Pamela L. Sumners' Etiquette for a Pandemic (and Other Social Distancing Protocols)


reviewed by Bill Burtis

Hole-in-the-Head, while called a “review,” has only once before offered an actual review of a volume of poetry. With a “full-time part-time” staff of four editors and a couple of contributing editors, and LOTS of submissions to which we give really careful attention (including the artwork), we just don’t have the capacity and we fear, frankly, that if we get in the business of reviewing volumes of poetry, well, we won’t get the journal out!


But occasionally we get an opportunity that we just don’t want to pass up. In the case of our first review (which we “hired out”, by the way, to the talented and perspicacious poet and teacher, Jessica Purdy), we found the unique perspective, fine quality and rampant timeliness of Ralph James Sevarese’s Republican Fathers irresistible. So, too, we find Pamela Sumners’s Etiquette for a Pandemic (&Other Social Distancing Protocols) compelling, timely, crisply original, daringly challenging and, at once, powerfully charming. It is, in fact, unlike any volume of poetry we’ve encountered.


And it is an encounter. Rest assured that from the moment you enter this collection—and,

oh reader, you do enter—in a way not entirely unlike entering a theme park for the mind,

you are in for a different experience. It’s worth mentioning, for instance, that, at 10” x 7”,

it is a big book, literally, as called for by the sheer size of the poems and what the author

refers to in her introductory Author’s Note as “my ‘run on for a long time’ lines” (which

are “explicitly a Southern way of speaking.”). Worth mentioning, too, that the Author’s

Note is a valuable tool in coming to grips with what Sumners is up to here and is perhaps

the book’s best review!


So enter knowing there are some wild rides. That we like Sumners’s work is evidenced by

the number of times it has graced our pages. We think initially we were drawn to a kind of

rhythm, structure and language that was at once quirky and appealing, a kind of all-akimbo

imagery in storytelling that surrounded and bathed the reader in an atmosphere rich and

zesty as a good gumbo. As an example, the first poem of Sumners’s to appear in HITH is

“A Brief History of Blue”, which is the first poem in the second section of Etiquette,

“(AND OTHER SOCIAL DISTANCING PROTOCOLS)” and takes us from


When Neanderthal stumbled color-blind from his cave

he had no word for sea or sky, knew only cave-black,

blood-red, and later, moon-yellow, grass-green.

to

Tangs, Yuans, Van Goghs, Ramseses, Medicis, dissolute Vermeers, the resolute

sadness of Jezebel at the window, Crayola narthex, a wave, a stone rolled

from Christ’s tomb, Homer’s loss of words, a funeral dirge for pharaohs, eternal

blue, the Blue of the Future, COVID blue, Black Lives Matter Blue, thin blue line,

the Memphis of everywhere, a cast-off rib bone with a Beale Street saxophone.


Blue is blue is beyond the sea beyond words and Blue is.


And we meet, along the way Phoenicians, Egyptians, haughty French, the British still in

empire, German chemists, and, of course, the Chinese, not in that order. So, you see….


Thus, when Etiquette came to our attention, we bet it would be irresistible. We were right.

It is a marvelously ambitious work, offering as it does to teach us a good many things

we’ve not thought to want to learn, from the protocols of the etiquette (laid out in a poem,

no less), to the ways and language, pace and tone, of a true South, to the dark runnels and

rivulets of love, disappointment, triumph and resolve in surrender.


To resist the temptation to fly about the book, let’s take things in order. The book’s

uniqueness is immediately evident: the cover features a photograph (by the author’s son) of

the evidently boarded-up entrance to a stone building (perhaps a church?) on which is

painted the image of a grey-bearded and -dreaded probably African-American drummer,

underneath the words REDEVELOPMENT OPPORTUNITY.


The dedication (To all the Walt&Coras [sic] of the world and all the other people that the World’s Big People with real big mouths think are expendable. You’re essential, working

or not. Thank you for everything.) introduces us to the work’s protagonists (“quintessential

Southern vernacular characters who are vanishing from the literary landscape”) and the

idea that we will encounter the occasional polemic within. This, in turn, is followed by an

epigraph—a warning, really—from Alexander Pope’s (Alexander Pope?!) The Dunciad

that “universal darkness buries all.”


This is followed by the Author’s Note and, as mentioned above, one could spend an entire

review, plumbing its depths, touching as it does on everything from Southern place and

voice to American authoritarianism, the scarcity of character and narrative in contemporary

poetry, and the “Etiquette” as “a framing device” that will allow inspecting what’s fair and

right to “How…we treat people just minding their own business when ideologues and cops

might be minding the NRA’s business instead of the business of law whether they have

malicious intent or not.”


