Appalachian Melancholy

I am preparing to participate in a gathering commemorating the life and work of Kathryn Stripling Byer, whose teaching, poems, and spirit will resonate in these hills for many decades to come. I was able to be in a workshop she led for about a dozen of us in early May. In early June she slipped away to the Greater Life. In her teaching at Western Carolina University and her tenure as Poet Laureate of North Carolina she touched many, many people with her delight in and commitment to what they could bring forth in those words we call poetry. She encouraged and guided me as well as I turned from academic prose to poetry in these later years. We will miss her deeply.

At this gathering of friends and admirers I will read her poem “Kitchen Sink,” from her collection The Girl in the Midst of the Harvest. Kay, who grew up in south Georgia but claimed these mountains as a young teacher, was able to capture the deep, brooding melancholy that wreaths these hills as well as the unshakeable life and strength of the people who have wrested food, shelter and community from them for centuries. Her words can haunt as well as inspire. They can be as spindly and sharp as the greenbrier but with roots that go deep below the rocks of our inner life.

As I read through some of her collections—Black Shawl, Descent, The Vishnu Bird, and others—I was struck with the melancholy that lingers in their shadows as well as the beauty they draw out from ordinary things. Out of that reading and reflection emerged this poem, which I share with you today.

 

There is an intractable melancholy in these mountains.

Here mists rise up to mourn a heavy storm,

           lie grieving on the valley floors

           embracing graves and broken barns

           where settlers carved a living from the stones.

Some say it is the cries of immigrants

           who sang in strange and haunting keys.

Some say it is the ghosts of persecution driving them

            to hidden coves suspicious of the light.

Others say it is the sighs of ancient Cherokee they drove off on a trail of tears.

Still others say it is the loneliness of cussed independence.

But a melody still sings within the melancholy.

In the shroud of morning dews

            small flowers struggle underneath the darkened canopy

                        of oak and cherry, walnut and beech,

            declaring victory in the spring

                        before they die in summer’s arms.

Furtive salamanders ooze into the humus

            by the ceaseless trickling streams.

The leaves in clapping hush the dying katydids

            when fall begins to nip the trees.

The children squeal in delight when fiddles find a conversation with guitars.

Young lovers still find heaven in the pungent new mown hay.

Old lovers sit and rock and tell old tales

            holding hands long gnarled in the roots of care.

And neighbors always bring a casserole assuaging grief.

The beauty in these mountains is intractable.

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Victim

I am heartened by the massive outpouring of good will to push back against the violent forces of White racism in Charlottesville and to rescue and assist the many people suffering from the devastating hurricane in Texas and Louisiana. At the same time, I am painfully aware that our present crisis is fueled by the self-destructive sense of victimage and self-sabotage that Arlie Hochschild has portrayed in her important book Strangers in their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right. I am acutely aware of how Trump and his collaborators are manipulating this anger, injury, and ignorance to ravage our land, our skies, our civic souls, and our bonds with other people around the world, all for the sake of gilding their own towers and gated communities. Out of that pain arose this poem, which I share with you. I am not sure I know what it means. Maybe you do.

 

I’m so thirsty, haven’t had a drop of red or white for years.

            I’m bloody thirsty. Take away the cups they stole and give them back to me.

I’m so blue. In depression since the War. The wars. So many wars.

            Give me back my dreams again, let me have that trophy home.

And these floods. Please stop these floods.

            I need to find my car, fill it up, drive it to the oil fields.

I’m so angry, holding up the ladder, fingers hurting underneath the shoes above.

            Put me back on top again, let their fingers feel the pain.

I’m so scared, they’re coming in to take away my soul, take away my purity.

            Give me back security, give me back my history.

I’m so sick, my body filled with poisons, all those doctors killing me.

            Kill the doctors. They don’t know. Let my poisons be.

Please, I need a medication for my leprous, whitening skin.

            Please, just a cup of soup. I’ll give you anything.

            Please, a bullet for my pain.

 

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Reconciling History and Hope

I grew up not far from Charlottesville and still remember visiting Monticello as a boy, fascinated by the gadgets of our third President. The decayed remnants of slavery and the monuments to its defense were silent backdrops to my emerging life. Almost all the wooden structures in northern Virginia had been burned in The War as Union and Confederate troops roiled back and forth in the Shenandoah. My great-grandfather was wounded at Antietam fighting with the 13th Regiment of the Massachusetts Volunteers. We regularly made a pilgrimage to the cornfield where he was shot. Visiting Civil War battlefields throughout the region was a regular feature of my boyhood. The ten volumes of The Photographic History of the Civil War provided bedtime reading and still occupies a place on my bookshelves. The stories of War and Republic hung in the air I breathed. In Charlottesville they clashed again like Mosby’s Grey Ghosts of Northern Virginia in my youth’s imagination.

