More about Walking Back Up Depot Street:Poems

In Pratt’s fourth collection of poetry, Walking Back Up Depot Street, we travel to a land we have lived in, but never seen. We are led by powerful images into what is both a story of the segregated rural South and the story of a woman named Beatrice who is leaving that home for the postindustrial North. As Beatrice searches for the truth behind the public story—the public history—of the land of her childhood, she hears and sees the unknown past come alive. She struggles to free herself from the lies she was taught while growing up—and she finds others who are also on this journey.

In these poems, Beatrice searches for another country, the shadow land that has always existed within her own country. In her travels from the rural South to an urban North, she seeks the place of hope and struggle that has been hidden under a surface of alienation and despair. She has been raised in a place and era where fear and hatred of those who were foreign, "different," "queer," "strange" was the norm, where white supremacy was both public and private belief. To find a new country, for her, means to make a new country, since much of her past still repeats in the present, from the white hoods of the KKK reanimated in the camouflage fatigues of neo-Nazi militias, to mountains ravaged by coal company strip-mining which reappear in the hazy shimmer of skyscrapers.

Her journey parallels that of millions in the 20th century, a long migration from rural life into the city. Dislocated by economic and political upheaval, or driven out by prejudice, they search for somewhere that can safely be called home. At first Beatrice is able to traverse the past into the present armed only with words, images, and stories from in her childhood—a language that defamed and despised others. In the land where she was raised, her people lived in doubleness but would admit only one face. In every word, an opposite was hidden and denied. But during her journey, Beatrice comes face to face with "the others" and the otherness within herself.

In these dramatically multivocal narrative poems, we hear the words and rhythms of Bible Belt preachers, African-American blues and hillbilly gospel singers—and of sharecropper country women and urban lesbians. We hear the testimony of freed slaves and white abolitionists speaking against Klan violence, fragments of speeches by union organizers and mill workers, and snatches of songs from those who marched on the road to Selma.

Walking Back Up Depot Street is an epic journey, in the original sense of epic as a story rooted in folk song. Its poems reinterpret the epic that poets invented in order to remind the folk of their history—the story of their journey, how they got to where they are, where they came from, and where they are going. In literary tradition, Walking Back Up Depot Street embraces Stephen Vincent Benet’s John Brown’s Body, Jean Toomer’s Cane, Pablo Neruda’s Canto General, and Nazim Hikmet’s Human Landscapes, as well as the epic poetry of Homer, Virgil, Dante, and Milton.

In "The Role of the Poet in a World of Demagogues," Lillian Smith said, "Your poet and demagogue—and mine—inhabit the same terrain; poet transforming, bringing new forms out of chaos, demagogue destroying. Each day, one or the other wins a small battle inside us." Walking Back Up Depot Street is the act of one poet attempting to reclaim her land and her history from the hands of the demagogues of the 20th century.

In "The Role of the Poet in a World of Demagogues," Lillian Smith said, "Your poet and demagogue---and mine---inhabit the same terrain; poet transforming, bringing new forms out of chaos, demagogue destroying. Each day, one or the other wins a small battle inside us." Walking Back Up Depot Street is the act of one poet attempting to reclaim her land and her history from the hands of the demagogues of the 20th century.

Selections from Walking Back Up Depot Street in English