Make Art . Live Art. Farm Art. Go Home. Come Home. Savor.from “Rant, WonderFarm” by Janisse Ray
Janisse Ray—writer, poet, environmental activist, organic farmer—probably doesn’t need an introduction. She’s an award-winning writer with literary achievements too many to list. I met her while I was a graduate student, and everyone, not just the students but the faculty as well, was a little in awe of her. I think writers, and especially new writers, feel insecure in their flesh. We’re still working out our voice and craft, and Ray is the real deal! Yet she was so also very down to earth, such a kind and friendly person.
Ray was the keynote speaker at the commencement ceremony for the students one year ahead of me, and she told a hilarious story about the family mule, Tecumseh, who found his way inside their house in south Georgia. Tecumseh, as mules are prone to do, would not cooperate. This story has stuck with me for years not simply because it was hilarious, though it was, but because how Janisse told this story. Storytelling is not just about this happened and then that happened; it’s about wielding your experience, imagination, memories, and craft in such a way that you engage others, so they feel as if your story is also their story. This is what Ray has done with her latest collection of poetry, Red Lanterns. These poems mutually celebrate and mourn the current state of our world—what we should honor and love, what we stand to lose, what we will never get back—and all captured by one of the most talented storytellers of the South.
Red Lanterns is a mix of love and protest influenced by Romantic and Beat poets and melded with Ray’s special type of word magic. Most of the poems are what you may categorize as eco-poetry. For those unfamiliar with the term, its main emphasis is to bring awareness to environmental issues, looking at the world in a non-anthropocentric manner, with humankind being part of the problem itself.
The Romantic poets are generally known for expressing a deep love for the world and its natural landscape, but even Wordsworth was not all butterflies and rainbows, using poetry, for example, to bring attention the cruelty of child factory workers of 19th century England. When I received my copy of Red Lanterns, it included an invite to a Zoom meeting; Janisse wanted to take a photo of faces of her readers holding up Red Lanterns. She also asked if we would individually read a few lines or a stanza from her poem, “Trees.” She was gathering different voices to later share recorded collective voices on social media. Poems are meant to be heard, to be read out loud, so I thought, what a wonderful project, but also, experiencing this poem in a group-read made “Trees” so much more powerful. Try it yourself and read these lines from “Trees” out loud:
We live among trees, / sleep under them, / pass by and through them, / yet we mostly do not see them. / Mostly we are oblivious // They shade us, shelter us, envelope us, moisten us. / They give us oxygen // They feed us, offering their seeds, their nuts, their fruit, / their pomes, their leaves // They make music for us—percussions, rattles, shivers. // And every day we destroy them. / We cut them, burn them, run over them, / scar them, skin them…
Obviously, this isn’t the whole poem. You need to get your own copy of Red Lanterns! Focus on the tension-building here, though. First, Ray establishes the glory of trees and what they provide. This is followed by almost a question that we must ask ourselves, “Why do we destroy something so valuable to our own existence?”
There’s a dark romanticism about her poetry, as if she’s discussing being in a relationship with an abuser or even someone who takes and takes, never giving back. Many of Ray’s poems explore the same themes as those in the film Mother!—the one-sided relationship we have with Earth. Ray doesn’t sugarcoat anything. Yet, while she pushes readers to consider their relationship with the planet, she does it in manner that celebrates the simple wonders of nature, which is what a Romantic poet does best.
In two of Ray’s “dark romantic” poems, “Rant, WonderFarm” and “Mr. Coal,” she juxtaposes pristine, almost sacred, images of the natural world against environmental destruction caused by pesticides and mining. The devastation isn’t limited to the landscape, however; everything has a consequence, and both humans and animals alike suffer. In “Rant, WonderFarm” the devil is Roundup and the chemical spraying of farms. Even so, there’s a sense of hope at the end of this poem. I love this stanza: “We’re building soil now, / finally building soil: / local soil. Organic soil. Soul soil,” because it reminds me of a prayer— simple, powerful, persuasive. Ray mentions names of farmers—a community of farmers in this poem—and even with the dark side of farming that’s present, the communal sense stands out as the victor. With “Rant, WonderFarm” I had a vision of the farming life depicted by Georgia artist, Mattie Lou O’Kelley. I know farming isn’t as simple and neat as the paintings of O’Kelley, but the recognition and holiness of community stand out in both O’Kelley’s and Ray’s work, which I believe is the message Ray is conveying in “Rant, WonderFarm.”