The struggle for a flourishing Republic has always been fought out on the battlegrounds of slavery and racism. Even as Edward Everett orated for the preservation of the Union, he did so in defense of the great republican heritage of the Anglo-Saxon race. In his mind and in those of his compatriots, the defeat of the Confederacy was necessary to preserve the republican Union created by this race of men. The republican vision sailed into the twentieth century in the ship of Anglo-Saxon “progress.” Only grudgingly did it accept other Europeans and then other “white” people into a common hold. More arduous still has been the inclusion of non-Christians, Africans, and Asians. At each point the Republican vision had to strain at the scaffold of its Constitutional frameworks.

The 19th century theory of race was widely shared by all educated people. Only gradually did it begin to succumb to scientific critiques. In the mid-twentieth century people began to realize that all human beings shared a common ancestor in Africa. Adam and Eve were Africans. Slavery and racism have been the ongoing fratricide of the human family.

Now, the struggle for a social order formed by covenants, constitutions, public deliberation, and voluntary citizenship struggles to escape the wreckage of a foundering racist ship. On our entire human journey we have continually tried to anchor our political life in the biology of sex, skin, and strength. We do not yet believe fully that we can be human together through the grace of a shared public life rooted not in our biology but in our freedom, not only in our history but in our hopes.

The public life of our Republic is threatened once again by armed insurrection in the streets, the decay of truthfulness in our presiding leaders, the fear of “The Other,” and the ruthless despoliation of the earth that gave us birth. Overcoming the cries of “Blood and Soil,” as in Germany in the Nazi era, will require sacrifice anew, but in this sacrifice of former certainties of race, we may also have the possibility to claim the promise of a Republic that is truly a unity covenanted among a pluralism of peoples. We may yet reconcile our history and our hope.

 

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Dance with Me

Ogon’ki Dancers at the Street Dance

Each summer the mountains here resound with music and dancing. In case this sounds familiar, I’ve written about this before. Folkmoot dancers from around the world come to our little town in the Smokies to share their dance traditions with each other and with us. And there is music—the Swannanoa Chamber Music concerts, a summer festival choir, bluegrass and country, and the close harmonies of the Lake Junaluska Singers. It is grand and even mystical. These days I even think of the Sound of Music.

Folkmoot brought dancers from eight countries as well as our own Eastern Band of the Cherokee and the regional cloggers American Racket. People from The Netherlands, Russia, Taiwan, Israel, India, Argentina (the tango!), and Slovenia, as well as a Welsh group from Manitoba talked, danced, sang, and mingled around western North Carolina for ten days. But for me the most charming event of all is our summer street dances by the Court House lawn.

Hon. Joe Sam Queen and his “helpers” lay down the cornmeal.

This year the Russian dance ensemble Ogon’ki joined us before we lay down the cornmeal for the cloggers and our neighbors in the county. Now, about the Russians. They can dance, they can leap, they can spin. They have precision in their movements, and their costumes always burn the eyes with bright colors to ward off the winter and excite the soul. When the balalaikas and drums go on to that evening’s stage performance, our local bluegrass band warms up, caller Joe Sam Queen, heir of a long line of mountain dancers, comes to the microphone and invites young and old, lithe and creaky, to the street to dance. “Let’s all take hands and join in one big circle.” He even had his colleagues in the State Senate doing that when he served us there. May the circle flourish and be unbroken.

This year left a special memory. I had a special dance partner, Darlene. Here’s how it reverberates in my mind.

“Dance with me”

     said the outstretched arms,

    the smile on her face expectant

    that an old man

    at the street dance

            would of course accompany

    a girl of ten

    to promenade

    to allemand

    to swing your corner

    swing your sugarpie,

    dive for the oyster,

    circle star

            breathless

    shout and scream

    as circled hands ran in together

    strangers laughing

    in the cornmeal clouds,

    the bluegrass band

    snapping out the rhythms,

    straining at the deep blue sunset sky.

We stopped.

Shook hands.

She ran off in the crowd giggling with her friends.

My wife was pleased.

Her man was still desirable.

Young and old shuffle free-style to a Bluegrass piece.

 

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