Harbour Island / Rattlesnake Hill / Teri Youmans Grimm’s Florida

by Tim Gilmore, 3/26/2016

In the earthy waters out before us, salt marsh joins the St. Johns River near the Intracoastal Waterway. Ecosystems cross-pollinate. “There are alligators and dolphins, manta rays and manatee,” Teri says.

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Where else would Teri Youmans Grimm live? The poet who created a shadow figure called “the Snake Man,” and who named her earlier collection Dirt Eaters, works away in her pristine library on a spit of land above where earth and water cannot be told apart.

She came to parties on Harbour Island in high school, before it was developed. The slight rise in sand before the island was Rattlesnake Hill. Kids laid railroad ties in the marsh as a makeshift bridge to get ashore. Making her getaway when the cops raided one weekend party, Teri slipped from a tie and her legs sunk in muck past her knees.

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She didn’t realize it when she was writing the poems for her new collection, Becoming Lyla Dore, but dirt and ash and dust appear repeatedly as lietmotifs.

Lyla is a fictional film star in Teri’s sequence of narrative poems set in the Jacksonville of the silent film era, when more than 30 film studios headquartered in Jacksonville shot about 300 movies between 1909 and 1926.

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Teri and I walk the bridge over the reeds and marsh grass, beside palmettos and muscadines and tall, newly sprung elderberry shoots. I feel gargantuan and clumsy walking beside her. She’s tiny and barefoot like a swamp pixie.

Dust last appears in Becoming Lyla Dore in the poem “Star Dust.” Yes, we’re all stardust, as scions of the Big Bang, but the dust of the poem refers to uncountable early film “stars” whose silent movie reels disintegrated, lost forever.

This Swan Song’s informed by Gloria Swanson’s lamentation, “We were supposed to be / immortal.”

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Grimm at home in her studio / library

I tell Teri I find the loss of so many early films ironic. One of the functions of art is immortality. We still read Shakespeare. We speak of a “body of work,” a “corpus.” Yet the return to dust of uncountable early films fails to defy the natural cycle of things.

In similar ways, Teri says, Lyla Dore surprised her repeatedly. She didn’t realize the number of references to doors and thresholds the poems contain, nor even the homonymous nature of her protagonist’s name. She hadn’t realized, at first, that Lyla was conceived in fire and met the death of her legacy in ash.

Lyla cover

In the poem, “My Mother Tells Me I was Conceived in Fire Before I Was Condemned by It,” Lyla’s mother describes how a stranger raped her in Jacksonville’s majestic Windsor Hotel during the Great Fire of 1901.

“Sparks landed like confetti, but long I was willing / to stay there and watch this parade of danger so close / he brushed it from my hair and I brushed it from his sleeve, / before he clutched my hand, pulled me with the others / past Hemming Plaza, into the Windsor Hotel crowded / with the displaced, belongings stacked everywhere, / then down a corridor into a room.”

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Hemming Park, post Great Fire

Like a figure in ancient myth, Lyla’s conceived amidst apocalypse, and though her image on film should make her immortal in replacing her, the tragic end arrives in “Star Dust,” when “Combusting into dust, we were / brittle kindling it seems, flash / of light, pile of ash, disintegrating / into nothingness so easily.”

Lyla’s molecules might as well persist out in these longleaf pines, in the salt ooze and methane of marsh. They do. But Teri’s resurrected her into these poems.

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By now, we’ve walked to the end of the island’s road. In those Janis Joplin lyrics about trying to find “the end of the road,” the wanderer won’t find the end in Detroit, not even in Katmandu. Though the road never ends, it seems appropriate that Teri walks Harbour Island Drive barefoot.

Teri’s high school friend Michael Gordon, who left his initials and the date, ’86, in pavement just the mainland side of the bridge, remembers building forts and bonfires on the island in the 1970s.

