Sartoris Resartus

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Sartoris Resartus

by Charles Joyner
Southern Cultures, Vol. 1, No. 3: Spring 1995

"The South is an enigma, secret and sacred."

The South is an enigma,

Secret and sacred.

 

It is easy enough to say that

It is a promised land, that

the central theme of its history

is a common resolve,

indomitably maintained,

that the South has been

and shall remain

the world the slaveholders made,

 

not so much because of the

courage and honor and hope and pride

and compassion and pity and sacrifice

which have been the glory of its past

 

nor because of the

defeat and tragedy and guilt and poverty

and blood and irony

which have been the burden of its history

(white over black

and black over white)

 

nor because of its

intimacy and power, its

arrogance and pride and satiety

and knowledge of anguish

and foreknowledge of death

(Oh lost! And by the wind grieved!

But I believe we shall be found);

and not because

yesterday won’t be over until tomorrow

and tomorrow is another day

(You can’t understand it.

You would have to be born there);

 

nor even because of the

Immoderate verbiage of Southern prose,

the message in the bottle,

the baroque and involuted effluvium of words

no sober man would make and no sane man believe,

partaking of that logic- and reason-flouting

quality of a dream,

a dark bus

laden with parenthesis upon parenthesis,

grim and indomitable,

actual and apocryphal,

and myriad long still hot dead clauses,

impalpable and wearily subordinate,

trailing one after another

in indolent and elusive apposition

   (row upon row with strict impunity);

 

and not because

Southern Honor is honored

or the Militant South is militant,

or the Silent South is silent,

or because the Enduring South endures

   (for the past is never dead—

   it’s not even past);

 

nor because of

the selling of the South,

the transformation of Southern politics

(that peculiar institution)

from one-party to a party-and-a-half,

from democratic autocracy to autocratic democracy,

myriad, sourceless, profound, and outrageous

   (leaving now the shut gate

   And the decomposing wall);

 

although

Johnny Reb is both patriot and traitor,

(one ever feels his two-ness)

a generous man

and a flim-flam man

who rallies ‘round the flag

but who also tried to overthrow

the government of the United States

by force and violence

   (we hold these truths to be self-evident);

 

for values are sometimes uncertain

when the human heart is in conflict with itself

(the other civil war—

the war within)

and it is difficult to tell

those Williams boys—Hank and Tennessee—

from those Daniels boys—Charlie and Jack—

much less the old verities

and truths of the heart

   (the ponder heart,

   pondering one’s beginnings);

 

nor even because of

protodorian minstrel shows,

cavalier romances, and bourbon whiskey

   (a lingering fragrance,

   and not all that helpful

   at the bloody angle, or

   when the war was over);

 

although

other voices in other rooms

and in other parts of the forest

found Coca-Cola, Gone with the Wind,

and night riders of the Ku Klux Klan

in the toad’s head of defeat;

   (I don’t hate it! I DON’T HATE IT!);

 

nor even because

the people of paradox

cast down their buckets

into a long and quite un-American

experience with poverty

(the afterlife

of a redeemer nation

that died)

and were subjected to military defeat,

occupation and reconstruction

as a substitute for victory

   (we have always relied

   on the kindness of strangers);

 

losing battles

because we entrusted our future hopes

and past pride

to men with valor and strength

(unlikely heroes

who endured four years of arduous service

marked by unsurpassed courage and fortitude);

but without pity or honor,

who had never known before what mercy was like

because they had been too good to deserve any;

   (was it any wonder

   Heaven saw fit

   to let them lose?)

 

although the knowledge they

carried to the heart

was far more closely in line

with the common lot of mankind

than with the national legends of

opulence and success and innocence

   (You have seen their faces);

 

and least of all because

a latter-day abolitionist anoints it

a freak, an inexplicable variant

from the national norm

and a distant mirror in which

the nation can see its blemishes

magnified in a golden eye

   (My dear, I don’t give a damn!);

 

but rather in spite of

the immoderate past,

the darkness at the dawning,

in spite of the regional image of

Yankee saints and Southern sinners

(a good man is hard to find),

a Sahara of the Bozart

where agrarian poets in brown studies,

(all clever men who make their way)

spent with old wars and new sorrow,

take their stands in defense of

hookworm and intellectual malnutrition

   (poets without laurels,

   men who never saw the

   bright eyes of beardless boys

   go up to death);

 

in spite of the regional image

of scrawny, sallow, sex-crazed women

who never treat men fair

subsisting on a diet of

sowbelly and segregation

and a strange fruit—

golden apples—

named desire,

burning in the night,

having the time of her life,

for everything that rises must

lie down in darkness and make

love in the ruins of the

sanctuary

   (because there is something in the touch of flesh with flesh

   which abrogates, cuts sharp and straight

   across the devious intricate channels

   of decorous ordering),

remembering the act of the ravisher,

sanctifying it forever

   (even a gentle serpent

   dreams of sleep);

