book review by Thomas Uskali
Joshua Clegg Caffery’s collection, In the Creole Twilight: Poems and Songs from Louisiana Folklore, draws from the state’s rich cultural heritage. His poetry is serious but playful, provincial but universal—in other words, as complicated as the word “creole” itself.
From years of research in libraries, music halls and festivals all over the state, Caffery has amassed an impressive knowledge of Louisiana’s foundational stories. He calls these works “invocations or evocations of matters drawn from Louisiana folklore.” Included are poems based on familiar folk tales like “Loup-Garou” and “Father January,” religious stories, “Saint Catherine and the Cherubim,” and places with deep cultural resonance, “Teche,” and “The Feufollet of Irish Bend.” Illustrations by Claire Caffery are nicely paired with most of the poems and add a thoughtful touch to the collection as a whole.
In light of this my review of Rien Fertel’s Imagining the Creole City: The Rise of Literary Culture in Nineteenth-Century New Orleans in the Summer 2015 edition of this magazine, I may remind readers that the local 18th-century definition of a “Creole” (note the capitalization) was a person born in the Louisiana territory whose parents were foreign-born. When large numbers of non-white settlers arrived from St. Domingue in the late 18th century, a “white Creole” distinction was drawn, particularly in New Orleans.
Caffery seems to have embraced the widest possible spectrum of the “creole/Creole” definition, adding to the diverse blend of cultural inspirations. He includes a number of poems inspired by Acadian stories and legends, further blurring cultural lines of demarcation—if nitpickers can look past fine-line distinctions and simply read the poems for enjoyment, all is well.
The collection begins with “A Letter to Pierre Grouillet,” the tale of a young Acadian country woman remembering her charivari. This is the rural wedding custom of “kidnapping the bride,” and Caffery explains it was usually for matches that were “deemed dubious” by the community. At poem’s end she and her new husband are headed to Baltimore via the Tennessee River, but she can think only of Doucet, “the handsome fiddler with the hazel eyes” from her wedding day. In the final wistful stanza, she tells us that she’ll never wear the cypress cross her husband has carved for her—she has already thrown it overboard.
Writing about the background of one of his whimsical poems, Caffery explains: “One of the more visible celebrities of Louisiana French folklore, the Loup-Garou (sometimes Rougarou) is essentially a cross between a werewolf and a chupacabra. It struck me that there were no substantial poetic attempts to summon this curious creature.” He wanted to capture the creature’s “onomatopoetic spell,” which he thinks might account for its longevity. Like a ghost story told at a campfire’s edge, the poem trails off:
But on a full moon, I still hear the sound
I heard that night on Bayou Blue.
I still hear the Loup-Garou—
. . .
It’s a short delight, and does indeed seem to call forth at least the idea of that dreaded creature.
Of the several romantic works, One short poem, “I Sent a Swallow First,” captures much of what is memorable in Caffery’s collection. It demonstrates his lyricism and easy way with metaphor and cultural references.
I sent a swallow first, the afternoon
we met. He sang an easy song for you
in the myrtle just outside your windowsill,
and when you slept he whispered my words.
No swallow understands me now. I feel
those hearts that bat with fear inside my palm.
And when I whisper, their eyes fill with alarm.
Not even carencros* come close these days
when I approach and try to grab each one.
They wheel and spin and never listen well.
Do you still hear that swallow—the one
that sang, perched on the myrtle just above your bed?
If you do, send him back and ask him
to remind me what he said.
(*buzzard, “carrion crow,” from black slave dialect)
This is a sonnet in gentle iambic pentameter, only loosely rhyming, and it offers a pleasant contrast with many poems in the collection that follow a strict iambic tetrameter (four strong beats per line) with a sing-songy ABAB rhyme scheme. Untethered to music, the poem takes on its own natural pacing, and shows Caffery’s more “serious” side.
In his notes, Caffery tells us that “birds, usually swallows, were the social messengers of French folk-song,” and that even in the digital age, “the need for instantaneous, seemingly airborne, conveyance of desire is nothing new.” One is reminded that medieval European romances, particularly those sung by troubadors and trobairitz to their loves, often included a messenger in the form of a bird.
Another notable poem is “The Crow and the Swallow”—a seriously whimsical tale of what happens when a swallow, “a servant of Love,” and a crow, “the master of nonsensical narrative” decide to switch places for a day. To their surprise, it is their songs that identify them; lovers “kissed [the crow’s] beak and stroked his feathers black,” while the swallow’s new song “made less sense than a locked door.” At poem’s end, as “twilight slipped slowly into the trees,” the birds muse, “conversing in the breeze.”
“The Poet Begs for Charity” is the perfect close to Caffery’s collection. It is a sweet reminder of what it means to recite poetry—that poems are indeed songs, and require an audience. The persona in the poem approaches fellow Carnival revelers out in the Acadian prairie, “walking softly in the dew of the ditch.” And like the end of so many Shakespearean comedies, we are invited in: “The fiddler arrives and you form the ring. / Someone has to start the song, / and that is why you sing.” Caffery has reminded us of the calendar that governs Louisiana life: a liturgical one. We return to “Long Lent” as surely as the seasons pass.
The final poem is inspired by Irish poet Seamus Heaney’s “Personal Helicon,” the last one in his first collection. Caffery notes that he was seeking a similar “lush conceit” from a “bucolic childhood.” It’s entirely fitting and satisfying.
In her review of Norman Shapiro’s Creole Echoes: The Francophone Poetry of 19th Century Louisiana (2004), Cécile Accilien turns to Jules Choppin, a poet who wrote fables in a Louisiana Creole dialect. Caffery’s poetry captures it, too, and it’s worth a look back to Choppin’s work. Here is a couplet from his “The Oak and the Reed” (1898):
Pas fait gros vene, ain jour ta vini plat:
Gros papa lion ça peur ain ti dérat . . .
[Don’t go make boast, one day you go lay flat:
Big Papa lion, him scared of little rat . . . ]
Accilien notes that these poems demonstrate a “‘creolized’ language and culture [that] forms a ‘Louisianian’ quality where everything mixes together in a true gumbo culture, which is what Louisiana truly is.” Caffery’s work enriches the mix further; readers will enjoy exploring this collection, both for its own merits and for what it adds to our state’s culture.
Thomas Uskali, a New Orleans-based teacher, writer and actor, also reviews books for the Mobile (Ala.) Register.