What the Mind Thinks, What the Eye Can See: A Review of Wild, Sweet Notes
By Pamela Steed Hill
Perhaps it is only a curious irony that people who
live among high mountains are closest to the earth. Closest to the real
guts of life—a blade of grass or the smell of beef liver frying in an
iron skillet. And perhaps, too, it is only a sad irony that those who
make their homes within the Appalachians are often victims of
stereotype: strangers will tell you the mountain folk are poor and
uneducated, backward and nonintellectual. Strangers need to know better.
They need to sit down and read a book of poems by West Virginians, for
only then can they begin to understand the depth of thought, the wily
charm, the hope and despair, the love of art, love of nature, the
creativity and desire to describe their world down to the nubbin that
all make up the hearts and minds of these mountain poets.
Strangers—and locals—need to read Wild,
There are far too many excellent poems in this extensive collection to do them all justice by calling out only a few. However, it is also inconceivable to let some of the metaphors, some of the notions go unmentioned here, so I won’t. The most consistent and striking imagistic aspect running throughout these works is the poet’s ability to turn the incidental into art. I alluded to fried liver above—how much more incidental can you get than that?—and there was a reason for it. In Laura Treacy Bentley’s “sibylline,” the speaker relates her gift of prophesy to simple, if not lowly, human activity:
I taste the smell of liver and onions
frying in a black iron skillet
at 2:00 A.M. on a Sunday morning
with a whiskey chaser
and the elegant finger of ash
from an unfiltered cigarette.
Liver and onions, an iron skillet, whiskey, and a cigarette are unlikely companions for a persona likened to female prophets or oracles in ancient Greece and Rome. Bentley, however, makes the connection look easy, and natural, turning commonplace items into gutsy, detailed imagery. The same kind of down-to-earth description is found in Cheryl Denise’s “The Relief Sale,” Here, the speaker paints a clear, intriguing picture of herself and her girlfriends:
We knew how to replace shingles,
fix lawn mowers, change tires.
We baked lentils,
sunned tea, in the backyard,
played pool and drank Coke
Saturday nights at Abe’s,
summertimes we roasted chilies,
canned and froze till midnights
listening to the Cowboy Junkies
dreaming about Mennonite boys with rhythm.
The characteristics of these women are not uncommon, but the presentation of them in the poem is remarkable. It gives us both a broad view and a precise view of the girlfriends at the same time. In general, we know their personalities are tough enough to tackle lawn mowers and car tires, but, specifically, we know they drink Coca-Cola and enjoy the Cowboy Junkies. Notice, too, the mention of food here, which appears in many other poems in the collection. As in Bentley’s “sibylline,” the items listed are the real stuff of sustenance. No fancy, elegant entrees could match the feelings evoked by these simple foods—from liver and onions to baked lentils, sunned tea, and roasted chilies. The poets in Wild, Sweet Notes understand the importance, as well as the art, of being true to one’s own microcosm. In West Virginia, and in other predominantly rural states, what’s in the garden is significant and valued more than a burger grabbed at a fast food place or an overpriced meal in a pretentious restaurant. In the three Jeff Mann poems included in this collection, the titles speak for themselves: “Tomato Stakes,” “Dilly Beans,” “Digging Potatoes.”
Obviously, tangible elements lend themselves more easily to explicit description, whether it’s through unusual and captivating poetic devices or straightforward accounting of the way something looks, sounds, tastes, and so forth. The poets in Wild, Sweet Notes are adept at giving reality new life without robbing it of its realness. But the craft doesn’t end there. Beneath the sagebrush and coal fields, beyond the juniper berries and doe meat, there is a philosophy at work—a curious, sober intellect prodding the intangible into its own kind of realness. In “Oxford,” Marc Harshman claims, “I distrust the space/ between art and act, between/ symbol and need.” He then juxtaposes this thought against something more concrete:
But I did trust somehow the little boxes,
the little pans hung from windows
in which stood the pink-faced geraniums,
the purple and white petunias,
the glossy leathered begonias and fuchsias—
Harshman’s poem alternates between what the mind thinks and what the eye can see, the hands can do, ending with:
. . . squirrels and rabbits and
these, also, saved, allowed,
kept by someone
who beyond reverence for the dead, beyond
reverence for the abstract, reveres
the particular living, and beyond reverence
gets the pasturing done, the
cattle and sheep in, the plants
watered, the world loved.
West Virginia’s economic troubles, coal mining disasters, and deadly floods have not always made this place a “world loved.” The problems are well documented, and Americans who have never touched the state’s soil still have ideas about the plight of those who live there. Of course, West Virginians understand their own troubles better than anyone else, but not all the state’s citizens gain an opportunity to have their voices heard, their feelings known. Perhaps the poets are at least a part of those voices. In spite of the stereotypes, in spite of the hardships, and in spite of any moments of self-doubt or fear, the people of the Mountain State are loyal to home. Grace Cavalieri says it best in “Letter”:
Please tell me what you think cannot be sold
and I will say that’s all there is:
the pain in our lives,
. . . the love we have . . .
We bring you these small seeds.
Do what you can with them.
What is found in this beleaguered
and beautiful land is what we write of.
What the poets in Wild, Sweet Notes write of cannot be summed up in any few words, if at all. The subjects, like the poets themselves, are sophisticated and clever, homespun and innocent, sometimes funny, sometimes distressed, always genuine. They are diverse in the strongest sense of the word and yet their thoughts, hopes, and messages sing together like a choir. In all, this is a wonderfully satisfying collection of a half-century’s worth of poetry. Hopefully, it will make its way into the hands of many strangers as well as those who call West Virginia home.
Steed Hill lived in West Virginia for thirteen years and earned a
master of arts degree in English at Marshall University.
She has had
poems published in over 100 journals and magazines and is the author of In
Praise of Motels, a collection of poems published by Blair Mountain
Press in 1999. She is now an associate editor for University
Publications at The Ohio State University and a freelance writer for Poetry
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