OUT ON THE BAYOU
JANUARY 7, 2000 • HOUSTON VOICE
Out In Print
'Depot Street' depicts decades-long journey
by A L COTTON
One of the great joys of reading poetry is
how efficiently it can convey another
person's world view.
For example, to go from the poetry of
iMary Oliver to that of the late James
Broughton is to leave a world where the cruelty and beauty of nature is perpetually on
md enter one where playfulness and
awe intersect in male sexuality. The worlds
poets create can be so radically different that
sometimes you find it impossible to reconcile, as Oliver said in one poem, that "there
is, after all, only one world."
Minnie Bruce Pratt's world, on display in
WALKING BACK UP DEPOT STREET, isa
place where life's oppressions are ever-present, and solace seems to come only from
your knowledge of their existence.
The point of view of these poems is that of
a Southern woman named Beatrice (which
instinct says must be pronounced Be-AT-
rice) who, like Pratt herself, is an anti-racist
lesbian teacher living in Ihe South who eventually moves North.
The title poem serves as prologue to the
collection, and perfectly sums up Southern
expatriate-hood: "Words would not remake
the past. She could not make it/ vanish like
an old photograph thrown onto live coals.//
If she meant to live in the present, she would
have to work, do/ without, send money, call
home long distance about the heat."
Beatrice's world is one in which the personal is almost unrelentingly political—in
"The A&P," a trip to the grocery story for
tomatoes reminds her of who picked them,
how mechanistically they're grown. Slavery,
racist oppression, homophobia—they haunt
Beatrice's South. But ignoring what we know
about the past, trying to forget, is not an
option. "Every day she wanted to/ forget
something she'd learned about the house,
the fields,/ the lopped cedar posts propping
the scuppemong arbor,/ the fallen grapes
fermenting on the ground."
The closest she gets to an answer? "Stay
conscious, a voice said. Can't do nothing if
you don't/ stay conscious. ...// But every
time, every damn time, she walked/ into this
A&P to get groceries, she had to decide/ not
to be like her father."
Life in the Beatrice's South creates one
dilemma of memory after another—the
ghosts of Hiroshima show up in "Strange
Flesh"; sharecroppers' lives are the topic of
"A Cold Not the Opposite of Life"; "Shades"
tells of how the stories of African tribes arise
in her mind while she's teaching. But the
urban North provides no respite from injustice, just different subjects—factory workers,
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MINNIE BRUCE PRATT
V^alking Bach Up^
miners, evil landlords, even the sweatshop
malady of the '90s, carpal funnel syndrome.
These poems, some of which are almost
two decades old, are a cycle that tells the
story Pratt's personal political evolution.
They are tough, vigorous poems, full of long
lines of blank verse that ache to convey the
painful truths people try to forget.
Technically, they are ambitious, using italic
and indentation to denote shifts in time, narration and perspective.
in tone, you'll find a fascinating combination of moral certainty and personal ambiguity, a complex perspective that feels very
familiar-a sort of "I know what's wrong
here, but where can I find something that's
right?" that speaks directly to the soul's
In the final poem, "The Other Side,''
Beatrice meets a mysterious figure at a drag
bar who challenges that personal ambiguity—"What kind of woman/ are you? Stand
here. Answer/.... Answer me and live."
Since Pratt's partner is transgendered
activist Leslie Feinberg, the ironic ending
for this book of poems is Beatrice finding
solace when she accepts the challenge to
make the political even more ferociously personal in her life.
As they leave together—"Into the rain-
streaked street of night, the yellow leaves
fallen/ like golden scars on black asphalt,
they walk out their answer/ to the riddle, the
woman who is not a man, the woman who is
not/ a woman, following the yellow drift
like fire around the corner"-you can imagine
the thunderclap that follows when love
strikes in someone's poetic world.
Walking Back Up
by Minnie Bruce Pratt
University of Pittsburgh Press,
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