Quitman Marshall's new book of poetry, "You Were Born One Time," was published last month by Ninety-Six Press of Furman University, after he was awarded the South Carolina Poetry Archives Book Prize. The poet, who has lived in Beaufort since 2001, previewed the book earlier this spring. Marshall primed the audience with anecdotes and introduced his fellow poets, grumbling in his cosmopolitan yet South Carolina-rootsy way. Photographer Gary Geboy called out from the audience, "You should take this on the road, Quitman!"
Writer Teresa Bruce elaborated: "Poetry by Quitman Marshall feels like choreography to me. There's a rhythm and musicality to his language. When you read his new book of poems it's like you are dancing alone on your porch. When you hear him read them aloud it's like being partnered by Fred Astaire."
In his new book, the poems dance through time with admiration for the human body. After I read a few poems -- wherein a mustache is a "sleeping hombre of desire" -- I talked with a well-read craftsman (who prefers to remain anonymous). "Attune yourself," he advised. "It deserves rereading. You'll get a sense of the poet's lifetime while he's at the top of his powers."
Marshall shares power through perspective. He knows to look past his own nose into the depths of the earth, through the passages of civilization, and back into his own home: "Born just before my sixtieth year/ little boy, I rub your shoulders/ with the reach of my one hand/ and imagine the man you will be ..."
Scenes happen "in the Passover moonlight," and "while we become rain ourselves," from "the flames that started," to "this rot I let continue." "Happy Birthday" is dedicated to his wife Martine.: "... From pre-Labor Day till well after Rosh Hashana/Autumn falls somewhere in there ... I'm just happy you were born./ I'm just happy you were born."
"I came to poetry through two doors," Marshall said. "European poets of the last century who were writing from a world twice destroyed by war; and Theodore Roethke's writing so marvelously about the smallest creatures in observable nature."
His poem "When the Hardest Hard Time Comes" is 15 lines that wonderfully combine his wit and scope. It's a "hard times" fantasy about a rock and mineral museum he and his family would open in a certain uncertain future, "our children telling (visitors about) the facets of a light that built itself in total darkness deep within the earth ..."
"Subway" is realistic and modern in a more nostalgic way. Marshall intertwines a city with a pop culture icon and the challenge of writing about the titular topic, which he admits as being "both too much and too narrow." But the "great rumbling patron of literature" soon delivered him a beautiful moment, a woman who deigns to say ciao. "... And I, after her lips, answered 'Ciao.'"
The book is divided into four chapters, each with an epigraphs from Nizumi Arudi's 12th-century discourse on poets, a sort of ancient warning: "The poet stirs up the irascible and concupiscent faculties so that people ... cause great affairs in the order of the world." These words are a handy, built-in "caveat legislator" for inflammable people in this state, where Marshall was born. Sure, the title could contradict being "born again." Transvestites are rowdy, spelling is creative and real estate developments have "metastasized" around pluff mud. The "sexual click" is acknowledged during a Lenten Mass, and that same poem contains an "ain't." Morons and mosquitoes are called out.
"In addition to the usual human adventures and trials, I felt I had to deal with the history of apartheid and sectional separatism that was part of my Southern heritage," Marshall explained. "But I've never been terribly impressed by the insistence on difference, colorful eccentricity or exaggerated wild maleness that has tended to define the literature of my home region."
While his maleness in these poems is not exaggerated, Marshall has improved the tradition in his own way.
"Anyway," he continued, "the world as it is will bring out those or similar qualities in anyone anywhere who attempts to write with a ring of truth. That poem 'Peaches' probably calls as much attention to our 'state' of things as a poem should."
You don't have to read these poems if you don't want to look beyond your own nose. But you really should.
Lisa Annelouise Rentz lives and writes in Beaufort.