Originally posted in The New Southern Fugitives.
Athena Departs: Gospel of a Man Apart
Kudzu Leaf Press 2017, 122 pp., $14
Good News for the Southern Man
In 1970, Neil Young’s “Southern Man” challenged the white patriarchal power structure, whose dominance was founded on the enslavement of black men, women, and children. The song put Southern males on notice, and the Canadian rocker forewarned that a day of reckoning was coming. Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama” served as a retort, informing Mr. Young that his opinion wasn’t needed. Forty years later, given the conflicted status of the Southern male, one wonders what the late Ronnie Van Zant, the band’s original lead singer and the lyricist of the iconic hit, would make of today’s contradictions.
The fishing is still good. The whiskey is better than ever. But accounts are being settled. Van Zant’s old high school in Jacksonville, FL, Robert E. Lee Senior High School, has removed the name of the Confederate general from the school sign after “racist” was spray-painted across it. Within this paradoxical setting, Georgia poet Clifford Brooks has released his second poetry collection, Athena Departs: Gospel of a Man Apart. Brooks doesn’t have a 1953 Gibson Les Paul Goldtop to shred guitar solos, or the Sweet Inspirations on backup vocals; nonetheless, his collection delivers Young’s and Skynyrd’s forceful emotions and unambiguous message.
Brooks was born in Athens, GA; so adopting Athena in the title seems fitting, and the Greek Goddess of war and wisdom is an appropriate symbol for his dueling free verse style. Early in the vast collection, Brooks addresses the bitter farce of patriarchal influence. In the poem “Two Old Men,” we see recognition and respect for the two old men who are fixing the broken washing machine, and the expectations are clear:
Some Great Depression
for such a nasty sum.”
But, our confidence in the two old men is misplaced:
“The condescending fucks
take my cash
and rumble off
in a battered Chevrolet.”
True knowledge about our being and our conduct must come from another source, and like the Fugitive poet Donald Davidson did in “The Demon Brother,” Brooks turns to the devil for answers.
“Meeting Old Man Scratch (1)” and “Meeting Old Man Scratch (2)” are two of the more illuminating poems in the collection. In these companion pieces, you sense that Brooks, like The Rolling Stones, has sympathy with the devil. When Old Scratch arrives, “it’s damning/but certainly not evil.” There’s a “kinship linked to a promise.” But Brooks knows that time spent in violation of duty “will make for a hard night.” In the first poem, he admits the bargain he’s made with the devil and its toll, but in the second poem, he acknowledges the counteracting energy of family:
and a monster
have an equal share
of my tombstone stock.”
The allure of Brook’s poetry is that he takes us with him into the confessional booth. He doesn’t hide the complexity of his tangled feelings. Equally appealing are his unpretentious visions of front porches and snapping green beans intertwined throughout his poems. His imagery is purely Southern. “Sex and Sweet Tea” evokes the bliss in a “red Southern Sky,” and could be the lyrics for a Jason Isabell tune.
As alluded to in the title, Brooks’s use of mythology is another engaging aspect of his poetry. In an “Ode to Southern Sons, and Uncivil Rest,” he draws on the tortured trickster Sisyphus to pull in the reader, and in other poems he employs Prometheus, Orpheus and Eurydice, and the Hindu god Vishnu, the great protector of the world. This use of classic stories and characters further illustrates the modern dilemma Brooks is examining. Many contemporary Sons of the South are befuddled by the question of how to honor their quarrelsome legacy and admit their culpability in rigging society to maintain their advantage. Brooks lays out the first step in good ol’ boy recovery—rigorous honesty, to borrow a precept from Bill W’s Big Book. But while his candid rock n’ roll style is enthralling, it exposes the collection’s vulnerabilities.
Some of the poems are as forced as a shotgun wedding. “Blues ‘Round Midnight” and “After Rock-and-Rolla Lover Talk” are like chugging rot-gut whiskey from a plastic pint bottle and backing it with tepid beer. The poems work, but they weren’t aged long enough in the revision oak-barrel. Brooks has a clear speaking voice, but it could use more finesse. There’s also an opportunity for him to develop his use of language and structure. Not to suggest that he should become a formalist with traditional rhythm and meter, but he could leverage more of a poet’s arsenal. The collection’s shortcomings could be caused by the number of poems selected for the book. Rather than include over fifty poems, he could have forged and fired forty in his crafty kiln-mind and yielded more consistent results.
In actuality, there never was a conflict between Young and Skynyrd. As it says in the Drive-by-Trucker’s tune “Ronnie and Neil,” “they became good friends and their feud was just in song.” Legend has it the enigmatic “Powderfinger” was written for Skynyrd to record and that Young acted as a pallbearer at Van Zant’s funeral. There was a companionship between the two rock stars, and in Brooks’s Gospel, he produces a similar path to reconciling Southern heritage with today’s divergent views. The good news is that Clifford Brooks will be a wandering voice crying out in the wilderness.