That Red Dirt Road by Kay Sanders. Madison, WI: Parallel Press, University of Wisconsin-Madison Libraries, 2010. $10.
Reviewed by Lou Roach
Kay Sanders understands the deep current of family that flows through the lives of those fortunate enough to have grown up in the midst of parental love, also knowing the warm affection of extended family members. Her chapbook, That Red Dirt Road, is more than a memoir. It is homage to the strength of connections and the sense of mutual support that flourishes wherever kinship is valued and nourished.
The poet, who lives in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, is an established writer. She is the recipient of three Jade rings for essay and poetry from the Wisconsin Regional Writers Association. She has won awards from the Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets and from Wisconsin People and Ideas Magazine.
Sanders’ narratives of coming of age in the deep south give the reader clean, concise images of the people, places and concerns of beloved relatives who were very much present in her life. Each poem invites the reader into family events to experience the significant moments and settings so well-remembered by her. Even better, her writing brings our own memories of family alive again.
In the title poem, “Let Me Have That Red Dirt Road,” Sanders takes us to the church and its grounds where the family gathered on Sundays:
. . .
air filled with the rustle of funeral-home fans,
piano chords so lusty the vase of flowers marches
to Zion right along with the congregation
. . .
Let me have that red dirt road that winds through the graveyard
back into the hills, plots of graves lined with low brick walls
where children teeter and learn to balance and listen to their elders
talk of the dead.
The interconnection that ties the book together is stated in “Communion”:
. . . all of us shoots
from the stem
of a common root
following the call
piped through our veins
back to our beginnings,
to the endings
of our forebears’ lives.
Sanders writes about all the aunts who peopled her youth, Lillie, Essie, Pearl, Ida
and Mary. In “Embers,” a carefully honed description of her favorite aunt, Lillie,
she focuses on the closeness that existed between the two of them:
We pass our possessions back again,
easy as thoughts slipping back and forth
across the boundaries of time. . .
The lines round her eyes crinkle,
flecks of light spark from their depths,
Lillie is the subject of several poems in the book. She is perhaps the strongest and most memorable of Sanders” cherished relatives, except her parents.In “Weather Map,” we see her as a “spinner of cotton and stories/ strong thread/ that weather time and the map.”
The spirit of Sanders’ poems—her regard for those individuals most important to her development, is captured as she writes of seeing a cookbook of her mother’s, filled with carefully written recipes:
a script that travels across the years
as inexorably as it once traced
the northward curve of the continent
to find me here in Wisconsin.
And I marvel at a thing so simple that joins
two spirits no longer present
to each other in the flesh.
("Letters Written in Longhand")
I wish Kay Sanders had included a few poems revealing a bit more explicitly how the qualities from the people in her past shaped her present. I realize some of that information is implicit in some of her work, but I wanted to know how they awakened her passion for poetry, now so apparent in her work.
I look forward to her next book, Traveling Light, already in progress. I believe she has many more stories to tell.
Lou Roach, former social worker and psychotherapist, lives in Poynette. Her poems have appeared in a number of small press publications, including Main St. Rag, Free Verse and others. She has written two books of poetry, A Different Muse and For Now. She continues to do free-lance writing, although poetry is her favorite thing to do.