It is worth mentioning at this point that Sumners, a widely published poet and Pushcart

nominee whose poems were selected for 64 Best Poets of 2018 and 2019 and who has two

previous volumes, is known for her Constitutional law and civil rights work, including

opposing such dark notables as Jay Sekulow, Judge Roy Moore, Bill Pryor and “an

Alabama governor who argued that the Bill of Rights doesn’t apply to Alabama.” Sumners

is, by the way, a native Alabamian—she knows of what she speaks.


And now you’re perhaps ready for the poetry.


Before we get to the title poem, the poet sets up the place and atmosphere with three

shorter poems. “Joker” notes


…it’s not Christ throwing

the little old ladies with diabetes into the Hunger Games so

the money changers can run amock [sic] in the Temple of Commerce


and a reference to the proverbial tip of the “Jupiter iceberg” before going to the grocery

store where


There’s only one death here so far

before I took my receipt.


“Williamson, Tennessee”, helps place us while noting “What neurotic transcendence” to

board a streetcar or “look at a baby, in the bold death-stare of day?” then “This Time Last

Year”, (The title a harbinger, for when have we been more attuned to and less aware of the

passings of time?) lulls us like the flight of the innocent chimney swift from the

ominousness implicit in the opening lines (“a neighbor…asked me if we’d noticed the

silence of the chimney swifts”) to the final couplet where what the birds do not know is

what we do, so painfully:


that the chimney owners are living through

a goddamn featherstroke of history, now nesting with them, awake.”


“Etiquette for a Pandemic: Protocols” is a long poem in eight sections. It is impossible to

do it, in its great complexity, justice here. Each section takes its direction from an aspect of

Six: the ubiquitous “feet apart”, feet deep, and then a cascade of other six-based elements

that include burial, property size and address—all as an encounter with Walt&Cora and

their family coping with the couples loss and its ramifications, from the need for Cora to be

put to rest to the right of Walt (“Which way did you stand at the altar?”) to the bread going

stale while the family is away. There are also commentaries, often satiric, before the poem

ends with the surprising Floor 6, where the speaker is finally caught in the delusion of

illness (“The nurse told me when I pierced the veil of anesthesia, I revealed that I am in fact

/ the governor of Mississippi….”) and the fight for life with CoVid, while the world—and

spring, no less—and youth and “stupid jonquils” goes on.


The first section then moves through a progression that may in its way take some

organization from Kubler-Ross’s order of grieving, at least in addressing denial, grief,

anger and kind of acceptance, though not one that goes gently. Included here is “Connie

M. Messkimen Wants to Tell Y’all Sumpin” (which we learn in notes is “inspired by a

letter to the editor”, and which Sumners renders in the voice “of people who might actually

think this”), the speaker contending that the seasonal time change, adding all that daylight,

is responsible for climate change and global warming.


There is also the tender “Home Schooling My Son”, another aspect of pandemic, in which

the mother laments:


I’ll teach him not to burn his bridges

even though I myself never know

quite when I’ve gone a bridge

too far. These sad, permeable

maternal membranes, these spongy

tensile things that string us


together and that can hang us

separately


and warns


these still

still days—even in the normal times—

these still things with blunted edges

are the ones that can hurt you.


The section finishes with several poems that take up some of the political and social and

economic justice issues whose intensity is so heightened and sharpened by the exigencies

of CoVid, from the death of George Floyd (“April Is the Cruelest Month”) to the

“collective Narcissism” of social media (“Dorian Gray Has a Facebook Page), the battle

over reproductive rights, and the horrible ineptitude and cruelty of the Trump

administration. Here Sumners displays a satiric wit and wisdom at once humorous and

chilling as well as a knack for plain storytelling.


In her introduction, Sumners notes that she attempts in Etiquette to frame questions of

fairness and truth, that in her life as a poet and a lawyer, she has wrestled “between whether

law or poetry might be the best tool of justice,” the one master she has attempted to serve

with both. This second section of the book, as “Social Distancing Protocols” implies, really

approaches in a variety of ways “the distances between people,” the poems elucidating “the

impact of disease on us as well as our dis-ease with each other, the distances we keep, and

whether we try to close them, even with out lovers.”


I need here to humbly point out my deficiencies as a reviewer: the poems in this book, but

particularly in this second section, are so rich in their diverse subjects, modes of address,

tone, imagery, rhythm, and voice that it’s really impossible for me to do them justice in any

general way. In part this is because Sumners as a poet defies comparison (though there are

echoes of other Southern poets) the way one often does in a review, to explain by citing

works similar in influence or craft. But it is also because of the sheer breadth of the work,

the ways in which, at least to this writer, Sumners lets so many facets of life and culture

sparkle, shining her lights this way, and that. I think of a guide, leading us through an attic,

a museum, an underworld, a battlefield, swinging a light side to side, to show us what is

there.


