This was the year in which I first became aware of my annual Holy Trinity of reading: End Zone by Don DeLillo, Mariette in Ecstasy by Ron Hansen, and In the Heart of the Heart of the Country by William Gass. Whatever happens to me during any given year, these are the three books I re-read, front to back, like ritual. But this year those books began to speak to each other during my reading experience. Perhaps appropriate to their respective content, I read End Zone during the summer, sufficiently inspired to do sprints on wooded trails during thick July afternoons. I settled into Gass’s book, particularly “The Pedersen Kid,” while the snow piled and piled. Hansen’s story of a stigmatic novitiate was fodder for Lent. This year I noticed that each book values atmosphere over plot, mystery over clarity. Those books are likely brothers.
I returned to The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake. I still wonder over the narrative economy of “The Way It Has to Be.” Perhaps moved by similar nostalgia — I began reading Pancake as an undergraduate, around the time I spent most mornings fishing — I read The Art of Angling and Fishing Stories, two rich pocket books with words that will reawaken the souls of even the most cynical anglers. Not to mention that you can find a poem by Ron Rash about a fisherman who hooks his own eye: “My hair sweeps back like an evangelist’s, / as I cross the heart of the lake / toward Swaney’s Landing where I will testify / to those sunburned old drunks / of careless moments that scar us forever.”
I was able to review a few books this year for The Millions, and they are certainly worth revisiting in future years: Its Day Being Gone by Rose McLarney, Hold the Dark by William Giraldi, The Second Sex by Michael Robbins, 300,000,000 by Blake Butler, and Fat Man and Little Boy by Mike Meginnis. Each left a mark on me.
My reading year ended with two gorgeous new books of poetry, both debuts, both formed in the shadow of Roman Catholic culture and thought. Reliquaria by R.A. Villanueva offers shades of parochial school and the Meadowlands and how “my brother told us about the Cemetery of the Holy Sepulchre, / cut in half by the Parkway.” Villanueva’s volume is a lyric documentation of, among other themes, Filipino faith, a belief absolutely bound in the corporeal. Saints populate this book. Bodies, living and dead, real and imagined, are broken. It is also a book of the venial dissensions of childhood: a botched biology class dissection that turns heretical, and when the narrator dares a friend to “throw a bottle of Wite-Out at Christ’s face.” Any book authentic to the Catholic tradition will have its eye toward ashes, and Villanueva’s elegiac moments are sharp: “When you bury me, fold / my arms, neat // over the plateau of a double-breasted suit”; “I promise my ghost will find you / should you want someone else to love.” Villanueva’s book wonders about childhood, family, the distance from original culture, and of things eternal: “So what is it we’ve saved? Skull? Soul? Vulture? / Maybe this earth, turned in on itself and made.”
The second book, Bone Map by Sara Eliza Johnson, is well-paired with Reliquaria (what minor miracle of publishing that two secular presses — University of Nebraska Press and Milkweed Editions — release exquisitely crafted, meditative books about God and absence during the same year). I’ve been a fan of Johnson’s verse in literary magazines for some time; her poems have the ability to clear the air, to pause the mind. I am preternaturally disposed to love a book that begins with an epigraph of that wracked, devoted disbeliever, Ingmar Bergman. I thought of Bergman’s Hour of the Wolf while reading many of her pieces, including “Deer Rub.” A deer rubs its forelock and antlers against a tree, and the “velvet that covers the antlers // unwinds into straps, like bandages.” And then she manages quite the poetic turn; rain falls, “washes the antlers / of blood, like a curator cleaning the bones // of a saint in the crypt beneath a church / at the end of a century, when the people // have begun to think of the bodies / as truly dead and unraiseable.” This is why I read poetry: to see how words transfigure, how associations bring new life. By the end of the poem, the deer is dead. The bark has regrown. But the scene has a permanence “long after this morning / when the country wakes to another way, // when two people wake in a house / and do not touch each other.”
