Taking Down the Flag

Our poetry editor steps into the Editor’s Corner to walk us through a week of writing that wrestles with the Confederacy, that army of a million ghosts who haunt the South.

If you look at the jobs our three contributors this week have had, you’ll see an interesting variety of fields represented: law, music, the military, education, history, and poetry. That wasn’t by design, but it is telling these three writers—from Washington, D.C., Tennessee, and Arkansas, and working in those varied disciplines—all turn their vision toward the Confederacy at some point, in some way.

We get a fair number of submissions related to the Confederacy, and with good reason: it still haunts the South and Southerners. It’s a through line that shapes the experiences of almost every Southerner in some way. The legacy of white supremacy and illusions that so many of us either espoused, quietly held, or at least didn’t question—they don’t die easy. The shadows still loom, and only a flood of light will drown them.

Each of our three contributors this week—all of them new to the pages of Salvation South—turn a spotlight onto the force that haunts Southern history.

When I started teaching for a nonprofit called D.C. WritersCorps in 1998, part of our training involved a couple of great poetry anthologies—Every Shut Eye Ain’t Asleep and In Search of Color Everywhere—a big binder full of photocopied poems and writing exercises, and access to a bunch of books on the shelves of the D.C. Humanities Council near 14th and H Streets Northwest.


So much of my world was opened up and nourished by the teaching, studying, writing, and performing I got to do around D.C. for 13 years, but one of the books I scored from those shelves in 1998 was brian gilmore’s first, elvis presley is alive and well and living in harlem. His poem “this macho thing” has broken me down and charged me up for 25 years. Listen to him reading his challenge to codes of masculinity, and you’ll understand why.

brian gilmore reads his poem “this macho thing”

I’ve read that poem with my students forever, but somehow I didn’t really dive into gilmore’s work again until 2019, when his fourth book of poems, come see about me, marvin, appeared with Wayne State University Press. That book emerged from the eleven years he spent (mostly) away from his hometown of Washington while serving as clinical associate professor and director of the Housing Clinic at the Michigan State University College of Law.

M.I. Devine describes gilmore’s book as “a lyrical homage of sorts to Marvin Gaye [also born and raised in D.C.], who acts as patron saint for the poet making his own way in Michigan [...] but, of course, the book is more than that—it’s a cultural mapping, a post-industrial elegy, a crying out by a Black man trying to survive this American blizzard.”

In an interview with Devine, gilmore (yes, lowercase) describes how post-industrial America “is not pretty. It is uglier than we are willing to acknowledge, and all of the tensions that come with a failing society, and a failing society rooted in class and race inequalities, are more intense.” Right on the heels of that comment, he adds, “but also, perhaps love can help us, make us survive this crazy period.”

The poem “o canada” operates at the most basic communal level: the neighbor. There are clear differences between gilmore and his neighbor—race, politics, and temperament too, it seems—and the poem closes with a marking of boundaries between the two men, but not before he also affirms their common humanity of grief and heartbreak. And he does so with a subtle mix of tension, compassion, sadness, humor, and grace.

“We are part of a history that will be told one day. We need to get it down on paper, on video, on something, so people can learn from the wrong they did, and the right.

brian’s three pieces here are in different genres, which is unusual for us, but I think of them like a three-piece band, so let me introduce the players, and how they got together here.

He sent us “Letter to My Grandmother” before I started reading for Salvation South, and before I became poetry editor. Once we accepted that, I invited him to send us more work sometime: poetry, more personal essays, or maybe something from the cultural history he’s working on for Georgetown University Press, tentatively titled No More Worlds to Conquer: The Black Poet in Washington, D.C., Since Paul Laurence Dunbar. He obliged with the first two pieces you’ll see here.

The first is an adapted excerpt from No More Worlds to Conquer, a segment about Howard University professor, poet, and literary critic Sterling A. Brown (it is also lined with some of brian’s own family history, which acts as a little prelude to the third piece). This is the history piece within the trio, something that gilmore is committed to: “we are part of a history that will be told one day. We need to get it down on paper, on video, on something, so people can learn from the wrong they did, and the right. Amiri Baraka used to say, of America, you better write it down, otherwise no one will ever believe it actually happened. He was, of course, referring to the madness of this country when he said that, the decadent and dystopian ideals being pushed by some that have shaped history here in such a profound way.”