 

in spite of the regional image

of media-made Dixie, a

primordial Chattahoochee

where doomed, inbred hillbillies

from the hills beyond Pentland,

 

violate, with seething degeneracy

innocent Atlanta boaters

in midquest

   (without a decent respect for

   the opinion of mankind);

 

in spite of the regional image

of a faraway country

with lanterns on the levee,

a cause at heart,

an Edisto of the mind,

where goblins go barefoot

and folks all outlive themselves

by years and years and years

   (That’s the one trouble with this country,

   Everything,

   weather and women,

   all hangs on too long);

 

in spite of the regional image

of a patriarchal republic

of concentration camps called plantations,

where men of substance, of flesh and bone,

are infantilized into little Black Sambos

within the plantation household,

subject to the sadistic whims of Simon Legree

and the lords of discipline,

a confederacy of dunces,

Aryan stormtroopers of the Invisible Empire,

Demons out of the earth—they will not last

   (wrung out to lassitude in the strong sun

   and to lack of hope or caring;

   in ignorance of all cause, all being,

   all conduct, hope of help, or cure,

   saturate in harm and habit);

 

in spite of the regional image of

a land of squalid opulence and doomed immortality,

which man deswamped and denuded and derivered

in three generations,

where men are the sum of their misfortunes,

haunted by God

   (that was part of it, too,

   that fierce desire

   that they should be perfect

   because they were His

   and He was theirs);

where all God’s dangers—

rampant racism and bloody

violence—bear it away

with repressive fundamentalist piety,

and beefy, Bible-thumping rednecks, baptized in blood,

lurk in every grease pit south of Cincinnati

   (was it for this

   that on an April day

   we stacked our arms?);

 

not for glory,

and least of all for profit,

but because we labor under a curse,

a tradition at bay

(awaiting the summons

once more to surrender),

for the South may have been

predestined by Providence

to be a mudsill

under national self-esteem

   (but we must deny it

   all along the way);

 

although it remains

a terrain of the heart, a tree, a rock, a cloud,

a stone, a leaf, an unfound door,

a sad cafe,

a homesick restaurant

for an exile—

an accidental tourist—

drunk with love,

   (Let us cross over the river and

   rest under the shade of the trees)

a lonely hunter

who can’t go home again

but must still look homeward

 

   (some desperate and lonely man

   who hoped past hope

   and past belief

   for some haven

   of comfort, warmth, and love)

It wasn’t even his fault

because that was the way he was

and the way the times were,

and there was no other place

a man could look;

 

although it remains

a gaudy place,

a place to come to

for slaves without masters,

for masters without slaves,

for outsiders

and native sons,

a second coming after

a long and happy life

   (thinking back—

   giving a backward glance

   through the window of memory

   as one slips over the border);

 

in spite of

the death of the fox

in the killing frost

(have mercy, October),

a death in the family,

the last gentleman’s

end as a man from

the shotgun in the attic;

and the keepers of the house,

the mausoleum of love

(baffled outraged ghosts)

neither forgive nor revenge

   (the shadow knows

   both shadow and act);

 

and even in spite

of the sorrow songs,

of nightwatchmen

a short walk down the

cabin road playing

train whistle guitar—

black blues and shiny songs—

for my people

(a peculiar people):

   tall men and

   conjure women,

   dream children,

   Uncle Tom’s children and

   the children of pride,

   Mamba’s daughters

   and the daughters of strangers,

   good old boys—

   rednecks and merchants,

   brother to grand dragons,

   brother to a dragon fly—

   Mary’s scarlet sister,

   friends and relations,

   brothers and keepers,

like a family,

the folly of mothers and fathers,

rich in love,

the shared present of our separate pasts,

a Southern family,

bone of my bone

in my father’s house

each a child of God.

   (people too as we are,

   and victims too as we are)

 

The writer’s duty has been

to write of such things.

It has been our mission

to help the South endure

by trying to apprehend and expiate

the irreconcilable mutation and change

of successive overlapping generations;

   Southern history has been pursued,

   its brazen face sculpted,

   its deliverance promoted,

   its origins explored,

 

   its emergence proclaimed,

   its renascence heralded,

   its romanticism lamented,

   its burden brooded over,

   its myth demythologized,

   and its epitaph pronounced.

 

I have a thing to tell you,

only this and nothing more:

A sacred circle

cannot be made straight;

wisdom is more than knowing

what we knew, what we said,

the famous errors of the famous dead.

I decline to accept the end of the South—

that the South will go out of history

into historiography

and the awful responsibility of time.

I decline to accept that

nor even yet relinquish

the ancient commission of the writer—

that meager and fragile thread—

to ponder still the same old unanswerable paradox,

and perhaps

to hew out of the mountain of despair

a stone of hope.

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