Literary and Pop Culture References in Southernmost: Background information when reading Southernmost

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by Silas House

Southernmost by Silas House X
Southernmost by Silas House
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    Jun 2018, 352 pages

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Rebecca Foster

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Literary and Pop Culture References in Southernmost

This article relates to Southernmost

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In Silas House's Southernmost, Asher's estranged brother Luke sends him postcards with quotations from books, poems, and songs that serve as secret messages passing between them. Here's a closer look.

Sandpiper"Sandpiper": Asher's most recent communication from Luke is a postcard of a sandpiper with a line of poetry appended: "the roaring alongside he takes for granted." This is the first line of the Elizabeth Bishop poem "Sandpiper," which appeared in her 1965 collection Questions of Travel. The "roaring" is the literal crash of ocean waves, but the bird's equanimity is also a picture of keeping calm in times of turmoil, knowing that "every so often the world is bound to shake." The watery imagery is a reminder of life's cyclical nature and a reassurance that what seems confusing will eventually be made plain: "The world is a mist. And then the world is / minute and vast and clear." The sandpiper is also a metaphor for striving: "he is preoccupied, / looking for something, something, something. / Poor bird, he is obsessed!" The poem is meaningful for both Luke and Asher in terms of their search for a place and a faith in which to belong. (Bishop lived in Key West in the 1930s–40s.)

Pantheism IconThomas Merton: Luke's first postcard had arrived with the quote "Everything that is, is holy," which Trappist monk Thomas Merton used as a chapter title in his book New Seeds of Contemplation (1962). Merton's inclusive Christian theology was based on peace, equality, nature, and solitude, and he believed that Eastern religions including Zen Buddhism had a lot to teach Westerners about how to live a vibrant spiritual life. By affirming the holiness of everything, Merton cancels out potential differentiations based on religion, class, or sexuality. It's a view that comes close to pantheism (the belief that everything is God), which Asher's son Justin seems to espouse. House writes, "In Merton [Asher] found that the key to knowing God better was to know himself better. Reading Merton's books made him feel there was the possibility of his feeling like a good person again."

Patty Griffin: Another postcard features a lyric from Americana/folk singer Patty Griffin's "Rain" (from the 2002 album 1000 Kisses): "Sometimes a hurt is so deep deep deep" (the lines that follow are "You think that you're gonna drown / Sometimes all I can do is weep weep weep"). Luke is likely thinking of the hurt of his mother and brother rejecting him.

Zora Neale Hurston's Jonah's Gourd VineThere are also mentions of My Morning Jacket and Zora Neale Hurston. My Morning Jacket is a Louisville, Kentucky rock band led by Jim James. These indie rockers often incorporate country and experimental stylings, and have had success in Europe as well as in the USA. They released seven albums between 1999 and 2015 and are particularly known for their live shows. Justin tells his father that "listening to them makes me feel the way you feel when you're at church." In Key West, Asher keeps a copy of Zora Neale Hurston's first novel, Jonah's Gourd Vine (1934), beside him, recommended by his mother-in-law because "It's about a preacher who loses his way, too."

Music Video for Patty Griffin's "Rain":

Sandpiper, courtesy of All About Birds
Pantheism image

This "beyond the book article" relates to Southernmost. It first ran in the August 15, 2018 issue of BookBrowse Recommends.

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