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Southern Legitimacy Statement #6

My daddy used to say that if you ever felt lonely, run naked through a patch of weeds. “There ain’t nothing like a family of chiggers to remind you that you’re not alone,” he’d say, with a chuckle. I don’t know whether or not he was speaking from personal experience, but I can tell you one thing: A mason jar of moonshine will make you do foolish things.

The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature - April 2011 edition

Southern Legitimacy Statement #5

I’ve played baseball in a pasture,
used sun baked cow pie for all three bases
and home plate.
I’ve read several translations of the Bible,
from Genesis to the Book of Revelation,
but the authorized King Jimmy
is on my nightstand.
I drink muscadine wine
and moonshine
out of mason jars.
I have no preference
when it comes to
eastern or western
Carolina pork barbecue;
it’s all good to me.
I believe God gave us the banjo,
a loving woman’s voice,
and the sound of rain
on lush green leaves
to soothe
and comfort a man.
I’ve dined on what I shot,
spitting number 7 lead pellets
out of a fried rabbit
or squirrel leg without
slowing down to drizzle gravy
on the aforementioned
I like hog jowls on a buttered biscuit
with a slice of tomato and mayonnaise.
In the south we call lightning bugs,
“lightning bugs”, not fireflies.
And every time I hear a whippoorwill
I think of Hank Williams.

Originally published in the October 2010 issue of  The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature.

Southern Legitimacy Statement #4

My Granny Stephens cooked on a woodstove: pinto beans and turnip greens seasoned in fatback, fried potatoes, cornbread, biscuits and gravy served with fresh out of the barn yard fried chicken. Occasionally, I was sent down into the cellar to retrieve jars of canned tomatoes, chow chow, or icicle pickles. We'd have southern-style tea and lemonade, sweet, succulent, better than store-bought soda pop. And if you could discipline yourself and not overeat, you'd save room for peach cobbler or fried apple pie. Granny knew her woodstove inside-out, top to bottom, and was a master at creating a large delicious meal out of very little food…sort of like what Jesus did with a few fish and a loaf of bread. You had the feeling that something holy had been conjured-up when you sat down at Granny's table, which is another reason we said grace before every meal.

Originally published in the July 2010 issue of  The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature.

Southern Legitimacy Statement #3:

You never formed sentimental attachments to live stock on the farm—dogs, cats, even a mule was okay, but be careful about making a pet of chickens or cattle, anything of that order. That’s a lesson I learned the hard way. I was seven at the time, but a big boy for my age. My family and I had gathered around the supper table to indulge in the delights of one of Momma’s home cooked meals. I had just forked my second sausage patty (for it was not unusual to have breakfast for supper or supper for breakfast, you ate what was available) when it suddenly occurred to me to inquire as to the whereabouts of my pet pig, Sparky, a scrawny little thing that I’d adopted, helped feed, and watched grow into a massive 500 pound hog. Sparky had been missing for a couple of days, which wasn’t unusual as he had an annoying habit of breaking out of his pig pin. Daddy and I had trudge the hills and hallows of Western Rockingham County on more than one occasion, in mud, rain, and sometimes snow looking for that pesky hog. Most of the time we’d find him waiting for us when we returned home, snorting and grunting for something to eat. I’d have inquired about my missing hog sooner, but I’d been preoccupied, of late, with a tree-climbing, freckled-faced, red-headed girl what lived down the road. (Trying to keep up with that girl sure worked on a fellow’s appetite—but I digress.) So, amidst the clatter of forks, spoons, and plates, I put the question to Daddy, “Have you seen, Sparky?” says I, during a lull in the dinner chatter.

“Why yes, son,” says Daddy, looking over his glasses, “I saw him recently.”

“Is he nearby?” I asked, dipping another spoonful of tomato gravy onto my plate.

“Yep,” says Daddy, “as a matter of fact, there’s a sizable chunk of him on the end of your fork.”

Peeing on an electric fence couldn’t have jolted me more than the impact of Daddy’s words. The table fell silent, except for a slight snicker from my oldest buck-toothed sister, Essie, who enjoyed tormenting me whenever the opportunity arose. I stared at my fork, gravy dripping off the remains of my pet pig, wondering if I was looking at the end that snorted or the end I wanted to kick whenever he broke out of the pin. My heart sank… …right into the pit of my ravenous stomach.

“Dang it,” says I, taking another bite of Sparky, “I reckon he had it coming.”

Originally published in the November 2009 issue of  The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature.