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“As a kid,” Michael says, “it felt like it took all day to get from one side of the island to the other. We’d build traps for animals. We’d dig out a hole and cover it with branches like we were laying a trap for a tiger, copying something we’d seen on TV, maybe Swiss Family Robinson. We never caught a thing, but we saw raccoons, rattlesnakes, water moccasins, and alligators—though we saw more alligators in the sewers than around the island.”

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Kids spread rumors of Indians and hermits, mysterious individuals who’d made earthen island homes.

Though he and his friends built houses out of sand in the dunes at night—“It was the 1970s,” Teri explains, “when kids were allowed to go shoot guns by themselves in the woods”—Michael says, “Getting out there was a chore.”

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Kids had to pay attention to the tides. Sometimes they’d find the railroad ties they’d laid. Sometimes those ties would be gone or submerged. Sometimes the tides would be higher on the way back home than on the way out.

Back in Teri’s study, blond wood, clean clear sunlight, shelves of bright-spined books behind us, we discuss whether there’s any such thing as the South, as Florida.

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Teri Youmans Grimm and Tim Gilmore, photo by Gibson Grimm

I learned enough in grad school, from Michel Foucault and Edward Said, to grasp instantly if inchoately that every representation is a misrepresentation because, if nothing else, it’s a representation.

But Teri traces silent films made in Jacksonville a century ago to the current phenomenon of “Florida Man.”

Teri’s poems “When Kalem Studios Came to Town” and “At Kalem’s Headquarters, the Roseland Hotel” trace the relocation of a New York film company to Jacksonville, where Kalem set “so many smudge pots” along “the banks of Strawberry Creek,” according to Kalem star Miriam Cooper, that “it looked like the swamp was all ablaze.”

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Image from Miriam Cooper’s book Dark Lady of the Silents: My Life in Early Hollywood, 1973

Kalem’s 1909 film A Florida Feud; Or, Love in the Everglades is set just outside Jacksonville, though the Everglades is 300 miles away. The film’s alternate title is Florida Crackers. Kalem marketed the film as a “very faithful portrait of conditions which exist in certain portions of Florida today.”

Another Kalem film, also 1909, was The Cracker’s Bride, in which a cheating wife’s lover murders her vengeful husband and a vigilante posse tracks the adulterous couple into the swamps where the wife falls to her death and the mob hauls the lover back to face swift Southern justice.

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Image from Miriam Cooper’s book Dark Lady of the Silents: My Life in Early Hollywood, 1973

Teri says that Southern “peculiarities” are a hallmark of Southern fiction and art, perhaps most directly in that loose genre or impression called “Southern Gothic,” yet the South’s strangeness has as often as not been reported and infused by outsiders who, at best, failed to comprehend the South and, at worst, caricatured it completely.

It’s one thing for Mississippian William Faulkner to write of the incestuous and racist and brutal and backward South in The Sound and the Fury in the late 1920s, but something else altogether for Canadian singer Neil Young to write “Southern Man” in 1970: “Southern man, / better keep your head. / Don’t forget / what your Good Book said.”

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Similarly, Teri doesn’t doubt the facts of the “Florida Man” Twitter feed, which repeats real news stories like “Florida Man Shot by His Dog,” while she balks at New York documentary film director Sean Dunne’s Florida Man, a meager compilation of highway-side hardcore drug abuse and toothless drunks that, sadly, could have been shot anywhere in America.

Meanwhile, Michael Gordon remembers when local kids hosted clambakes on Harbour Island in the 1970s, prior to the island’s suburban development. If it had a name then, most kids didn’t know it, and if the name included the word “Harbor,” it wasn’t spelled with the British “u” that automatically increases American property values.

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Kids caught shellfish just offshore above tide. They cooked them on car hoods they salvaged from junkyards. Keg parties required only kegs and railroad ties so kids could walk on water to the nighttime island underneath old oaks and pines.

Maybe once or twice, some truth held to the legends of an island fugitive, maybe even “the Snake Man” of Becoming Lyla Dore, who says, “Some people get redeemed in the river, others just drown there.”