The historical nature of “Sterling Brown: Uptown” sets the table for the second piece, a poem in Brown’s voice, set in his home in the Brookland section of D.C., and dedicated to Marcia Davis, the current owner of Brown’s former house, which gilmore visited.

The third is the aforementioned “Letter to My Grandmother,” which returns to that dimension of family history in “Uptown,” further detailing and honoring the trajectory of his grandmother’s move from South Carolina to D.C. in a network of struggle and strength. It is all open-eyed gratitude.

Movement is part of Kae Chatman’s work as well. “My Itinerary” is the zigzagging story of travel from the South to New England to the Midwest and back again to the South, culminating in a claim of one’s baggage and a resolve to a form of reconciliation. Both humorous and ominous, “My True Hand” leads us through the quirks of learning to write—which is learning to communicate—with a delightful tour through the making of letters.

In the first poem in Kae’s trio, she takes us to a Confederate cemetery, with a flash of gorgeous landscape, followed by a brief but brutal catalog of poor white soldiers’ suffering and abandonment, which seems to be co-opted a century later by a politician, who sets up stones in such a way that the shadows never die. Chatman’s closing image is fascinatingly ambiguous. White readers, please sit and play with the phrase “blindingly / white rigid” that begins that final image.

Interestingly, it is neither a poem defending the Confederacy nor urgently calling for its destruction, but perhaps more about the relationship between how the manner in which others have tended to our legacy affects how we perceive our past. (Something in all that makes me think of the layers of perception in Bob Dylan’s “Only a Pawn in Their Game.”)

Musician and songwriter Stephen Simmons gets right after it in “Killing the Confederacy,” which speaks to how “We are chained / To ghosts who will not / Go unavenged.” There are tides of darkness that we can’t ignore: someone has to watch, witness, and take action. He writes, “The Confederacy must be killed / Over and over,” because demons don’t just go away after they’re confronted once.

brian gilmore says he came to poetry “not just for the love of words and literature and ideas but to try to convince people to do better.”

He follows that stark charge with a poem about family, hard work, and honoring God. If you were to read that poem on its own, without the previous poem in mind, you might take it as a beautiful poem about those exact three things—and you’d be right to do so and love it for that. Within the context of these other poems, however, I can’t help but hear some suggestive echoes.

Within the first few lines, there’s a clear contrast between dark and light, day and night, and the insight those contrasts yield. After working late with his grandfather, there’s “the polyurethane / That would not wash off from the week’s job.” His grandfather has “rough, cut up hands / With dirt and Porter’s paint / Under his nails.” Simmons ends with the lesson to acknowledge something larger beyond (or deeper within) us. And the poem’s last word is “grace.”

Light and dark, hard-to-wash-off stains, scars, mystery, and grace. And Simmons’ third poem, “Arisen”? It’s about Easter. Resurrection. Go figure.

brian gilmore believes the poet’s job has always been “to communicate. To say something we can understand or at least consider for our own lives.” He says he came to poetry “not just for the love of words and literature and ideas but to try to convince people to do better. That South Africa’s apartheid was wrong. That racism and poverty in the U.S. is wrong. That violence against women is wrong. Like Clarence Major, like Maurice White of Earth, Wind & Fire, I wanted to make some beauty.”

And he does. Looking hard at our wrongs, and doing so with love, brian gilmore makes some beauty. And so do Kae Chatman and Stephen Simmons this week, as they engage with national history, memories of family, religious ritual, the tangles of our personal travels, and even how we learn to write (how to shape what we want to say). I hope you’ll notice certain words, images, ideas, and conflicts that echo between the work of these folks like combination tones in a piece of music.

We love this complicated place, its complicated people, our complicated selves. And sometimes love requires effort. It takes so much to be whole: vulnerability and vigilance; courage, risk, and tenderness; a determination to find one’s way; a reaching-out to others; reading and rereading memories; old-fashioned hard work as well as an openness to the new; maybe some catfish, collards, music, a little bourbon. That’s a lot, and yet, these three writers—individually, piece by piece, and in the little choir of this week—they do just that. They do it. We can too.

Author Profile

Andy Fogle is the poetry editor of Salvation South. He is the author of Mother Countries (forthcoming from Main Street Rag), Across From Nowand seven chapbooks of poetry, including Arc & Seam: Poems of Farouk Goweda, co-translated with Walid AbdallahHe’s from Virginia Beach, spent years in the D.C. area, and now lives with his family in upstate New York, teaching high school.

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