Southern poet gives powerful reading

Heather Dobbins reads her poetry in the Wriston Art Galleries.
Photo by Taylor Blackson.

On Feb. 22, visiting poet Heather Dobbins gave a reading to a packed audience in the Wriston Art Galleries. Before Dobbins began, Assistant Professor of English Melissa Range gave a raving introduction. Both Dobbins and Range attended the same university and took poetry workshops together, making the introduction feel intimate and personal. Range went on to talk about the type of poetry Dobbins writes and how she shows the Memphis landscape through her poems that journey through time, places and the hearts of men and women. Range’s excitement was tangible, feeding into the enthusiastic audience ready to hear Dobbins. After Range concluded her introduction to thunderous applause, Dobbins took the podium.

An almost ethereal woman, Dobbins recited her poetry in a soft-spoken voice that was interestingly juxtaposed with the various tones of her poetry. Whether it was a calmer portrait of a small Southern town or a scathing poem about biting off another woman’s finger, Dobbins kept her caressing tone with little spurts of emphasis on certain phrases. This way of reciting had the audience straining their ears for more.

While Dobbins’ demeanor while performing was striking, the poetry itself gave insight to life along the Mississippi River; many of the poems she read were from her book “River Mouth.” Through constant personification of the river, Dobbins uses it to reflect the various relationships and moods of the speaker. In one of her poems, “The Sweet Drunk’s Wife,” the trials and tribulations of the speaker’s personal relationship is mirrored in the chaos of the Mississippi River. Dobbins furthers the significance of the river in “The River is the Original Road,” where the river acts as a god that claims everyone in the end. While some of these aspects may seem dark, Dobbins—with her calming, Southern accent—assured the audience that these portrayals were not malevolent, just ways of life.

Throughout the reading, Dobbins’ poetry elicited laughter and gasps from the audience. “Mine for the Taking,” the poem about biting off another woman’s finger, was a particular crowd pleaser. Dobbins prefaced the poem with her inspiration behind writing it: a newspaper in her town reported that a woman had bitten off another woman’s finger, giving no explanation or motive. Dobbins’ take on why her speaker would bite off someone’s finger offered a glimpse of the more intense side of her poetry. Through these changing emotions and the constancy of the Mississippi River, Heather Dobbins had every audience member on the edge of their chair by the end of her reading.