In “Mr. Coal,” Ray draws from the Southern Gothic and personifies Mr. Coal as a “dirty thief,” a “home-stealer,” the devil, himself:
Right where the blood comes in is where / Massey tore down the mountain. / Mr. Coal lives down there under /ground. Wants to pull us all down with him: / Your people are all sick, what you got to live for? he asks. / Down here, we can make us a bright light, / come on down. /He says with his face dirty, / his teeth black, little halfmoons, / under his fingernails pitch black. / His tongue is black. / His heart is darkest of all, Nothing but a lump.
Though Ray alludes to a specific mining area in Breathitt County, Kentucky, the poem could easily speak for any of the mining communities of Appalachia. This poem is a powerhouse of blended imagery—the deplorable conditions and practices of mining companies, black lung, mountaintop removal, polluted water and land, loss of homeland, and the list goes on and on. What made this poem resonate with me was the narrative voice. Ray uses the vernacular of the miners and mining families, and this is crucial. One of the reasons the marginalized peoples of these mining towns have been dismissed is because of stereotypes around rural people being ignorant, and largely this has to do with how they speak. If you want a better idea about these misconceptions regarding impoverished Appalachians, watch the documentaries, Hillbilly or Harlan County, USA.
“Mr. Coal” is artfully crafted. It personifies Massey (Massey Energy Company) as the devil whispering in the ears of the townsfolk. It gives voice to a people who have had extraordinarily little voice (their health, the rights of their land, their future), as it portrays a no-win situation where people are dependent for their livelihoods on the very thing that kills them.
While many of these poems could be categorized as protest or activism poetry drawing from the Beat poets, one of the most significant poems that addresses our current societal state is “Ode to Joy.” Troy Davis was convicted for killing an off-duty police officer in a robbery gone bad; the poem depicts the hours immediately before Davis was executed. Most of the witnesses against him later recanted their testimonies; no DNA evidence or the gun ever linked Davis to the crime; and he maintained his innocence to the end. He was executed by lethal injection while hundreds prayed outside for him and while international leaders and amnesty organizations sent pleas for mercy. This poem pays tribute the protestors who stood vigil outside Jackson State Penitentiary.
It is an intense poem, perhaps a crossover between flash and poetry, but with more poetic elements, especially the repetition of “I am Troy Davis” threaded throughout that hits you in the chest. The repetition of Troy Davis’s name and the line “I am Troy Davis” gives the poem rhythm, a musical quality (something the Beat poets incorporated), but remember, odes are meant to be sung. “Ode to Joy” describes what it’s like to be part of a movement, of protest, of giving voice to those who are not heard, who need your voice. It honors the spirit of protest regardless of the result.
It’s also about loss. In the poem, there’s a stay in the execution and a sense of joy pervades the crowd. The narrator leaves and enters a church where a choir is singing. The choir keeps singing even with the stay. It was a short stay, however, and Davis was executed. There’s this sublime image at the end of the poem of the narrator’s soul floating over the city of Jackson, “over the church with its doors flung wide and its roof cracked open to the stars.” It’s a paradox. Did the choir with the sheer strength of their voices crack the roof open or is our system so flawed it can even break a church? It’s probably both. The poem is brilliantly crafted and reminds us that we are all Troy Davis.
Along with eco-poetry, dark romanticism, and protest/activist poetry, Red Lanterns is also about grief. There are some very intimate poems; I wondered if they were autobiographical since the narration was so close, honest, and very personal. The collection is well-balanced and approachable. While there are some strong words against humankind and the wounds we’ve inflicted on the planet—wounds we have inflicted against ourselves—Red Lanterns judiciously celebrates the simple pleasures of nature, love, family, friendship, and community, which I’m pretty sure sums up Janisse Ray.
TO PURCHASE A SIGNED COPY (yes, I said signed) please visit Janisse Ray’s website at: www.janisseray.com/bookshop
MORE ABOUT JANISSE RAY: Janisse Ray is an American writer whose subject most often falls into the borderland of nature and culture. She has published five books of nonfiction, including Ecology of a Cracker Childhood, a New York Times Notable Book. Her collection of essays, Wild Spectacle: Seeking Wonder in a World Beyond Humans, is due out October 2021. Red Lanterns is her second book of eco-poetry. Ray has won an American Book Award, Pushcart Prize, Southern Bookseller Awards, Southern Environmental Law Center Writing Awards, Nautilus Award, and Eisenberg Award, among others. She has been inducted into the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame. She lives on an organic farm in the coastal plains of Georgia.
If you enjoyed this read, please share on social media and tell you friends and family. Be on the lookout for my interview with Janisse Ray about her collection, Red Lanterns, next Saturday, May 15th.