering souls. In the book’s first poem, “Honest Gospel Singing,” a grown man wanders back home to his childhood church and bedroom only to find the tongues-speaking women incomprehensible and all the light switches in different spots than he remembered. He is like many of Brownderville’s narrators, who waffle or shape-shift as they grapple with the disorienting aftereffects of maturity and spiritual experience.

There are other hauntings: mysterious young girls grabbing up from under the bleachers in high school football games, marriages to demigods, love letters to spirits. The volume is anchored by a trio of prosimetra—prose poems—that take the narrator through a journey of possession and abandonment. It begins with “Assorted Heads,” about an old woman who makes a kind of voodoo doll for a young boy, interchanging the heads so often that the glue no longer holds. It is a metaphor of a confused or fragile sense of identity that sustains the rest of the cycle. The trio concludes with a reminiscence on Brownderville’s grandfather, pairing letters his aunt wrote from prison with memories gathered from members of his extended family, and wrapping it all together into an elegiac expression of loss, transformation, and transfiguration that resonates with a Faulknerian sense of time and generation.

A Horse With Holes in It tries to find its footing in this swampy spiritual world, but inevitably solid ground is hard to come by. Instead, these poems take up residence in the gaps that exist between the past and present, youth and experience, the concrete and the ephemeral, poetry and prayer. They are deeply personal expressions, but there is also something slyly political in the way they wrestle with geographic, spiritual, emotional, and intellectual distances.

In a poem called “Walkin’ in Memphis,” the narrator wanders around the city and encounters two groups of protesters—one modeled on the combative Westboro Baptist Church, and another fashioned after naïve youth activists. Brownderville says it is an image of people who aren’t talking to each other and haven’t talked to each other in so long that it’s hard to imagine a productive conversation.

“For me in that poem, the grief seems to be not so much about one person’s views,” he says. “The grief is a response to the complete communication breakdown—a great gulf betwixt you and me. We are just not going to have a conversation.”

And yet, in a certain sense, these oppositional forces in American life are participating in a conversation, at least within in the context of Brownderville’s poetry. His poems address anxieties of identity, place, and purpose in a way that plays in counterpoint to the prevalent snark of our contemporary political discourse. From Brownderville’s lyrics emerge a vision of America that is straining under the weight of its psycho-spiritual contradictions. Sometimes it all comes together in a single line, as in “Prosimetrum 1: Assorted Heads,” when a tornado not only knocks off the wobbly head of the young boy’s doll, but also rips up a Ronald McDonald statue from a fast-food joint and perches it in a beech tree, alongside a Stratocaster guitar.

“What if Ronald McDonald / is Jimi Hendrix in captivity?” the narrator wryly muses. He continues: “The head was never secure. / Pilgrim, please remember.”