William Logan on Florida, in poetry and otherwise

Miami Beach, Mid-Winter

While I’m on the subject of the Sunshine State, here’s an excerpt from poet-critic William Logan’s “The State With the Prettiest Name.” (He titled the essay after the first line of Elizabeth Bishop’s “Florida.”)

Portraits of Florida, its beauty almost too beautiful, often risk a shallow, shoreline prettiness, the preciousness of the postcard, whose penny purpose is always to incite a twinge of jealousy. Bishop’s poem instead recalls the “brackish water,” the skeletons of dead mangroves, swamps pummeled as if by cannon. Her poem contains people only at its edges: those “ancient cannon-balls,” though merely a simile, have the memory of conquest behind them (her “green hummocks” mark her as a tourist – the locals call them hammocks); the turtle skulls have “round eye-sockets / twice the size of a man’s”; the lists of shells and alligator calls are those of a naturalist; and in the “gray rag of rotted calico,” in the very mention of “obbligatos” or a “post-card,” there is evidence of an absence. This is Bishop’s characteristic strategy, to make the margins the center, and concentrate only on what can be seen (making more intense what cannot be seen, merely implied). Civilization, already encroaching acre by acre on a prehistoric Florida, here just gnaws at the borders.

In Bishop’s day (she lived in Key West off and on from 1936 to 1949), primeval nature had already been pushed back. Today you have to go farther to see it; yet, even in my sprawling north Florida town, cattle graze beside shopping malls, sandhill cranes stalk the university feed lot, flocks of ibises browse the verge of mall retention-ponds, and every body of water bigger than a bathtub seems to boast its alligator – glowering, patient, inhuman. When an alligator has seen enough of you, has decided you are larger than its appetite, it sinks back into its watery home with an air of condescension. . . .

Florida was nearly uninhabitable before air conditioning, so its traditions are thin as pie crust. (Nature’s remittance men, we are a state of renters, not rentiers). Few houses are more than a hundred years old, the missions and ranches of Spanish occupation having long since become, with almost no exceptions, mere archeology. If everything seems makeshift, Florida owes its impermanent, elusive nature –- the bleached and rotting billboards, the hotels like Moorish castles or Potemkin villages, the houses bespotted with mildew, the trees hung with shrouds of Spanish moss – to its vulnerability, hurricanes sweeping in from the Gulf or the Caribbean, occasionally wiping a beach clean of houses, like a slate.

This world’s “cozy mythologies” and corrupted innocence are clearest in poems that compare Florida present to the Florida vanished (each generation repays with nostalgia what its parents would have thought chintzy and modern, another kind of loss). Donald Justice was born in Miami, perhaps the only poet of reputation born in the state, and so suffered its losses as no tourist or latecomer could. (He once said at a reading there, “I miss Miami when I’m away, and,” following a pause, “I miss it when I’m here.”)

1920’s image of “Miami Beach, Mid-Winter” taken from U.M.’s Florida Postcard Collection.


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