Delta Tears by philip c kolin

Delta Tears by Philip Kolin

By John  Zheng
Since his retirement a few years ago, Philip Kolin has been steadily adding to his prolific canon of 40 books on Shakespeare, Tennessee Williams, and African American playwrights as well as his poetry. With his 11th book of poems, Delta Tears, Kolin has once more explored the Mississippi River and its poetic tributaries.

The first poem, titled “The Mississippi River’s Proclamations,” is written in the first-person exclamation: “I am the Father of Rivers…. I am the heart of remembrance…. I am a road with infinite shores…. I sing bottomless blues for porous shadows.” The personified river switches its role in another poem, “The River’s Music,” which “plays in its dark depths… / still and sad, shriveled waves, / a procession of mourners” for the sorrow of the people living in the Mississippi Delta, yet it also “turns into a flowing symphony / dressed for a storied night of revelries.”

In contrast to the proud voice or the sad voice heard from “The Mississippi River’s Proclamations” and “The River’s Music,” the one heard from “You Can Trust a River” carries an ironic tone. The Mississippi no longer utters in a definite voice; instead, it becomes a silent listener. In a sense, it functions like a confessional for humans, good or bad, to reveal their secrets, as the poet narrates,
You can trust the Mississippi
with your secrets.
It speaks the language of silence
to protect voices even when
they are blindfolded.
Sinners have confessed deeply to the river—
betrayals and crimes
never to come to light in this world;
words from shriven mouths
stored in muddy vaults
and weed-anchored banks.


Can sins be washed away by the silent river? Can sinners feel peace from their confessions? The answer can be found in the following stanza:

The Mississippi is a coroner, too,
stacking the secrets of rubbery bodies
on top of each other; unweaned infants;
love-thwarted suicides;
black men lynched at sundown;
drowned fugitives; capsized sailors,
eyes gouged out by garfish and snapping turtles.

Here Kolin imagines the Mississippi as a coroner stacking the bodies from the suffering, the killing, and the missing, suggesting that the river can be “the darkest place on earth” in the sinners’ hearts as well as “the longest tear duct in America / filled with unshared sorrows / and lost dreams…” The concluding one-line stanza emphasizes that the river never asks the reason for these sorrows, but it does associate the river with a killing scene where dark things are done by humans.

Two poems restage the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927. After months of heavy rain, the flood-swollen river breached its levee at Mound Landing in the Mississippi Delta. The destructive waters affected especially the life of African Americans. Many of them were drowned when they were ordered to stay on the levee fighting the flood. Kolin describes a vivid scene in the first-person narration in “The Great Flood of 1927.” The narrator tells in a black voice that his father “swilled cotton dust / all his sharecropper life” but

When the flood came he was worse off
than the creosote-hide mule that
got a reserved seat on a rescue barge
when the river evacuated white folks
This stanza sets up a striking contrast between a black man and a mule to sharpen our minds on the sufferings and the meaning of existence in a sorrowful time in history in the Mississippi Delta. The second contrast is set up between the whites and the blacks. While the white folks can escape by a rescue boat, the black people can only be drowned as they try to save the white people’s belongings, as presented in the following two stanzas:
while we black men were ordered to stay
on the levee grabbing sandbags
with our hands, arms, and shoulders
as we tried pushing the Mississippi
back from frowning white fields
and houses all night long—we heaved
the waves back while our mouths
filled with mud and blood.
Isn’t this description of African Americans’ miseries also an elegy of humanities, the river, the Mississippi Delta, or the memory forsaken by time?

In brief, Kolin’s Delta Tears is a place that stores memories, reminding us of the history and life in the Mississippi Delta. Many poems are muddy tears “lengthening the suits of sorrow” with “generations of misery;” they are also pearls coated in silt.” Therefore, reading this book is a process to heighten the perception of history.

You can find the book here:

John (Jianqing) Zheng published A Way of Looking and Conversations with Dana Gioia in 2021. His poetry has appeared in Hanging Loose, Mississippi Review, Poetry South, Tar River among others. He is the editor of Journal of Ethnic American Literature.