Diann Blakely (1957-2014) was for twenty years a steady and valuable supporter of and contributor to Shenandoah. When she passed in August, her loss was no less shocking for the fact that she had been ill for some time. Although we had met only twice, Diann and I had carried on a considerable correspondence since I accepted four of her early poems for Southern Humanities Review about two dozen years ago. Those poems appeared in Hurricane Walk (BOA Editions, 1992), which was followed by Farewell, My Lovelies (Story Line, 2000). When I moved to Shenandoah, she began sending me new work, and our ties were further strengthened when my wife Sarah Kennedy selected Diann’s third book, Cities of Flesh and the Dead, as winner of the 2008 Elixir Press Prize.
Her early work was always delicate but bold, highly aware of the body’s blessings and curses. About the quietly intense lyrical pieces of her debut collection William Matthews wrote, “[Blakely] knows everything she knows all at once, word by word, line by line, poem by poem. These sly poems are spare and ample both. They’re cool and passionate, frank and opaque, artful and true.”
In Farewell. . . Diann moved to a more narrative mode, telling her life and our lives, going public with her bewilderment, understanding and affection for the culture of the American South. A new density and commitment to realistic, historical details emerged, and she began to perform diagnoses and autopsies on the dying and dead aspects of the South which refuse to lie down and often find their manifestations in oppression, negligence or cruelty. It’s no accident that many of these poems carry a kind of Dixie Noir undertone, and Carol Muske Dukes wrote of them, “These poems are side-of-the-mouth Chandleresque . . . truly lovely, musical, steeped in a farewell eloquence, making transitory but persuasive order of the chaos of the heart.” Mark Doty’s take was: Blakely’s noir style has the urbane, anxious glamour of jazz, but there’s nothing cool about these fevered poems . . . a poet of dark and bracing powers.”
A poem from that collection appearing first in Shenandoah, “Hound Dog,” considered “the perilous erotics of flux” and cast Elvis as a new world Orpheus who “drove those country housewives mad” until they wanted to “tear him to bloody bits.” The poem is rife with humor, but the tragic mode eclipses the light and shows Diann at her adroit, observant and imaginative best.
Music, especially the blues, was becoming very important to Diann, and she began sending me poems based on Robert Johnson’s songs and life. In fact, I was surprised to discover the poems of Cities of Flesh . . . when I first saw the manuscript. I’d been fascinated with the Johnson poems and didn’t even know she had another entire, equally mighty, river running in her simultaneously. Sarah Kennedy wrote in her introduction that Diann “always promises entrance to a tragic, beautiful world . . . render[ing] the gritty details of Southern girlhood.” In-progress, the ms. of Cities of Flesh . . . had received the Alice Fay deCastagnola Award, and judge Baron Wormser’s citation called her “a master of evoking the beauties of loss while embracing the wayward joys of what is unaccountably found.”
Many poets, notably the late Lynda Hull and Eleanor Ross Taylor, have lost a passionate advocate in Diann, as she was a tireless critic and literary journalist, a gadfly and a fan at once, a poetry editor at Antioch Review, a fierce and hungry heart. The one thing I may miss more than her unpredictable, challenging and spirited e-mails will likely be the fully finished and polished sequences of blues poems she had been working on for years: Rain at Our Door: Duets with Robert Johnson. I hope there are enough of them in complete enough form that someone will see them into print as a unit. What follows is one of the four published in Shenandoah as the opening selections in our Traditional Music Issue in 2006. I could not get enough of them then and still can’t. She knew how to hammer the blues to silver, and my only solace is that the pain of the process is over. What’s left is to celebrate her words and live our own blues.
COME ON IN MY KITCHEN
Just one kiss, post-belles know, can linger sorghum sweet
Or curdle men’s cafes-au-lait with blood and spit,
Thus we listen to rain charm our screen doors,
Whose rusty hiinges leak the blues each humid dawn,
And watch for uncoiled snakes. O don’t redo the kitchen
Because there’s gonna be rain at our door
Like the last century’s flood, where moss-wreathed cemeteries
Released their dead while bluesmen tortured guitar strings
To dissolve thoughts of ragged, last-drawn breaths
And rambling loves, or those fled to the half-breached levees
Who’d stay past tomorrow. Like those eye-lined Pharoahs
In pleated nighties, spices on their breath,
I’m a believer-o, burning dried sweet moss to cleanse
This house of kisses fouled. Come on in my kitchen
Although the radio nailed to the high shelf
Growls low at night to warn me, sounds buried deep as bones.
Or as deep as your voice denouncing God? You knelt
To bark, they say, against the juke-joint shelf
Of bodies that surrounded you, crazed by the poison
Curdled in your whiskey. Come on in my kitchen . . .
Should we release the ragged dead with kisses
And stir love’s bones among my perfume-pots? If not,
There’s gonna be rain at my door long past second thoughts,
Past levees, screen doors, rusted empires’ kisses.