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.
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
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
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
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:
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.
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.