Deep South

By Thomas McGrath 1916–1990 Thomas McGrath

Baton Rouge, 1940

These are savannas bluer than your dreams
Where other loves are fashioned to older music,
And the romantic in his light boat
Puts out among flamingos and water moccasins
Looking for the river that went by last year.

Even the angels wear confederate uniforms;
And when the magnolia blooms and the honeysuckle,
Golden lovers, brighter than the moon,
Read Catullus in the flaring light
Of the burning Negro in the open eye of midnight.

And the Traveller, moving in the hot swamps,
Where every human sympathy sends up the temperature,
Comes of a sudden on the hidden glacier,
Whose motives are blonder than Hitler’s choir boys.

Here is the ambiguous tenderness of ’gators
Trumpeting their loves along a hundred miles
Of rivers writhing under trees like myths—
And human existence pursues the last,
The simple and desperate life of the senses.
Since love survives only as ironic legend—
Response to situations no longer present—
Men lacking dignity are seized by pride,
Which is the easy upper-class infection.

The masters are at home in this merciless climate
But deep in the caves of their minds some animal memory
Warns of the fate of the mammoth at the end of the ice-age;
As sleeping children a toy, they hug the last, fatal error,
But their eyes are awake and their dreams shake as with palsy.

Over Birmingham where the blast furnace flowers
And beyond the piney woods in cotton country,
Continually puzzling the pale aristocrats,
The sun burns equally white man and black.

The labor which they do makes more and more
Their brotherhood condition for their whole existence;
They mint their own light, and their fusing fires
Will melt at last these centuries of ice.

This is a nightmare nimble in the Big House,
Where sleepers are wakeful, cuddling their terror,
In the empty acres of their rich beds, dreaming
Of bones in museums, where the black boys yawn.

Thomas McGrath, “Deep South” from Movie At The End of the World. Copyright © 1972 by Thomas McGrath. Used by permission of Swallow Press/Ohio University Press.

Source: Poetry (September 1944).


This poem originally appeared in the September 1944 issue of Poetry magazine

View this poem in its original format

September 1944
 Thomas  McGrath


For some fifty years, the late Thomas McGrath produced a prolific array of titles, encompassing poetry, novels, books for children, and several documentary film scripts, including uncredited work on the eloquent and exhilarating Smithsonian film about the history of flight, To Fly. But McGrath is primarily a poet, and although "important contemporary poets . . . proclaim him as a major voice in American poetry in the last three . . .

Continue reading this biography

Poem Categorization

SUBJECT Nature, History & Politics, Social Commentaries, Landscapes & Pastorals, Race & Ethnicity

Report a problem with this poem

Your results will be limited to content that appeared in Poetry magazine.

Search Every Issue of Poetry

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

This poem has learning resources.

This poem is good for children.

This poem has related video.

This poem has related audio.