The Promise of Magnolias and Netflix Cornbread

Fake southern belles in Evanston and a steeple that can't be seen

Objective: sneaker soles caked with dirt from my neighborhood

We have entered a new era of scrutiny regarding what comes IN and what goes OUT of the home and body— I've been leaving my sneakers outside my front door, leaving the mail in the decontamination chamber that is the foyer, Lysoling the groceries. Nothing gets past customs. And still: I could not identify or trace back to what has ushered in such strange unfamiliar moods and fascinations this month.

Now: new times of the day I never see from my bedroom, new micro-meals, new upsetting Duolingo consistency. Most prominently, I have become helplessly enchanted by a vision of Hollywood-feminist American South circa the late 1980s that I have no incentive to be enchanted by (I was not alive in the 1980s nor have I ever been to the American South). Something powerfully nostalgic and deeply resonant is buried in films like Places in the Heart (1984), Fried Green Tomatoes (1991), Steel Magnolias (1989). The settings of these films would likely disagree with the whole premise of my identity (no mother has set aside buttered rolls or collard greens for a transgender Jewish character "just in case") and yet I cannot help but project myself onto the summer storms, dinner blessings, muggy porch-lit evenings! Or an empowered woman who invariably discovers that the dusty road to happiness is one that curves away from her husband.

Of course, this era of this region is doubtlessly glorified and reduced by the clumsy strokes of movie execs. But against any wiser moral or critical stance, I must admit there is some ineffable mid-spring fever-dream sensation that they offer. It's a really potent, ripe yearning that flares up especially on damp warm nights.

So here I have gathered a collection of images, video, and audio that I have found to convey this:

A. Freight Train by Elizabeth Cotten

Probably the most perfect video in the world. It's like her voice has physiologically adapted to sorrow, and she plays in such a way that the intermittent bird chirps outside sound like they are plucked from her guitar! Everything about this video is devastating and hypnotic and feels like brushing up against the limits of real mortal life: it starts with her already playing like she always has been and always will be, and although she keeps her eyes shut and her body still (if you watched it on mute you might believe she is only stirring in her sleep), the power that radiates from her is overwhelming (the sound seems to swell from every direction at once)

The video, for which I could not find a source, is simple and gorgeous, and the crossfaded images are intriguing. I'd especially like to draw attention to one moment:

A really poetic moment, at [1:18] that lasts 2 or 3 seconds and then floats away— the slow fade allows the footage of Cotten to colorize the B&W photo, the strings of her guitar to serve as perpendicular counterweights stretched from the telephone poles, the train to emerge from the hole of her guitar. For a moment, the guitar hole looks like a sun over the grass which two ghosts sweep through. So amazing.

B. Olivia by Elizabeth Bishop

This is a mysteriously undated painting by poet Elizabeth Bishop, simply titled “Olivia”. Super haunting: the church, looking at once heartbreakingly fragile and also like the heaviest object in the world, is stationed against some horrible queasy infernal sky. Somewhere on the stoop is a sign that reads “OLIVIA,” which is legible; there is also a sign in front of the church’s doors that is rendered illegibly.

1. Looming over the entire painting is a telephone pole. The wires of the telephone pole reach down towards that church at an impossible angle that forms a distorted second steeple. This is the “missing” spire, the holy architecture promised (threatened?) in the tension of the wires.  In that space, the ghost spire aches upright and heaves forward towards the viewer.

2. The brightest points in the painting are the two columns that support the front of the house. Against the dark and dilapidated house, these pillars glow with strange, Roman imperiousness.

3. Though there is (eerily) no light source, the left (viewer’s right) side of the house is painted with the shadow of the bush partially obscuring it. It is also the murky shadow of a large bird.

C. Whip-Poor Will - Bonus Track from “Electric Magnolia Co.” by Songs: Ohia

Apparently the album this is from is a bit of a semi-classic in certain white-guy indie rock circles that I try to steer clear of, but I didn’t know that when I found it. This song with its horrible hushed tension and nighttime sparseness is for me a black hole of unlived Southern gothic sexual Christian remorse. It includes explicit Americana tropes of a seedy motel and the man/woman shame and rhododendrons, but it’s the surrounding words and images that fall outside the actual song that suggest the atmosphere that hits hard: “Ohia,” the tropical flower and midwestern state; the owl begging for salvation in the void on the cover art; “Electric Co.,” the failed industries of the rust belt; “Magnolia.” There’s a magnolia tree on the front lawn of my parent’s house, where I’m staying until June. This is the week it blooms, every year, and the petals fall and dissolve and get tracked up the stairs into the front hallway. 

These are 3 knots on a string that winds further and all around and past the point where I can see it, but they illuminate this springtime sensation pretty well (lucky coincidence that two are by Elizabeths, the matronly southern name I’d choose for myself in another life). As it warms, I expect this will dissipate, or perhaps warp into some new fascination as the front door swings open and shut with more regularity.


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A fountain is one of those things, like smokestack clouds, that looks frozen from very far away, but as you near it, speed up until you're close enough to see millions of tiny particles violently and ecstatically knocking against each other and flying around.

So bump into me, please!!!!! I’d love to hear from you and if you are susceptible to the same wistful spring sweetness!

This letter was curated by Asher White. Contact AW by email awhite01@risd.edu or @trasherwhite.

If you’d like to create a letter, send an email of interest to jwenzhuang@gmail.com, or @wenevernever.