7 Poetry Collections That Capture the Beauty and Brutality of the South

David van den Berg, author of "Love Letters from an Arsonist," recommends raw and unflinchingly honest poems about the American South

A lot of folks say that they don’t like poetry.

Which is fair.

It’s easy for poetry to lose touch with society. Many poems—or authors—are stagnant, stiff in formalistic structure and removed from modern language. Even worse are those pieces that are so strange and esoteric that they almost seem masturbatory.

But that’s not what I have prepared for you.

Beyond the jerrymandered districts and extreme conservatism that has a chokehold on political decision making, the American South is a diverse and dynamic place. While what definitively makes a work “Southern” could easily fill a college course (ending without resolution), there are a few elements that are key. Powerful use of imagery and symbolism. Natural settings. Blurred lines between real and supernatural, or present and past. A focus on place, history, and community. Racial tensions, poverty, and injustice.

The collections below have all this and more. The poems crammed between these covers are emblematic of what I always hope to accomplish with my poetry. They are raw. Unflinchingly honest. Alive. The kind of poems that stick deep in your gut like a wound that you can’t help but pick at. To me, that’s really what it means for a poem to be Southern. 

The Hurting Kind by Ada Limón

The current U.S. Poet Laureate’s most recent collection revels in the poetry inherent in the natural world and searches for those things that connect our lonely souls. Limón’s work seeks out the small mysteries of life, not to provide answers, but to encourage us to wonder at the weight of being. In doing so, her poems, gentle and warm, stand as a reminder to keep our hearts tender.

“I killed a thing because

I was told to, the year I met my twin and buried

him without weeping so I could be called brave”

—Ada Limón, excerpt from “The First Fish”

The Tradition by Jericho Brown

This Pulitzer Prize-winning collection examines the normalization of evil and terror in our day-to-day lives. Brown’s poems are urgent and direct, a call to arms before the gardens of our bodies die on the vine. His writing is visceral, at once emotional and sexual and violent and vulnerable. There is a righteous anger present just below the surface in many of his poems, stitching together environments and the bodies that inhabit them in a way that lays open the wounds of society, as though sunlight might provide some disinfectant.

“I promise that if you hear

Of me dead anywhere near

A cop, then that cop killed me. He took

Me from us and left my body, which is,

No matter what we’ve been taught,

Greater than the settlement a city can

Pay a mother to stop crying, and more

Beautiful than the brand new shiny bullet

Fished from the folds of my brain”

—Jericho Brown, excerpt from “Bullet Points”

How Much We Must Have Looked Like Stars to Stars by Alysia Nicole Harris

Harris’s collection is lush and honest, reveling in the wild glory of our bodies. The poems distill the ancient and the new, the religious and the erotic, life and death into a single point, weaving disparate scenes together to process trauma and come out the other side with a more profound understanding of the experience. Through it all, Harris toys with time as though it were little more than a pool of mercury, shifting through past and present to find those small moments that stick for a lifetime and, in so doing, bears her heart for us to devour.

“My body was a carcass. Ella and everybody up there wailing.
I’m thinking of a black-eyed angel, the dope boy in the attic

innocent as Anne, as a wolf under the moon. Stars hit high notes.
A full six octaves of guns. Wasn’t it sound?

I hid my virginity under my shirt. A stain of beets on our laundry
when we started hunting with revolvers, kneading the dead through soil.”

—Alysia Nicole Harris, excerpt from “Crow’s Sugar”

Love Song to the Demon-Possessed Pigs of Gadara by William Fargason

Fargason’s debut collection dives deep into the well of loss, memory, sickness, and generational trauma. The poems give voice to the deep grief in our bones, confronting belligerent fathers and toxic masculinity. Fargason pulls back the veil that many white families have used to conceal from themselves the sins of their forefathers and their own complicity in ongoing injustice. The poems rage through darkness and fear, but come light with the hope of reconciling our flawed nature with something larger than ourselves, with sudden shifts and a quiet poignancy disarming the reader as we come to see, memory by memory, life as something worth living to the fullest, pain and all.

“I am rebuilding
the engine of my head     but no longer
from the same parts     to keep the Pelham

out of my brain     and my brain out of
my mouth     when my Alabama is an instrument
I can’t forget     how to play     I know I can

only hear the music if I listen     when
I listen     I must listen to overlay the song
I was taught     with the song I must pass on

each note plucked on barbed wire     is full of rust     
the banjo must be restrung    and new
notes written     behind no gates    no violence”

—William Fargason, excerpt from “My Alabama”

Gossypiin by Ra Malika Imhotep

Imhotep’s debut collection is inspired by the plant medicine used by enslaved Black women to induce labor, cure reproductive ailments, and end unwanted pregnancies. Imhotep’s poems are lyrical, sung through a mouth which holds the South like an overripe peach, squeezing joy through gnashing teeth. The poems are a voyeuristic remixed antebellum collection of stories and wisdom, both written and gossiped, supported by archival references that satisfy intellectual curiosity. Reading the book feels like an act of voyeurism as we glimpse Imhotep’s personal history as they leap, surefooted, between emotion and history, between verse and body.

“How everything I know
about sound and poem
come from up out
red clay and get stuck
underneath my tongue.

How we wash the headstones
white with our mouths full
of laughter.

And ain’t that how we mourn?”

—Ra/Malika Imhotep, excerpt from “Home is a mouth full of spit for your tender heart”

The World is Round by Nikky Finney

Reading this collection is like looking through a cracked kaleidoscope. The book flows like a river through familial scenes to discarded memories to bright Southern evenings in which the twinkle of stars comes warm and friendly. While the collection lacks some of the fury in Finney’s other works, it does keep some of the fire as Finney calls for compassion and community with language that feels like silk when read aloud, accelerating through sharp, well-crafted verses.

“The woman with cheerleading legs
has been left for dead. She hot paces a roof,
four days, three nights, her leaping fingers,
helium arms rise & fall, pulling at the week-
old baby in the bassinet, pointing to the eighty-
two-year-old grandmother, fanning & raspy
in the New Orleans Saints folding chair.”

—Nikky Finney, excerpt from “Left”

The Places That Hold by John Davis Jr.

Davis’s poems are direct and clear, defying sentimentality by using concise narration and carefully controlled images to paint scenes of rural and old Florida. His poems are well informed by his heritage—he grew up an 8th-generation Floridian on a citrus farm—and his writing reflects a beauty and pragmatism that comes from a deep knowledge and appreciation of the cycles of nature, mixed with a careful study of the atrocities of Florida’s history, most notably the infamous Dozier School for Boys.

“They laughed the day they broke my humerus
and splinted it with wire coat hangers wrapped
in black tape so my skin couldn’t breathe,
so I’d understand honest pain.”

—John Davis Jr, excerpt from “Crooked Bones”

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