Fred Dale acknowledges the irony. The poet and University of North Florida English professor never felt at home in his hometown of New Orleans, one of America’s most distinctive cities, but in Jacksonville, where he’s lived since 1987, he says, “I’ve become a poet of place.”
In The Sleep of Blue Moon Flowers, Dale’s new audio chapbook from Mark Ari’s EAT Poems series (eatwords.net), New Orleans and Riverside/Avondale get equal time. In “Oxbow Lakes,” Dale’s grandfather, still a young boy, “jumped into Bayou St. John / with no intention of ever coming back.” In “The Luminaria Sleeps,” Dale writes of the Riverside/Avondale Christmas tradition of lining its streets with small paper lanterns.
If you listen close enough, which is precisely what poetry asks of us, you can still hear New Orleans as Dale reads. Beneath what sounds like that Midwestern “broadcast standard” accent, certain words have a Nawlins flat-A that sounds Brooklyn-esque to me, and when Dale reads, “There was not time enough / for a boy to idle under the humid moon of New Orleans and remain / only a boy,” “humid” sounds like “yumid.”
By his late teens, Dale knew he “had to get out” of New Orleans. Tending bar, he saw drug addiction “chew people up.”
“Within a year or two of my moving, it killed my very best friend. I had seen that coming for me, but when I turned my ship in the other direction, he didn’t.”
As an expat, Dale loves New Orleans from afar. When he first discovered the Riverside/Avondale area, it reminded him of “a more civil uptown New Orleans.”
In “Learning is All,” first published in Jacksonville’s own Perversion Magazine, place and accent become metaphors.
“I am learning to pronounce your place / in the work of love,” he writes.
“I am learning to imitate your echo / so I will be familiar to you, / and when the love washes back / with an accent not quite / your own, you’ll think nothing / of it and let me stay.”
For a long time, Fred Dale thought “Marriage House” was the only poem he’d ever write.
“I thought I’d gotten really lucky once,” Dale says, “that I’d never be able to do that again.”
It’s the oldest poem in the new collection, and Dale still says, “I’ll never write anything else that means as much to me as that poem.”
“Marriage House” calls darkness “the flower of light” and describes how places make people part of them. “We move into houses / and become them. I listen, / settling into the walls, the dark / corners.”
That kind of listening skill and attunement to the subtleties of place must be integral to haunting.
“We had a ghost there,” he says. He means the house he and his wife previously occupied, south of Downtown in St. Nicholas, a once-condemned house a smuggler had built for his daughter.
That ghost wasn’t his first. His aunt and uncle live in an old tobacco plantation house in Vacherie, Louisiana, where parts of a movie adaptation of New Orleans writer Kate Chopin’s novel The Awakening were shot.
When Dale was a little boy, his Uncle Mike took him through the house before it was restored. “The floorboards were gone. There were just the joists.”
He still gets goosebumps when he talks about it. In one room, he went “sheet-white” with fear. A clairvoyant friend of his Aunt Claudette’s had the same reaction. In that room, Vacherie had long hosted its wakes for the dead.
The places of which Fred Dale writes are often domestic: a urinal, a front porch, an oak tree, a birdhouse — never mind that “Self-Portrait above the Urinal” takes its setting from St. Nick’s Bar in St. Nicholas.
He describes the poem “The Luminaria Sleeps” as “another really good accident,” adding, “There are lines in that poem I never knew I’d be capable of writing.”
He’d become active in neighborhood organizations, and was surprised, he says, “that I spoke publically for my community. I’d never done that before.” At the same time, he felt awed by Jacksonville writer Hurley Winkler’s pride in her city. “When I was her age, I just wanted to get the hell out of New Orleans.”
The subjects of Dale’s most recent poems include the uncanny callings of the barred owls of Riverside, a homeless woman he’s seen around the neighborhood for years, and walking his “occasional jerk of a dog” named Earl.
Recently, in a bagel shop that used to be a bar, Dale realized he and his wife were standing in the same spot where they’d met in 1987.
She’d asked him to dance and he refused, out of intimidation. No one had ever refused to dance with her and no one had ever asked him to dance. A year later, they recognized each other and soon became a couple.
Dale says the calling to write is all-consuming. It’s given him “an identity I’d previously thrown away that I now acknowledge in having become a poet of place.”