Saturday, April 24, 2010

Appalachian Portrait

In a previous post, I said I went three years without writing poetry, from the time I left Georgia until a recent open reading in Berea. That isn't true. After about a year in Kentucky, I wrote the poem below.

It's called APPALACHIAN PORTRAIT, and that pretty much describes it. It isn't "about" anyone in particular. Like many characters in my fiction, the poem depicts a composite of several folks I've met.

After living in the Kentucky hills a year or two, I wrote it while on vacation in Georgia. (Specifically, we were in Savannah visiting my lovely and charming stepdaughter.) I wonder if it was necessary to be geographically distant from my neighbors to write about them? Much of what I have written about a certain north Georgia cotton-mill town was penned after I left.

Anyway, here is the poem. Whatever its merits and demerits, I tried neither to romanticize my new locale, nor present it in caricature.

Appalachian Portrait

Chris McCrae stands alone on a hilltop.
His mother passed soon after Daddy ran off.
Now he's craggy and gray, cast in denim and leather,
the cuffs of his shirt stained with grease from his tractor,
his eye's like the sky's blue and white afternoon.
His long legs are bowed and his shoulders are hunched.

He doesn't know what he should do.
The bank note is due, and his wife's got the asthma.
His oldest smokes crank, and the baby has colic.
The neighbors are mad because the fences need mending
so his milk cow gets loose, and she grazes their garden.

The middle child stares as she plays Guitar Hero,
hollow eyes, no response as he asks about homework.
Chris stands alone on his twice-mortgaged hilltop.
His own mother passed after Daddy ran off.
He doesn't know what in the world he should do,
but he'll do it alongside the family.

(Grateful acknowledgment is made to BLUE COLLAR REVIEW, where this poem first appeared.)

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Renegade Poetry

I grew up in Trion, Georgia, a cotton mill town in the northwestern corner of the state. From early grade school, my classmates and I planned our escapes. Most talked of moving to the city, but I had the opposite notion: I would move to the woodlands and live the rustic life.

Many of my classmates made good on their plans. I have facebook friends in Chattanooga, Atlanta, and various other cities from Florida to Wisconsin. But when I visit Trion today, I still see familiar faces. I'm certain that some remained by choice, to be near family or carry on a family business, but many simply never broke the tethers and got away. Ruefully, one Wal-Mart associate admitted as much.

For myself, I did move to the woods, but not far. For my most of my life I remained in a county contiguous to that of my youth. Only recently did I gather my courage, and my family, and relocate to a cabin in rural Rockcastle County outside Berea, Kentucky.

Rockcastle is rustic, and rural, by anyone's standards. But Berea's population was said to have been over 14,000 souls in 2008. Trion, by contrast, was said to be just over 2,000. So you can imagine my amusement when, awaiting a poetry reading at the Black Feather Cafe' near Old Town in Berea, I was privy to a conversation about how gossipy folks are “in a small town”.

Those folks don't know. Berea has a business district with a bookstore, a college, two coffee shops and several pizza joints. They don't know how small a town can be, or how claustrophobic living there can feel. On the other hand, one former classmate--among the group who moved away to a more urban landscape --commented recently how fortunate she felt that she and her family were rooted in “small town values”.

So I've been thinking a lot lately about the effect of landscape on mentality.

The poetry reading that followed the conversation was inspiring. Below is some verse I penned the morning after. I hope you enjoy.

Renegade Poetry

Crumpled piece of paper in a college student's hand.
Ball point ink blots on a denim knee.
This is art?

The tourists' heels click faster as they pass us.
Cops ride by and stare beneath their flattops.
“Better clean up your act, you dirty poets!”
My subjects and verbs don't simply disagree; they go to war.
I mix a tall, cool metaphor and take a sip.

A hawk spirals upwards to the sun.
It touches, sizzles, and begins to fall.
The smoky trail of its descent scribes a hyperbolic arc
to earth below.

I am guilty of crimes against the syntax.
I've seen it all, and felt it, too,
but oh, the things I've read.

Punk rock lyrics in an Appalachian diction.
A timid tale told from a spiral bound notebook.
Crumpled piece of paper in a college student's hand.
Ball point ink blots on a denim knee.
This is art, y'all. This is art.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

A Return to the Verses

For three years after moving to Kentucky, I wrote no poetry. Last week, inspired by an open reading at the Black Feather coffee shop in Berea, I once again picked up the poetic pen.

Next week I will post that piece of verse, the product of a long and silent incubation. But first, here is the poem that preceded it, written shortly before leaving Georgia. Think of it as a goodbye. Or perhaps as a break-up poem.

Action Novels

Terry wants to write action novels, but can't
because he's from a small town in Georgia.
Cities are where the action takes place; besides,
action is present in tense,
and Confederate ghosts hover over his prose
like buzzards in the afternoon sky.
So Terry writes poetry nobody reads,
recycled at the end of each day.

Terry yearns to be a ladies' man,
but can't grow a mustache to save his dear life.
He labors an hour over one line of verse
so that when his sonnet is polished, complete,
Rhonda's done gone on the back of a Harley
in a cloud of red dust with a wink and a wave.
So Terry lies lonesome, ashamed, eyes shut tight,
and pictures them leaving together.

Terry would like to be a prosperous man,
but commodity futures tanked yesterday.
The wages of labor will scant keep him fed
(and you can't sell a poem that's never been read!)
From a church bazaar cookbook, he learns to bake bread.
When his mother writes, she sends casserole recipes.

Terry longs to make his father proud,
but it's too late for that: the old man is dead.
His lectures echo down empty hallways, and
belie the inscription on a marble headstone.
Terry prays every night on his knees.

Terry wants to drink bourbon, straight up,
but can't, so he'll nurse Vodka Collins instead
in a dimly lit corner of Al's Bar and Grill
in the heart of what once was downtown.

(Grateful acknowledgment is made to Wanderings Magazine, , where this poem first appeared.)

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Dancing Laundry and My Fickle Muse

When I began this blog, I had an idea for an offbeat story, another unpublished tale I believed in, a couple of new acquaintances I wished to introduce my vast readership to, and a folder full of quaint and curious pictures from the Near Eastern Kentucky backwoods. Well, you've seen all that, folks.

Today I'm winding up a mammoth remodeling project, recovering from a serious (and curious) back injury, increasing the hours I spend teaching my daughter in keeping with her maturation, learning to play the clarinet... and woefully neglecting this space. I beg your pardon, readers.

Spring is a joyous time of renewed commitments. Let us begin with a photograph. I snuck up from the bottoms and caught my laundry in a celebration of the season, dancing in the wind.

Honest, I didn't stage this. I found them that way.

What, you ask, is on my clarinet playlist? An eclectic blend of gospel, pop, hymns and--oddly enough, given that I rarely listen to this genre--a heaping helping of country music: "Amazing Grace", "A Lover's Concerto", "For the Good Times", "The Old Rugged Cross", and "Mansion on the Hill". That's right, the Old Man's "Mansion on the Hill". Now, the next time I run across a Hank Williams cover band who's looking for a clarinet player, I'll have an inside track.

Until next time, folks.