Southern Legitimacy Statement #2

A mule was an integral part of the tobacco farm that I lived on for many years. What time a mule wasn’t plowing a field, one of us youngins would hop on his back and play like we was John Wayne, Gene Autry, or Roy Rogers. It’s odd, but we never played Festus Haggen who actually rode a mule…

You could say that a mule was a member of the family, though he never quite made it to the supper table, at least I don’t think he made it to the supper table. We were told to be thankful for the food and to never question the origins of the meat.

I have a picture of my daddy (circa 1922) standing beside a mule. Daddy was always fond of saying that he was the one in the dress. That’s the way they dressed little boys back then; of course, his folks were poor tobacco farmers, too…struggling to make ends meet, having to make-do with whatever clothing they had on hand. Daddy said wearing that dress sure beat running around naked. The mule’s name was Jack. Of course, they were all called Jack. If one died, he was replaced by another mule called Jack. I reckon my family went through six or seven Jack mules before daddy bought his first John Deere.

Originally published in the July 2009 issue of  The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature.

Southern Legitimacy Statement #1

Twenty-five years ago my wife and I honeymooned in Bethany Beach, Delaware. It was the first time I had crossed the Mason-Dixon Line, having been a native North Carolinian all my life. One morning we decided to have breakfast at a nearby grill. Eager to sample the local cuisine, I pointed at something on the menu called “Scrapple with Eggs” and told the waitress that I’d have that along with toast and coffee. A few minutes later the waitress returns with an order of pancakes for my wife and two sausage-looking squares of scrapple and scrambled eggs for me. After bowing our heads and saying grace (which piqued the curiosity of more than one onlooker), I took my fork, jabbed a piece of egg, then stabbed a morsel of scrapple creating a mini shish ka bob of flavors for my salivating palate. I chewed my first bite slowly, allowing the flavors to commingle amongst my taste buds. Perplexed, it suddenly occurred to me that this combination of foods was not new to me.

The waitress, returning to refill my coffee cup, asked, “So, what do you think about scrapple?”

Wiping the corner of my mouth with a napkin I replied, “Oh yeah, it’s great…but back home, we call it liver pudding.”

Originally published in the March 2009 issue of  The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature.

The following article appeared in the Juxtapositions section of Modern Haiku - Volume 40.2 (Summer 2009):

When Empathy Leads to Haiku

The majority of haiku I write are taken from moments in my life. This is the way I learned to write these concise poems. Reading another person’s haiku, we might have a sense of the poet saying, this happened to me, or, this is what I witnessed; what do you make of my experience? The poem resonates within us, which ultimately leads to our interpretation of it. Haiku, perhaps more than any other art form, are about sharing a small part of ourselves.

But what about haiku that are not based on events in the poet’s life? Can the poet walk in another person’s shoes and write haiku from events in someone else’s life? By their very nature are poets not more sensitive and perceptive of their surroundings than the average person? Do we not feel the joy and—yes—pain of a family member, friend, or colleague more intensely?

This haiku of mine was written from another person’s perspective.

autumn rain
peppers the sand. . .
a missing toe’s phantom itch

Frogpond 27:3 (for Melvin Powers)

A few people have approached me to inquire as to which of my toes is missing; in fact, all my toes are intact. My father-in-law suffered a massive heart attack some years ago and, to complicate matters, also had diabetes. He eventually recovered, living an additional twelve years, but not without the loss of his right leg and a couple of toes on his left foot. In my mind’s eye I saw him walking a beach in the autumn rain, complaining about the phantom itch that he often felt years after the loss of his leg and toes. With the images of rain and sand and the sensation of a “phantom itch” in the season of autumn, the nucleus of a poem about a dear relative of mine presented itself to me. Here’s another:

empty house —
a whisper of mother’s voice
in the autumn wind

Frogpond 31:1 (for Hilda Ratliff)

People are usually surprised when I tell them that this haiku is not about my mother. It was written after a colleague spoke of having to go to the empty house of her mother, who was in the hospital, to retrieve a few items. We were sitting under a pine tree at the time. The wind began to blow gently, causing the pine to “whisper.” I imagined the wind to be her mother’s voice.

I like to call haiku that are written from another person’s perspective “empathy haiku.” Haiku should not only be about sharing a part of ourselves with the reader, but it should also be a means to share in the joys, triumphs, and sufferings of others. What better way to show someone that we truly care than to write a haiku about their experience from their perspective?

Curtis Dunlap
Mayodan, N.C.
January 12, 2009

[A special thanks to Charlie Trumbull for publishing this mini essay.]