The South Carolina poet John Lane kicked off our “Voices” creative writers series this year and gave one of the most engaging readings I have ever heard. I’ve been teaching Lane’s poetry in my Introduction to Literature class and we’ve been focusing on his environmental poems, some of which are very hard hitting. Poems like “The Truth about the Present” and “Shopping” take to task those who are spoiling the earth.
Because today is Friday, however, I’ve opted for a lighter poem, one that takes me back to my childhood in southern Tennessee. Note how Lane uses the word “civil” in his poem “Sweet Tea,” which is meant to invoke southern civility and which he carefully contrasts with the Civil War and the Confederate flag, which are not so civil. Sweet tea, he points out, transcends race hatred since everyone likes it.
I enjoy how he uses the female pronoun while quoting various Biblical passages, including the Genesis creation story and John 3:16 (“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life”). The poem may also have an echo of the Song of Solomon in its reference to the poet’s beloved. Spirituality takes many forms, including the communal rituals involved in making and sharing sweetened iced tea.
I sadly disagree with only one point that Lane makes. The Confederate flag does not seem to be fading from southern towns, especially since the election of Obama. It had a revival following the Brown v. Board of Education desegregation suit and it’s having a revival now. But he’s right that southern hospitality hasn’t gone out of fashion: you’re still likely to be called “honey chile” or “sweetie” by waitresses in any southern cafe you enter.
By John Lane
God rested on the seventh day, but early in the morning,
before the sun strained into the Southern sky,
she made sweet tea from scratch. She boiled the water
in a black kettle, put in the orange pekoe bags
and let them stand as the water perked, and then
she did what gods know to do: she heaped in Dixie
Crystal sugar while the brew was still warm as the day.
For God so loved the world she made sweet tea. For she served
the tea to anyone who admired her creation. To anyone
walking down the street of the wet new neighborhood,
to the mailman delivering early on that next day
of that second week, to the milkman in his truck, the black
man working in the yard, to the white man selling peaches
door-to-door. On God’s sidewalk there was an X scratched
by hobos. They knew to come to God’s back door and you’d
get a plate of leftovers and all the sweet tea you could
drink. They knew the sugared pints of contentment. They drank
sweet tea from God’s back steps and went on their wandering
For God knows sweet tea fills with love and refreshment from
any long train. For sweet tea is safe as an oak forest
camp. Sweet tea, clinks in jelly jars. Sweet tea,
sweeter as it stands. For God’s sake we brew it
like religion. For God’s sake we carry it now in styrofoam
cups in cars. We drink it in winter. We drink it always.
And this poem would not lessen sweet tea’s place in the creation.
Sweet tea is not fading from the Southern towns
like the Confederate flag. It lives in houses all over town.
Black folk brew it often as white folk. Take the flag off
the state capitol. It doesn’t mean anything to me.
But leave me my sweet tea, a recipe for being civil.
This poem stands cold sweet tea up as God’s chosen beverage.
The manifest Southern brew. When sad I draw figures
in the condensation of glasses of sweet tea. I connect
the grape leaves on the jelly jar, cast out any restaurant
that will not make it from scratch. When lonely I go
to the house of my beloved.
For I love a woman who makes sweet tea late at night to eat with
Chinese food. For her hands move like God’s through the ritual.
For it is as if she had learned it along with speaking in
tongues. For I love the way her hands unwrap the tea bags
and drop them in the water. For I love the unmeasured sugar
straight from the bag, the tap water from deep in the earth.
For the processes are as basic as making love.
For our bodies both are brown like suntans inside from years
of tea. For sweet tea is the Southern land we share, the town,
the past. When we kiss it is sweet tea that we taste as
our lips brush. When we are hot it is sweet tea we crave.
When we have children it will be sweet tea.
And they will learn tea along with Bible stories and baseball.