Jack Bedell writes poems about the nature of south Louisiana
You grow up in a place like suburban New Orleans, and one of the first things you learn is that the land on which the suburbs float was at one time marsh or swap. My own childhood home had two huge cypress trees in the yard, and they never did quite thrive like they did in marsh-days. The one next to the driveway died first, the cement partially blocking water from reaching its roots. A few years later, the one in the front yard died as well. Even in humidity- and rain-rich New Orleans, it needed more water than allowed by the St. Augustine grass.
I thought about those cypress trees as I read Against the Woods’ Dark Trunks: Poems by Jack Bedell. Bedell is a professor of English and coordinator of Creative Writing at Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond, which sits “across the lakes” from New Orleans, the lakes being Borgne, Pontchartrain, and Maurepas. It’s just up the road from Ponchatoula, which for a very long time laid a legitimate claim to being the strawberry capital of the world.
When it’s not sinking into the Gulf of Mexico, south Louisiana is rather swampy, almost as if nature resented anything being taken from it and is waiting, patiently, to take it back. Bedell knows this. That patiently waiting Nature is present in all of these poems. Even writing about a manmade construction like the Bonnet Carre Spillway alongside the Mississippi River above New Orleans, Bedell knows that Nature will one day not be denied. The spillway, with its floodgates by the river, is designed to ease the threat of flooding to the city; when the river gets out of control, the floodgates are open, and water pours into the spillway and eventually Lake Pontchartrain. My childhood home is just a few miles down the road. The spillway is where you went to look for crawfish (Bedell writes about them, too) and even picnics in high school.
Bedell also writes about beached whales in Terrebone Parish, serpents and insects (of which there are a prodigious number, especially mosquitoes), folk legends (like the one whose name you never say, and I won’t say it here), pelicans (state bird), marsh horses, swamp phantoms, and the smell of the swamp (stinky). He even writes about a man (P.V. O’Neill) who’s buried in the ground, but he had to go all the way to Shreveport in northwestern Louisiana because the water table allows almost no below-ground burials south of Lake Pontchartrain.
He even writes about one the stars of the Audubon Park Zoo in New Orleans.
The White Alligator
The white alligator at the zoo
rests his head on top the water
with only his blue eyes showing.
He hangs his body straight down
like any of us would, floating,
does not miss the sun
burning his pale skin, the pull
of mud in cold weather.
He does not fret for need.
I’m sure when his lids nictate shut,
he dreams of water-green hide
and a deer’s total suppliance
nosing water from the bank’s edge.
What more could his slow smile want?
For the record, the white alligator is not, I repeat not, an albino. Albino alligators do exist, of course, but this white alligator is the rare leucistic alligator, aka Alligator mississippiensis. And you watched yourself around him, with those mesmerizing baby blue eyes of his. (Spots, the zoo’s white alligator, died in 2015. He was 28.)
From 2017 to 2019, Bedell served as post laureate of Louisiana. At Southeastern, he also serves as editor for Louisiana Literature and director of the Louisiana Literature Press. He’s published several poetry collections, including Color All Maps New, Rock Garden, No Brother, This Storm, Bone-Hollow, True, Revenant, and Elliptic. His poems have been published in numerous literary journals and magazines.
If you’re from south Louisiana, you settle in with a cup of coffee and chicory (and maybe a beignet from Café du Monde) and smile the entire time you read the fine collection that is Against the Woods’ Dark Trunks. Even if you’re not from south Louisiana, you learn a lot about a unique place in history and nature. But if you are, you can’t help but remember those cypress trees which shaded your childhood playtime.
How to Read a Poem uses images like the mouse, the hive, the switch (from the Billy Collins poem)—to guide readers into new ways of understanding poems. Anthology included.
“I require all our incoming poetry students—in the MFA I direct—to buy and read this book.”
—Jeanetta Calhoun Mish
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