“Let Me Say This: A Dolly Parton Poetry Anthology” edited by Julie E. Bloemeke and Dustin Brookshire

Reviewed by Claire Hamner Matturro

Let Me Say This: A Dolly Parton Poetry Anthology (Madville Publishing, 2023) is a complete delight. It is filled with poems which are alternately bold, splashy, wise, personal, revealing, poignant, funny, thoughtful and thought-provoking, utterly charming, or more—just like the iconic cultural figure the anthology pays homage to in verse. Contributions from fifty-four different poets—some emerging, some established—guarantees diverse styles and a variety of points of view. This book is in part a Parton biography in verse, yet also contains poems reflecting the impact Dolly Parton has had upon the various writers.

Edited by Julie E. Bloemeke and Dustin Brookshire, two poets who are certified Dolly fans, the anthology is divided into four parts. Each section is captioned with a lyric from a Parton song, including “It’s Time I Show the World Just What I’m about,” “Tryin’ To Find What Feels Like Home,” “Read Into It What You Will, But See Me As I Am,” and “Guide Me And Keep Me.” Bloemeke describes the first of these four parts as “awakening” a sense of Dolly Parton “in light of public and private persona.” The second segment “defines and redefines a sense of home,” while the third investigates the “relationship with the body, appearance, and societal roles.” Completing the collection, the fourth and final section “speaks to expansion . . . how we invite her into our homes and hearts.”

Starting the anthology off right, a biographical poem entitled “Seventy-Five Lines for Dolly’s Seventy-fifth,” sets the stage with rhymed tercets written by Denise Duhamel, Maureen Seaton, and Julie Marie Wade. This opening poem conveys some of the mystique and yin and yang of Dolly Parton with lines like these: “I still carry a pistol in my purse, / but my grin’s sincere, my heart’s peaceful / as Baby Jesus in that Bible verse.”

While Dolly Parton, of course, is the unifying topic, several other themes surface throughout this marvelous collection. A few poems do stay close to a Parton biographical mode, yet most expand into the influence and comfort Dolly Parton’s life and lyrics have had upon the narrators. The poems in this category frequently reflect a childhood or youth spent uncomfortably outside the expected norm—kids and teens who didn’t quite fit in, often because of gender or sexual identify issues, abuse, or hardscrabble poverty. That is, these are sensitive souls who were outsiders even in their own family or locales. These kids, now grown, write lovely, poignant poems expressing the solace and support they found in the lyrics and life of someone else from a hardscrabble background who conspicuously and flamboyantly did not fit her cultural expectations or norm either—yet rose to be an undeniable success. Thus, a prevailing theme in these poems is straight from some of Dolly Parton’s oft-quoted statements: “Find out who you are and do it on purpose” and “I think everybody has the right to be who they are.” Or, as Julie E. Bloemeke’s “Dolly Would” poem says: “Darlin’, / own your own truth.”

Bloemeke’s poem further blends Parton biographical details (“as she snuck / out back to press pokeberries to her lips, / line her eyes with blackened match tips”), with the impact upon Bloemeke’s own life with lines that read in part about Dolly:

A woman married decades who writes

 

heartbreak like she’s lost every last time,

this country blood in all of her colors, shakes

herself to fire in rhinestone fringe, opens

 

the butterfly down in me, holds the mic

to the voice I never allowed, says,

own your trash, says make a joyful

 

noise, …

As reflected in Bloemeke’s “Dolly Would” poem, the most moving and powerful of the poems are deeply personal and revealing. For example, David-Matthew Barnes in “Walking to Kmart to Buy a Dolly Album” speaks of an abused child finding temporary refuge with a boy from school who is “there to turn / the record player on. He makes me listen / until we know every word Dolly sings by heart.”

In another example of the touchingly personal, Robert Gwaltney in “Butterflies” writes this:

Fly, fly, butterfly.

Boys like me have secret wings.

 

Dolly’s voice comes through

the screen, streaming

 

from your sister’s window, a scratched LP,

all of this a rare and gentle thing.

Another theme that finds itself in more than one poem includes the poets’ relationships with their mothers and how Dolly impacted that bond. Kari Gunter-Seymour, in “Perfect Pitch,” writes of riding to middle school with her factory-working aunt and mother and singing Dolly songs, “trading verses, harmonizing the chorus.” Ultimately the poem is a tribute to those women, who like Dolly, “embodied” the term “feminist” but would never use the word:

Like Dolly, my mama would never use that word,

no matter how much she embodied it.

