I always liked the word “sassy” — I guess because I’ve always associated the word with rebellion and attitude. (And maybe because when I was a kid, I was always in trouble for “sassing” my mother). So it’s because of the title — Sassing by Karen Head, that I picked up this particular collection of poems.
Sassing is a collection that debunks the stereotype of the delicate Southern Belle. In fact, poet Karen Head provides a quote by Lee Smith near the start of her collection that foreshadows both subject and tone of the book:
The biggest myth about Southern women is that we are frail types — fainting on our sofas…nobody where I grew up ever acted like that. We were about as fragile as coal trucks.
The collection is divided into four parts (with a single poem acting as a sort of prelude at the start of the book). The first part and third parts explore family history, while highlighting the strength of Southern women — and the women who make appearances in these poems come in all ages, facing all of life’s obstacles. In “Aesthetics” the poet explains that as a little girl making mud-cakes was an art that relied on “deciding exactly/the combination of dirt and water.” In “Economy” the speaker celebrates her grandmother, a survivor from the Great Depression, who teaches how to “clip and re-root almost dead plants/burn paper trash to mix in vegetable beds/tear old dish rags to secure tomatoes.” In “Confessions of a Shelter Volunteer” the poet explains right from the first line of the poem that “Everything I say is a lie.” My favorite work in this whole collection is a list poem of sorts. In “Southern Girls” the speaker lists characteristics and actions of a true Southern woman including drinking tea “with much too sugar,” knowing “how to shell peas” and “eat grits.” The poem ends with the lines explaining that these same girls always “drag their vowels and smile/when they sass.”
The second part of the collection is a sequence of poems with titles of songs. The poet explains in her notes at the end of the book that “These poems are part of a series of semi-autobiographical poems and the titles reflect the #1 song from the week of my birth for several years of my life.” Still, for many readers, the explanation isn’t really needed, as they will recognize such titles as “Eye of the Tiger” and “Every Breath You Take.” Sometimes the correlation between the title of the song and the poem is clear, sometimes it is not. My favorite poem is “Annie’s Song” (mostly because this song was a favorite of my mother who used to listen to John Denver all the time.) In this poem, the speaker details her relationship with the outcast in class, a girl named Annie, by explaining “In second grade, we’d learned to sin//already shunning girls like Annie” by detailing the fact that the young classmate never received a valentine.
Karen Head ends her collection with a brief section composed of a single poem titled “Instructions for My buried Clothes” where she explains, “Do not bury me in a suit/I want to go out in sequins./my mother shakes her head/wonders where I learned such excess.”
Whether she is providing pictures of raw strong women or using poetry to artistically explore the general aches and pains of life (including poverty, domestic violence and death), Head’s poetry is rooted in place. Any reader can see the love she has for her native Georgia. True, there are several poems that find the persona in other places, but even in these poems, she longs for home.
When I discover a new poet, it’s usually within the pages of a first book. I am happy to say that Karen Head has published multiple collections (although Sassing is the first work I have ever read by her) and I’m looking forward to tracking down these other fine poems.