Thursday, December 9, 2010

Charlotte's Dede Wilson pens page-turning poetry

Here's a sentiment you don't often hear: I picked up a new poetry book and couldn't put it down.

The book, by Charlotte poet Dede Wilson, is "Eliza: The New Orleans Years," published by Charlotte's Main Street Rag. And this slim volume, based on actual events, is a real page-turner.

Eliza was Wilson's great- great-grandmother, and her life with husband Caleb has long been a subject of fascination in Wilson's family. "I had always heard the story of Eliza and Caleb, that he had killed her husband in a duel and married her. That always haunted me," Wilson told me.

Wilson used her late mother's research and her own to write Eliza's story for family members. After she finished, she did more research for this fictional version.

"Eliza" is the tale of a young London woman who sails in 1837 with her mother and siblings to New Orleans. In route, she marries the ship's captain. But once on land, she meets Caleb.

Rich and precise, Wilson's blank-verse poems speed the story along. By the end of the book, it's 1862. New Orleans has fallen to Union troops, and Eliza's marriage is disintegrating.

When a writer bases fiction on a true story, I always end up wondering what parts were factual. Wilson answers that question nicely, explaining at the back of the volume the truth and fiction of each poem.
Mark your calendar: She'll read from "Eliza" 7-9 p.m. Jan. 28 at Green Rice Gallery, 451 E. 36th St.

The following poem, "New Orleans," is from "Eliza." She has sailed from England and is newly arrived in New Orleans. It's 1837:

The smells are thicker than any in England:
coffee, sausages, sugared pecans. Flesh
too ripe, too perfumed. My own captain
unwashed--and me in sun-stained threads!
On the levee, a leper is begging.
Someone flips him a picayune. Enough,
I pray, for a dip of soup. I stumble
on rocks and cobbles, pitch through the streets.
Beg for my sisters. I saw Louise, I did,
peering back at me from a carriage.
That small bleached face. I cried to her, I ran--
my captain grabbed my sleeve. The sky is ringing
with heat and mosquitoes. I'm weak-kneed, trying
to breathe. Ah! Scents of camphor and sassafras--
that sweet reek of whisky reeling from doors.
The Vieux Carre. I sway against a wall.
He leads me by the wrist to a filthy street,
through a door, down an oily hall.