MAXWELL:  The state in poetry

4/7/1996 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Off the road, a place they call Spring Lake. The lake dried up years ago. No one here remembers more than a story passed down like water. . . . Someone is always asking questions. There have been questions since the lake dried up . . . . Someone will say all the water was swallowed by the moon. The moon gathering water for the next drought.

_ Pasco 41, Dionisio D. Martinez

Regret, a sense of loss, unrequited love and a brooding ordinariness lace these few lines of Martinez’ 1989 poem. The feelings of Martinez, a Tampa Bay area resident, are emblematic of the feelings of many serious poets who have described Florida, the “land of flowers,” for more than four centuries.

From the beginning, with its tropical climate and unrelenting greenery, its end-of-the-world ambiance and its sense of excess, Florida has been a popular destination for rogues, saints, royalty, romantics and lovers alike. Many critics say that no other state fires the imagination so powerfully or leaves so many visitors with broken dreams and unkept promises.

Florida is a paradise. As such, it is half real, with its oppressive heat, its violent storms, its flatness, its worrisome insects. Florida also is half fantasy, with its visitors searching for fountains of youth, submerged pirates’ treasures and moonlit nights.

Two new anthologies _ Florida in Poetry: A History of the Imagination (Pineapple Press, $24.95) and Isle of Flowers: Poems by Florida’s Individual Artist Fellows (Anhinga Press, $14 paperback) _ offer several hundred poems depicting Florida from its earliest times to the present, verse that captures the state’s mystique and emotions.

Florida’s distant past, built by Europeans who dehumanized the Indians, is reflected in poems such as Octet, penned by Hungarian Nicolas Le Challeux in 1565, and the Elegies on the Illustrious Men of the Indies, written by Juan de Castellanos in 1589. Castellanos’ poems on Ponce de Leon are remarkable because they are some of the first that treat the fountain of youth quest realistically.

The state’s participation in the great wars and its contempt for its colonizers resonate in dozens of pieces. Yvonne Sapia’s Godiva at Olustee, for example, depicts the horrors of the Civil War. The waste and shame of the Seminole Wars are reflected in Will McLean’s The Dade Massacre, in lines such as these: “Lawless men, they were to blame./ From the Georgia line they came./ Burning, killing, stealing slaves,/ From the Seminole Indian braves.”

But all is not dark and dangerous in the Sunshine State. Many of the themes uncover that special Florida humor, the slyness of Cracker cowboys, the inventiveness of slaves, the cathartic lyrics of chain gang songs and, of course, the worldly satire of folk artists such as Zora Neale Hurston.

Many of the poets are from “somewhere else,” but they write about Florida with a deftness and an intensity that reveal more than a casual kinship with their adopted or temporary home. Some, such as Wallace Stevens, celebrate the land. Natives, such as Timothy Thomas Fortune, who was born a slave, are nostalgic. They endow the peninsula with spirituality: “Oh, take me again to the clime of my birth,/ The dearest, the fairest, to me on the earth,/ The clime where the roses are sweetest that bloom,/ And nature is bathed in the rarest perfume!”

Many contemporary poets, perhaps influenced by psychoanalytic criticism, postmodernism and deconstruction, do not take kindly to many of the state’s latest trends and customs. Peter Meinke, for instance, casts jaundiced eyes on Mickey Mouse and friends. Listen to the first stanza of The Magic Kingdom: “Why do so many fat people go to Disneyworld,/ haunches lapping over the little seats/ in the Grand Prix or Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride?/ Does one feel weightless there, reality displaced/ so you soon begin sniffing plastic roses/ and they really smell like roses but better?”

Meinke’s is a harsh view but one that confronts the state’s power to let visitors experience what they want to experience. It still is paradise, and, as the poems in these two collections attest, it inspires and repulses at the same time.

Bill Maxwell is a columnist and editorial writer for the Times.