James Applewhite

November 30, 2002

 

 Quartet for Three Voices
By James Applewhite '58, A.M. '60, Ph.D. '69.
Louisiana State University Press, 2002.
64 pages. $22.95.
 

Quartet for Three VoicesBy James ApplewhiteWhen Nobel laureate V.S. Naipaul came from England in the late 1980s to tour the American South, he selected a certain quiet, unassuming man to take him around North Carolina. Naipaul wanted someone who could show him the farms, churches, graveyards, and universities, and explain the history of the land. The man Naipaul chose had grown up on a Carolina tobacco farm, like his father and grandfather and great-grandfather before him; he had become a poet, and had gone on to become a celebrated professor of English at Duke University.

Naipaul documented his wanderings with James Applewhite in his book A Turn in the South. He describes Applewhite with great affection: "He was a slender man, narrow-waisted, concerned about exercise. He took all my inquiries seriously, and spoke from the heart, without affectation, with a farmer's matter-of-factness, offering me at once, as soon as he saw that I was receptive, thoughts he would have spent some time arriving at."

Naipaul repeatedly marvels at how much he and Applewhite have in common, though they come from such different worlds. Each feels alienated from his homeland--the far-off island of Trinidad and the leafy, hot Carolina farm--and each uses his writing to examine the beauty and evils of the past and the drastic changes this century has witnessed. Toward the end of A Turn in the South, Naipaul calls his conversations with Applewhite "extraordinary."

What was it about this narrow-waisted Jim Applewhite that so deeply moved V.S. Naipaul? One only need turn to Applewhite's latest volume of poems, Quartet for Three Voices. His lucid and haunting poetry reflects upon the history of North Carolina and the history of his own family, which once owned slaves: "Accepting its sweetness and bitter illusions/I've lived four-fifths of my life in this South/that believed in a lie we all still suffer for." Applewhite's poems vividly recollect the delights of the South and the joys of his childhood, but often with a dark edge: "we suck on/apples of fallen orchards."

The fallen orchards represent a favorite theme of Quartet for Three Voices--people and places aging and decaying over time. In the standout poem "A Fictive World," Applewhite grapples with the memory of his grandparents who "disbelieved change" and didn't want to admit they were growing old. He recalls his grandfather singing "Sunrise Tomorrow" even as he was close to death, and how nothing ever changed inside their house: "the celery, deviled eggs,/pickles and olives in narrower and wider dishes, iced/tea in cut-glass goblets on stems, the turkey sliced on/the sideboard by old Aunt Eliza." The deviled eggs, the goblets, the hymns: it was all comforting, but it also meant hiding from the real world, telling "lies/against time."

Applewhite believes in telling the truth--acknowledging change and learning from the past: "The history I breathe is alive, exists to save." No poem addresses this hope more directly than "The Deed," the best poem of the collection, with its fresh imagery and an honest reckoning of the past. In it, Applewhite has decided to sell his family's farm, which leads him to remember its long history. Rich musical language describes the farm's boundaries--"Beginning at Toisnot Swamp then/southwest for eighty-six chains," as well as the surface of the land--"scrub oak and blackberry tangle" and "loblolly pine." In a dark and brilliant image, he recalls "the swamp-stream switching its channels/like a snake when you chop its head off, twisting in dirt."

Applewhite confronts his farm's mixed history by intoning a litany of names. On paper, the farm has been transmitted to "John, Martha, Elisha,/and Isaac," but he remembers another string of names, "Beedy, Lewis, Offy;/Wealthy, Feruba, Bright; Tabitha/Mereca, Jinnna, and Litha," the slaves who lived and worked on this land. He writes their names in his poem hoping their "story will last," even though, over the years, fires burned through the farm's cemetery and "erased whatever chalked letters/once named you on the blackened/boards of heart pine." He sells the farm, lays aside his guilt over its history, and ends the poem with an image of hope, the fields feathered with broomsedge and "preparing/for the new generations of pines."

Applewhite's rich and lyrical poetry does the same work as the fertile broomsedge, preparing a new generation of readers for growth. The poems in Quartet for Three Voices brim with wisdom and insight as he reflects on the past century, both recording history in his poems and bringing a new understanding of the past. "Now/I know only backwardly," he declares, but these years of experience in the hands of a masterful poet make for extraordinary and powerful writing.

Martin, a freelance book reviewer, works for Random House.