Poetry

“On the Way to Grandma’s Funeral” and “What the Confederate Flag Means to Me,” by Glenis Redmond

Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor
Today’s poems are drawn from Glenis Redmond’s new collection, What My Hand Say, a book whose epigraph taken from Psalms 126:5 reads: “Those who sow in tears shall reap with joyful shouting.” It is an apt introduction to poems sown in suffering that nevertheless reap much joyful singing, and it reminds me of this poet’s exuberant dancing, singing, and poetry readings at residencies while we were in grad school together at Warren Wilson. The major muse of Redmond’s new collection is the poet’s grandmother, who in an early poem directs her granddaughter to “Find me and my story. Fill my empty slate, but let my works speak” [“Rachel Cunningham”].
If Rachel Cunningham is the book’s muse, racism is its haunt. The book’s first section includes a number of poems such as “Field Cotton,” “Cotton Goods,” and “Bale” featuring or inspired by that crop now synonymous with slavery and our country’s great shame, and the theme is reflected as well in the names of the first two of the book’s four sections: “Pick,” “Plow,” “Push,” and “Pull.” Other ancestors, including the poet’s grandfather, father, and mother, also make an appearance, along with several persona poems, some spoken in the voices of former slaves. The book also includes poems to a lost child, “Ritual,” and the achingly spare “Tilted Bowl.” The idea of sewing, especially piecework, is another strong theme running through the collection, and refers not just to working with fabric but also to the necessary work that puts things back together from the mess time and mankind make of human lives. Besides being necessary, the work is magical, in the words of the author’s ancestors, “making somethin out of nothin.” [“Rachel Cunningham”] Every poem in What My Hand Say is influenced by the poet’s historical and actual experience with racism, and some, like “Nature Lesson 1947,” “College Education,” “The Marsh,” “Benediction,” “Chair,” and the devastating “I Wish You Black Sons,” take it head-on.
“On the Way to Grandma’s Funeral” is a narrative poem composed in straightforward diction with some (italicized) idiom and organized into 14 unrhymed couplets. There is no formal meter, but many lines have 4-5 beats and scan as iambic, that is, as a rising rhythm where stressed tend to follow unstressed beats—the meter of everyday English vernacular speech. As with last week’s narrative poem, this one tells a story of a family reunion following the death of a matriarch. Food is not as central here as in “Making Zelnik,” but those lines naming “sweet potato pie” three times in the list of “top three favorite desserts” are crucial, for they mark the moment the family is able to turn away from the four Confederate flags seen on the way to the burial site and, as the author says, to turn “away from hate.”
The poem opens with a metaphor, using the idea of “footprints” on a “road” to measure out the grandmother’s impressive span of 109 years, an idea that will recur at the poem’s end when the poet measures those same years out into “39,872 mornings.” The notion of measuring out time is important, for the grandmother’s many mornings and years were lived under hard physical conditions in a racist society, and the speaker is awed by the strength (“unbowed” and “unbossed” like the canna lilies she raised) her grandmother showed while she “meted” out her days. Other things counted out in the poem include the grandmother’s descendants, “mama, and her five,” the four Confederate flags seen on the way to the burial site, and that wonderful list of “our top three desserts: 1) sweet potato pie, / 2) sweet potato pie, / 3) that would be more sweet potato pie.”
The poem proceeds through a loving memory given to us as a simile, “soft as the calico / housedresses that you wore,” and then sets the scene: a group of mourners riding in a limousine to Waterloo, South Carolina, where the grandmother will be laid to rest. At first, the mood is upbeat: the “limousine, a submarine, / sailed along,” but the mood is spoiled when the passengers catch sight of four Confederate flags being conspicuously displayed. What those flags mean to the descendants of slaves is understated as “We did not talk of the four flags / that we floated by, but we counted them all,” and the speaker turns immediately to what distracted the group from what they were seeing, a joke about Willie’s top three desserts all being sweet potato pie. It’s left unsaid, but I think we can assume that the grandmother used to make those pies, or that at the very least they were made from a family recipe. Repeating the phrase “sweet potato pie” three times is essential to the joke, but it also really makes us pay attention to those pies and the function they serve here: giving the mourners something sweet to think and talk about rather than getting sucked into the bitter hate-vacuum of what has become a loathed symbol of Southern slavery. The pies and the laughter remind the group of what the grandmother would have said if she were there—“Hush yo mouth chile”—and the sweet poignance of that memory entirely rescues the moment so that what triumphs is love, not hatred. In an example of ring construction, the poem closes where it began, recounting and marveling over the grandmother’s long, long life.

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  • Jackie February 27, 2018 at 2:59 am

    I suspect your Grandma did not hate, regardless of the hate she undoubtedly encountered during her lifetime. And I suspect that helped contribute to her long life. I am sure she was full of wisdom and perspective that is a shame to have lost, especially for her family. But she lived a blessed, long life, with family who loved her and mourned her–which is much more than many have… You are blessed to have had her in your life.

    Reply
  • Jackie February 27, 2018 at 2:59 am

    I suspect your Grandma did not hate, regardless of the hate she undoubtedly encountered during her lifetime. And I suspect that helped contribute to her long life. I am sure she was full of wisdom and perspective that is a shame to have lost, especially for her family. But she lived a blessed, long life, with family who loved her and mourned her–which is much more than many have… You are blessed to have had her in your life.

    Reply
  • Marian C. Dornell February 25, 2018 at 10:05 pm

    Thank you for sharing Ms. Redmond’s poems “On the Way to Grandma’s Funeral” and “What the Confederate Flag Means to Me” and for reminding us how poetry can simultaneously bring sobriety and joy while shedding light on the gravity and grace of the Black experience. I am a new and forever fan of Ms. Redmond and shall encourage my friends to purchase What My Hand Say. This is a perfect way to remind us that Black History is American History and should be celebrated every day.

    Reply
  • Marian C. Dornell February 25, 2018 at 10:05 pm

    Thank you for sharing Ms. Redmond’s poems “On the Way to Grandma’s Funeral” and “What the Confederate Flag Means to Me” and for reminding us how poetry can simultaneously bring sobriety and joy while shedding light on the gravity and grace of the Black experience. I am a new and forever fan of Ms. Redmond and shall encourage my friends to purchase What My Hand Say. This is a perfect way to remind us that Black History is American History and should be celebrated every day.

    Reply