Have you ever heard the broad, tender accent of an Appalachian-American? (Instead of pie, hear pah; instead of tired, hear tarred; instead of hollow, holler). Have you ever heard the ominous yet rather clinical term, "mountaintop removal?" What about the notion that the people who live in the mountain hollers of Eastern Kentucky don't live in the good ol' U.S.A., but the "United States of Appalachia," where King Coal is the ruthless leader?
--I'm writing to you from Louisville, KY, where last night 700,000 people gathered on the banks of the Ohio for "Thunder Over Louisville," an annual megaton fireworks-and-military-jets extravaganza that means the Kentucky Derby is only two weeks away. But rather than write about "Derby," as it's known here, or the attendant events (charitable or salacious), or the extreme hats that will adorn many a (predominately) blonde head, I am moved to share with you some other information (which will wend its way toward poetry eventually I swear).
On Friday evening I stood in a crowd at a mini-street festival (bluegrass, beer, tattooed arms and plenty of adorable children and dogs) -- called "Louisville Loves Mountains," and dedicated to arousing urban interest in an issue that feels extremely remote (despite being rooted in a part of the state only a five-hour's drive away). That issue is a method of coal mining currently practiced in eastern Kentucky and West Virginia that involves literally dynamiting away the tops of mountains. As you might imagine, there are a slew of environmental problems associated with the ensuing wreckage, but in addition, the residents of mountain hollers are threatened--physically, economically, and culturally--by the loss of their beloved mountains . I have lived in Kentucky for longer than I care to think (well, OK, almost nine years), in a strange diaspora, even here in Louisville--surrounded by friendly natives who are also some of the most cliquish people I've ever met, in a city that is a stubborn mix of small-town ("what high school did you go to?" is a common greeting) and worldly (think: Actors Theatre, Wendy Whelan, My Morning Jacket... ) Friday evening was the first time, possibly ever, that I felt an emotional connection to the state. (And I have only been to eastern Kentucky once!) --I felt it because, as I said, I stood in the crowd -- listening to the novelist Silas House read from his new (nonfiction) book, on mountaintop removal. He is an Appalachian native and in a voice that was sorghum-sweet, he described the efforts of a humble woman resident of Maysville, KY, whose heritage in the mountains goes deep, and who is determined to keep the coal company out of her holler.
It struck me that we in the crowd were taking part in an antique experience: we were getting the news, not from twitter, not from a blog, not from TV's 24-hour jabber, not even from newspapers (which are practically prehistoric, now): but from the mouth of someone who had witnessed some vital things, written them down and now delivered them to us, in language. His words (and his voice, his accent, the knowledge of his own cultural heritage) moved me.
--Now I'm moved to think of the famous quote from William Carlos Williams' poem, "Asphodel, that Greeny Flower": "It is difficult/to get the news from poems/yet men die miserably every day/for lack/of what is found there" (1955). What I heard felt like poetry to me, in the way that words spoken aloud, and the witness they can offer, and the swell of a single voice are some of the key elements (to me) of Poetry (capital P!). Poets being, of course, the "unacknowledged legislators of the world" (did I get that quote right? Percy Shelley will forgive me).
Strange that a Jewish girl, far from her Yiddishland, would open her week's blogging with a snapshot of Kentucky, but hey--I'm just living my So-Called Kentucky Life.
One more bit to bring you before I sign off: a poem (or two) by the late Aleda Shirley.
I never met Aleda. I bought her third and last book, "Dark Familiar" (Sarabande Books, 2006), about six months after she died of cancer. Somehow, I link in my own mind from the devastated landscapes of Appalachia to cancer (perhaps because the mountains' "breasts" are being sliced away)... and just the melancholy of a loss that feels palpable to me, even if I have not encountered its source directly. I've read that Aleda considered her home to be Kentucky, though she was born elsewhere and spent the last ten (?) years of her life in Mississippi. There's a whole "thing" I have about the term "Kentucky Writers" that I don't really want to get into right now (except to say that it does not typically have a positive cachet for me), but in her case, I want to claim her. Her poems speak to me in ways that surprise me, because they posit a strong personal subjectivity, hover between the lyric and the narrative, and have a distinct stanzaic form -- I don't write that way and I often find it boring (and hey, I know that dismisses about 90 percent of contemporary poetry but -- I don't care!.... wicked grin). Aleda's poems are suffused with atmosphere; death traverses them (the death of a loved one, and perhaps her own sense of mortality), and images of water, and flowers, and very particular colors, painterly colors, and darkness, and gleaming, and luster, crisp edges of things, and light and gloss and weather. (And oh, the music in them!) I don't know how she managed them: the subtlety of the layering, I mean. All I can do is share a couple with you and enourage you to buy her book (Sarabande by the way is based in Louisville; they publish beautiful books).
Purple, White and Red
In the wake of your death, twisting silver koi
& something that looks like the pale pebbled glass
from a smashed windshield. The figure of the Virgin
as she appeared in the window of an office building
in Florida, among the theme parks & golf courses
& souvenir shops. A miracle; petroleum
in the treated glass reacting to salt air;
mass delusion--there are more than three worlds
though two are enough, this one & the other.
In the wake of your death, champagne;
an oscillating fan, its blades loosely caged;
& distraction: an avenue of shops flickering
with enameled bangles & stacks of orange boxes.
If the dead could ask questions, imagine the racket
that would fill the huge silences wheeling
through everything; yes, yes, I remember that night,
the motel shining its lights toward us
through propellers of rain; Japanese lanterns
strung in the airport bar; the myth of black tulips.
For months I hardly spoke a word;
I read mysteries in the bright glass box
of my study until afternoon heat sent me
to the shuttered bedroom with its ceiling fan
& carafe of ice. No point in filling a vase
with crepe myrtle--it shattered across the dressing table
at the slightest stir: the fan, a cat jumping
to the window, the moon arriving in daylight,
a ghost of its future self. What's wrong.
Those I loved asked & asked until finally
something else terrible happened & I could answer
with that. In the wake, silence, like a mirror
where the silver's gone completely opaque.
--Aleda Shirley, from Dark Familiar (Sarabande Books, 2006)
I'm tired now. You're just going to have to wait till tomorrow for another poem!