We begin the second section with the already mentioned whirlwind of “A Brief History of

Blue” and then are immediately treated to the (rhyming!) deeply questioning, how-did-we-

get-here, anti-paean “Redirect Examination at the Apocalypse,” delineating, with poetry,

the spaces between Law and Justice and, indeed, the spaces between notions of justice,

even under law, a marvelous display of history, literary and legal, that takes up the twisted

failings of the author’s profession, even with the nobility of its underpinnings:


III.

I know what hollow magistrate

stormed the bridge and crashed the gate.

It’s Socrates who plays the thief

while Law is gnashing at her brief.

It’s Socrates with Satan’s tongue—

not Frost, nor Proust, Freud or Jung.

Intellect marks his cognition as

stratagems and strange equations.

He tracks the author of this sin,

blames by presence, blames again.

Who nears the apple is responsible

he declares, our somber constable.


We’re offered some succor at the end, though tempered:


But if Mercy trumps Justice

a different mirror delivers us.

The glass in Cinderella’s hands

is the shattering that makes amends.

What lawyers say remains untrue:

I would walk through fire for you.

And if in ashes we all fall down

I drain Luke’s cup to take his crown.

And if Phoenix rises from these embers

her wings bless all that she remembers.


In “The Caretakers,” we are brought to an experience of extreme poverty in Buckingham,

Virginia, a speaker who can no longer manage another batch of wormy, flea-bitten dogs

left for her by “the woman” but nevertheless wonders “how the nice man who cut and

delivered my wood knew I’d be frozen, alone, and hungry on Christmas Day” and so left “a

whole ham and a cord of wood”. In “Shelf Life,” the speaker spells out the terms of loss

and leaving, how we remain strangers, through the story of a girl whose “face had always

the filthy trace of a smudged Fudgcicle,” but with pressed clothes and a pink barrette, who

asks the speaker for a school photo, but who’s brother precludes the giving by putting a

bullet in “the vault of her skull. The cops said he called here uppity.”


Now you look at me as though I still exist, but I left you before I

knew you. I left you for a stray-eyed college women in 1979.

I left you for a woman with a $500 Italian briefcase in 1997 who

wanted me for the centerpiece among her table’s shiny objects.

I left you for a woman with the panicked stray eye of the hunted,


chasing a picture, evaporating into coal dust, ash, the bullet’s bore.


“In the Garden” (Reference the Garden, epigraph courtesy of Robert Frost: “Something

there is that doesn’t love a wall.”) we meet what is, most likely, the key culprit in our

separation one from another—and certainly from a Biblical perspective:


Envy makes a lousy neighbor

encroaching on your property.


In the garden hunger cast the curse

that put distance in the universe.


and


Envy’s a bad, bad neighbor to swallow

more than it should and vomit for spite.


In succeeding poems, Sumners details how class, culture, religion and politics and our own

desires can hold us apart from ourselves and those around us, no matter how much we

profess and attempt love. But often in these diverse perspectives, her tongue is planted so

deeply in cheek that it must nearly cramp with irony or sarcasm. In “An Incomplete

Hierarchy of My Wants and Needs” for instance, the speaker insists on wanting “to be born

with the gift of obedience”, to “get right with God on the Appian Way paved by the

Tabernacle of the Baptist Jesus”, to be “all the people who are so much better smarter

faster”, and finally “a purpled old disastrous romance, with your face a stricken radiance.”


Before we leave, we encounter Cora in some detail, discovering in “Cora’s Things” her

previous marriage to an abusive man who disrespected her and her things (250 Hummels,

297 houseplants, the ridges of her shag carpet), and “the man (Walt) who never lifted a

hand to her and backlit all her fragile, particular pretties.” In “Alabama Bones,” the poet

eulogizes Civil Rights hero John Lewis, having inherited “these bones, these singing

bones…their broken parts mixed with blood,” even though her own “blood would have

been the night-riders”.


At the last, we go deep South and meet “Granny Woman (Emma Dupree 1897-1992)”,


Root Doctor, “the woods gal.” An intuitive alchemist,

the Lucky Seven of 18 children born to Freedmen


a healer in the best, oldest sense, who took her own medicine, “until she died at 95.”


She stewed it with the bark of a berry tree she grew herself at home.

She called it Bible tree, growing from a seed she swore was blessed

by a saint in Rome. She planted it with her own hands, throwing

her back into the digging, impregnating it with hope. Granny rests

now, but her tree gropes the sky, Sweet Everlasting, reinheriting itself.


Julian Long, publisher at Backroom Window Press, which issued Etiquette in 2021,

believes “This is a collection to be treasured.” We agree. Treasured, and savored.