She was proud to hang up her welder’s helmet

end of shift, pick up her paycheck, sing in the front seat

of a station wagon with women she loved.

 

Dustin Brookshire’s “Dolly at the Fox Theater (2008)” tells the story of taking his mother to a Dolly concert only to find she “looked away like / something else caught her eye” when they see Dolly step down from the bus. At the concert, the mother “fidgeted / in her seat” when Dolly asked if there were any drag queens in the audience. But when Dolly asks if there are any mothers in the audience “several hands shot up, / including my mother’s… / I placed my arm around my mother, / squeezed her tight, leaned my head / against hers, gave her that moment.”

Like mothers and family, Parton’s rise to stardom via the Porter Wagner show also finds its way into several poems.  In Linda Neal Reising’s “Dolly’s Debut,” she writes of her mother popping “corn we had grown,” splitting “two bottles [of Grapette] fourways…[and] prepping for The Porter Wagner Show.Rupert Fike in his “The Porter Wagoner Show” writes of the impact of Dolly on his family when “The New Girl (what we all called her) / showed up to sing hymns like she meant it.”

In a review of an anthology of this size and depth, it would be difficult if not impossible to mention each poem even in a limited way. There are many (many!) excellent poems in this collection which are not referenced, but which readers are encouraged to discover and enjoy on their own.

Do you need to be a Dolly Parton fan to enjoy this book? Maybe/maybe not—but really, who is not a fan of Dolly Parton in either her exemplary life of grace and charity or her music and lyrics? Do you need to be a devoted reader of poetry? Probably not, as these are accessible poems, many with plot arcs and character development similar to those in the best of flash fiction.

The bottom line on this anthology is that it is rich with well-crafted, moving poetry, memorable language, sharp insights, and a generosity of heartfelt sharing. There are poems with a gut-punch quality, others with a tenderness that could make a bully ‘s eyes tear up, and all with deftly-written, evocative lines.

Each anthology purchased through Madville Publishing will raise money for Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library.

Bloemeke describes the contributors as “poets who hold the diamond up to the light, shining facets of Dolly often overlooked or previously unconsidered.” These contributors include Kelli Russell Agodon • Nin Andrews • Lana K. W. Austin • David-Matthew Barnes • Nicky Beer • Julie E. Bloemeke • Emma Bolden • Dustin Brookshire • Phillip Watts Brown • Marina Carreira • Denise Duhamel • teri elam •Rupert Fike • Diamond Forde • Chad Frame • Makayla Gay • Tyler Gillespie • Kari Gunter-Seymour • Robert Gwaltney • Beth Gylys • Karen Head • Raye Hendrix • Collin Kelley • Dorianne Laux • Chin•Sun Lee • Arden Levine • Katie Manning • Kelly McQuain • Lynn Melnick • Jenny Molberg • Rachel Morgan • Caridad Moro-Gronlier • Carolyn Oliver • Dion O’Reilly • Jeffrey Perkins • Stephen Roger Powers • Steven Reigns • Linda Neal Reising • Benjamin Anthony Rhodes • Micah Ruelle • Anna Sandy-Elrod • Roberta Schultz • Maureen Seaton • Gregg Shapiro • L.J. Sysko • Nicole Tallman • Kerry Trautman • Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer • Dan Vera • Isaiah Vianese • Donna Vorreyer • Julie Marie Wade • Jennifer Wheelock • Yvonne Zipter.

Julie E. Bloemeke is a 2021 Georgia Author of the Year Finalist for Poetry, and her work has been recognized by several awards. Her debut full-length collection Slide to Unlock (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2020) was also chosen as a 2021 Book All Georgians Should Read. She has been published in numerous anthologies and publications including Writer’s Chronicle, Prairie Schooner, Cortland Review, Gulf Coast, EcoTheo Review, and others. Bloemeke is an associate editor for South Carolina Review and a Virginia Center for the Creative Arts fellow, as well as a freelance writer and editor. Visit her online at https://www.jebloemeke.com/

 

Dustin Brookshire was a finalist for the 2021 Scotti Merrill Award and is the curator of the Wild & Precious Life Series, editor of Limp Wrist, and program director for Reading Queer. His work has earned him both a Pushcart and Best of the Net nomination. Poetry by Brookshire has been anthologized and published in numerous journals. Visit him online at dustinbrookshire.com. 

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