- The Definition of Place
In the opening section of Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years 1963-1965 (1999), Taylor Branch sketches Birmingham, Alabama, after the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. According to Branch, the deadly Sunday morning explosion set forth tensions present in the city since the bombing of Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth's home in December 1956. In The Definition of Place, Randall Horton also considers the events of September 15, 1963 in Birmingham. Horton's first published volume of verse examines the bombing and its aftermath in "Colored Water: 1963," the fourth section of the collection. Writing as a Birmingham native, Horton surveys the city and its color line across their geographies, and through time. His poems make connections between the series of high-profile moments recalled both within the national civil rights movement and a set of lesser-known, but related local acts of resistance, injustice and violence. Poems from "Colored Water" contextualize Horton's intimate examination of ancestry, memory, and African American life in Alabama during the twentieth century. They provide readers with a contact point for the project that the [End Page 193] poet undertakes in The Definition of Place. For instance, with the volume's "Profiles" section, Horton collects moments from the lives of Denise McNair, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Addie Mae Collins, Birmingham's so-called "four little girls," and from his poetic examinations of their deaths, generates a referent for a double homicide committed on a Sunday afternoon in 1912 that he treats in the volume's opening section, "Backstory."
Similarly, "Caught in a Whirlwind of Hate," another poem from the volume's "Colored Water" section, brings clarity to and draws definition from the verse that precedes and follows it. Dedicated to Virgil Ware, the poem examines the murder of the thirteen-year-old black youth, shot and killed by a sixteen-year-old white Eagle Scout, while riding a bicycle with his brother on the outskirts of Birmingham late in the afternoon on September 15, 1963. The poem engages verse found in the "Sydney Merrill" section of The Definition of Place. With "Sydney Escapes from the Chain Gang" and "Dialogue with the Tennessee River," for instance, the poet moves with his subject, taking readers into "the confines of a six by six" and witnessing Merrill "evaporate / into the Tennessee River's cold fury," delivering an account of the poet's kinsman and his escape from an Alabama prison camp. By doing so, the Sydney Merrill poems situate civil rights-era violence within extended patterns witnessed in twentieth-century Southern life.
With these detailed poetic accounts, Horton delivers his "definition of place" in poems that chart coordinates of race, family, law, order, violence and resistance. They measure and connect coordinates of a social and historical Alabama landscape, producing an in-depth literary cartography of black life and American race ritual. Horton pursues this project directly with an eight-poem series that considers Birmingham and the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, culminating in "A Definition of Place, 1963." Beginning with the epigraph, "after A. Van Jordan," this poem appears on the page as a dictionary entry, providing a definition of place by using synonyms and contextualizing statements that ground the volume's orientation to questions of African American geography. After examining the notion of place through a series of terms, including "bootleg house," "building" "repose," "situation," and "structure," Horton's poem concludes when the poet writes, "4) region: in the lower part of Alabama there is a city / a town / a place called Birmingham where Negroes refuse to curl up and die." By doing so, Horton's debut collection explores and marks an important set of poetic boundaries and intersections; it defines place in terms drawn from a struggle for civil and human rights that moves from the streets of Birmingham, into greater Alabama, across the South and throughout the United States.
The Definition of Place effectively delivers a series of intertwined poetic voices that record sixty-five years of African American experience. The volume's...