OF PRONOUNS, "I" is the brat, the spoiled impossible child begging more cake. Given half a chance, the kid runs amok, confessing every indiscretion, tattling the least slight, justifying inclusion of every detail with a pouty protest. "But it happened," it complains. "That is what they did to me."
Yet firsthand chronicles keep pouring in. Kissing and telling no longer is betrayal; every crime needs confessing; late-night talk shows "I" us to sleep, autobiographies written by people hardly into middle years use up our trees. Christopher Lasch may have it right: as authority wanes, the word of one "I" or another becomes sufficient unto itself. This is not to deny the usefulness of confession to the soul baring itself. But what of the reader?
The title of Rosemary Daniell's new book, Fatal Flowers, does not accurately reflect the nature of the book, especially given its subtitle, On Sin, Sex, and Suicide in the Deep South. The book in fact is autobiography; the suicide referred to, that of the author's mother. The sin and the sex are more widely participated in, but the main character in the book is its author, Rosemary Daniell, the "I" of the story, the character in whom -- as writing manuals advise -- change occurs.
The story begins in 1975, with Daniell's mother's suicide. Daniell is 40. In that same year, her first book -- A Sexual Tour of the Deep South, a book of poetry -- is published, her third marriage dissolves, her children leave home, her father dies, she sells the family home. "For the first time," Daniell writes, "I was without parents, husband, children, youth, and perhaps, an income . . . Despite my struggle to live as differently as possible from my mother, I wondered if I would break as she had. It became imperative, if I would find an alternative to madness, to understand her -- and thus my own -- experience as a Southern woman." Thus the writing of Fatal Flowers. The story travels back from 1975, through Daniell's Georgia childhood and adolescence, through three marriages -- one of them at age 16 to a man who beat her regularly -- back to the present.
The Southern belle is by now a well-documented literary figure. Tennessee Williams probably did her up best; for ruined deep South ladies we can find no better portrayals than his Blanche DuBois and Amanda Wingfield. Daniell's mother was the same sort of wrecked creature: romantic, bruised and ruthless, her drawers filled with tattered lace and whorish lipsticks, her mind a patch of repressed rage and intelligence. Instinctively, as a girl Daniell aped her mother. Unfortunately for her, she did it well, having the knack, also having a pug-nosed "teddy bear" hurt-me look and pretty red hair. Boys, then men, flocked. She let them beat up on her, maul her, push her around. She was unable, after a while, to stop letting them, as her Southern belle gestures became, with success, no more controllable than a foot when the knee is hit. Fluttering by then was a reflex. She even snagged a celebrity, a "Famous Southern Poet," come to town for a writers' conference, then followed him to New York for further humiliation.
To write about that affair here seems indiscreet. What business is it of ours to know? Yet Daniell has written it; the "I" is herself, bald-faced on the page. And relentless too: the letter is everywhere, "I," telling and telling us how it feels, what it knows. After a time, it weighs down the page with its presence. And what does it come to? When David, Daniell's son, runs away at 13 with a 19-year-old topless dancer, he disappears altogether from the book until near the end, when Daniell makes this comment, "David had left home to lead a life that chronically depressed me." Me again; the kid: how I felt about it when he left, what his leaving did to me.
Fatal flowers is also about the South, or as the book would have it, thuh South. A great mistake has been made in Fatal Flowers, reproducing southern speech throughout as wildly spelled dialect, so that every spoken "the" is "thuh," every "to" is "tew," "was" is "wuz," "my" is "muh" and "like" is "lak." This very quickly gets too thorny to hack a path through, especially towards the end, when Daniell expands the scope of the book to include some interesting testimony from older southern women. These women all talk in this thatched dialect, sometimes for several paragraphs at a time. And yet when a novelist from South Carolina -- whom Daniell obviously admires -- speaks she gets to talk normally; that is, she is not quoted as having said, "Wuz thet yew?"
The real question is, does the first-person-singular report bear writing, publishing and reading, based only on its factuality and uniqueness, even its scandal. Doubtless, Fatal Flowers is based on fact; doubtless, these things truly happened to Rosemary Daniell; some of the things she has to report perhaps have not been written about before. But there is nothing to do with the news. It does not reverberate, or resound. Insight, language, illumination might have lifted Fatal Flowers from sheer information to something that left its imprint, something that in the long run truly mattered. Harry Crews' recent autobiography, A Childhood, did just that. But Fatal Flowers depends on its "I" too heavily, and on our willingness to indulge it in its need to confess because of the juiciness and shock of its tales. And so the news Rosemary Daniell has to tell us does not budge from the page but stays where it is, done in by a pronoun. Her poems say everything that is in this book, more concisely and more memorably.