SEVERAL YEARS AGO, I attended a poetry reading by Paulette Jiles. She was an expressive and entertaining performer, all the more so because the voice of the poet as speaker and the "voice" of the poems on the page seemed perfectly matched. Jiles prefaced one poem, "Sisters," with the remark that, although she often read it in public, the piece had never been published because she felt it was meant to be heard, not merely read. But here it is (or a version of it) in "Oracles,' a work commissioned by CBC radio and now committed to print in Song to the Rising Sun. "Sisters" is not at all out of place; most of the collection - a mixture of poetry, drama, and fiction was written for the air waves, and so to be experienced primarily as sound, not text.
The emphasis on the oral/aural is what holds the book together. Despite the variety of genres, and settings that range from the high Arctic to Morocco to the Ozarks, all the material in Song to the Rising Sun relies on such ageold devices as repetition of both language and syntax, and the use of choruses and direct speeches to the audience. There's even a hint of the liturgical in the rhythms of the title poem, a long, mesmerizing work that speaks of, among other things, the threat of ecological disaster and the hope of redemption:
What did we do all winter while we waited for the sun? we listened to the breaking and the cannonades of the moving ice, the destruction of ice at the shear zone, we arose in the dark and saw angels walking with candles under the landfast ice, through the caves and tunnels under the landfast ice, we watched beings walking down from the southern mountains in glowing zodiacal bituminous fires, beautiful and shoeless, we lay back in our beds, starfire descending. The spirit sings. The spirit sings. The spirit also weeps. "Song to the Rising Sun" is Jiles at her most evangelistic, sometimes firing a volley of imperatives: "I am trying to reach you by radio./Listen. Take thought, take thought, think. Listen. Watch." This may make her sound pretty old-fashioned. In fact, the sensibility in most of this collection is thoroughly modern, a trifle cynical and smart-alecky, but likably so; the tunefulness of the words on the page comes more often from the rhythms of colloquial speech than from religious oratory.
Traditionally, oral narrative often functioned as a storehouse of knowledge; in cultures without a form of writing, things had to be repeated verbally or they would be lost. Story-telling, then, was an important source of a community's sense of continuity and identity. The integrative role of narrative is a motif that runs throughout Song to the Rising Sun, but it's particularly central to "My Grandmother's Quilt" and "Money and Blankets," two linked pieces of fiction set, a century apart, in small towns in the Ozarks.
"My Grandmother's Quilt" takes place in the 1880s and is the tale of two young girls, Lula Belle and Dale, who are brought up by their grandmother after the death of their mother, then shunted off to other relatives when the grandmother's health fails.
The writing here is slangy and loose, a real earful of flamboyantly idiomatic speech. Actually, to call the piece "fiction" is just a convenience, because it is anything but an orthodox story. There are voice-overs and choral bits; Jiles flirts with cliches and even flaunts them, too, incorporating snatches of biblethumping sermons, nonsense verse, and passages from a romantic potboiler. This may sound like an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink hodgepodge, but in fact it's entertaining and inventively written. Granted, Jiles can be heavy-handed in doling out her message of how important story-telling is: "Whit else have we got in the world but stories?" Lula Belle asks at one point. Lula Belle is dyslexic (the only books that interest her are illustrated romances), but she is also the one who recognizes the need to preserve family and community history by patching together anecdotes, in much the same way that her grandmother, Maggie Jo, pieces together a narrative through quilt-making, with each scrap, of material carrying "a story in them because they were what people were wearing when something happened."
The two young girls in "My Grandmother's Quilt" dream of escaping domestic drudgepy through marriage; in "Money and Blankets," Rita Jean Stoddard, who is Lula Belle's granddaughter, feels trapped in a loveless marriage and is plotting her escape as the story opens. Her husband, Harlan, works in a phony western town, re-enacting shoot-outs with famous bank robbers for tourists. The repetition of family lore enriches the stories, as the teller (Rita Jean) incorporates new elements. In contrast, the replaying of the staged gunfights is tedious and totally devoid of meaning. In the end, it is her gift for oral narrative that offers Rita, Jean a means of changing her situation. She gets the chance to compete in a story-telling competition at the local fair and is urged on by her sister: "'Just run your mouth, Rita Jean, like you always do. "