Johnson’s poems feel like a series of engravings discovered in an abandoned cabin deep in the forest; each is its own folkloric song. In “Confession,” one of the few prose poems in the book, a dream becomes a myth: “I hide under a thought of light, not incineration. The thought is a cloak I wake into gently; it is cold in the room, and I am hungry but whole.” I thought also of “Sea Psalm,” which begins so powerfully: “Lord, this is not your world. I am not yours / but also not mine. Not your passenger. Not your saint at the helm, the machinery // of my hands turning like clocks.” These moments of distance become full when the collection ventures further and further into the cold, as in “Letter from the Ice Field, January,” which is beautifully grotesque, Catholic gothic: “I stopped, and walked down into the crypt, knowing a saint had lain there for centuries. Her mouth lay open, as if to ferry over the word of a messenger. The saint had my face. The saint woke and rose from her coffin, and gave me her skin, which is a map of the earth, and her eyes, which see every planet. I took out my eyes and put hers in, then climbed into her empty coffin, my body glowing as hers had: like a femur in a fire, its marrow burning across the length of me.” The poem ends “Inside me you have learned to speak impossibly.” Bone Map was a reminder of how it felt to be devastated, made new by poetry. I can’t expect much more from a book.
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“A place belongs forever to whoever claims it hardest, remembers it most obsessively, wrenches it from itself, shapes it, renders it, loves it so radically that he remakes it in his own image.” Kentuckian Chris Offutt chose that line from Joan Didion’s The White Album as the epigraph for his memoir, No Heroes: A Memoir of Coming Home. Appalachian literature plays an elegaic refrain. It is a literature of dislocation and transition and survival. Ron Rash, echoing Offutt, reflects how everybody who lived on the two-mile dirt road that led to his grandmother’s farm was either family or friend. Now, “I probably know three families out of 60 or 70. And that place is gone. The accent’s gone. A lot of the culture is disappearing.”
Rash and Offutt hesitate to sentimentalize that passing world, but the pull is inescapable. As Rash says, “there’s something in us as human beings that–we know our lives are transitory, but we want something not to be transitory, something to endure, whether it’s a landscape or a place.” Rash’s poem “Preserves” is a concise dramatization of that process. After a funeral, the dead’s land and property are divided among kin, but the narrator has forgotten a springhouse. He opens the rotting door and he finds “woodslats bowed with berry and vegetable.” The double meaning of the poem’s title is less meant to be clever than funereal, as the family “heaped our paper plates and ate, one chair / closest to the stove unfilled.”
Later this year, Rash’s novel Serena gets the full Hollywood treatment. Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper will likely send more readers back to his work, including his newest release, Above the Waterfall. For many readers, the life and fiction of Breece D’J Pancake still haunts the discussion of Appalachian literature. Pancake killed himself in 1979 at 27-years-old, and his rough but lyric tales have made him a martyr. Jon Michaud’s recent retrospective at The New Yorker is a fitting tribute. He recommends Thomas E. Douglass’s biography, A Room Forever, and Samantha Hunt’s essay “The Secret Handshake,” which appeared in The Believer. I would add Marion Field’s touching “Complicated Manners” from the Oxford American. But start with the man’s fiction; my favorites are “The Way It Has To Be” and “Time and Again.”
It would be foolish to deny Pancake’s literary influence on how we speak about literary Appalachia. The parallel nature of his passionate but short life, his brief output (he only published enough stories to fill one book), and the crafted compression of his tales make him almost too perfect of a symbol. During a review of Rusty Barnes’s story collection, Mostly Redneck, I positively compared Barnes to Pancake, noting that both writers used finely crafted settings to add gravity to the minutia of their characters’ lives. In an interview, Barnes pushed back against my comparison, citing a frustration with reviewers using Pancake as metonym for Appalachian literature. While that certainly wasn’t my intention, I welcome his excellent list of other noteworthy contemporaries from the region: Nikki Finney, Frank X. Walker, Lee Smith, Lisa Koger, Maurice Manning, Silas House, James Still, Crystal Wilkinson, Charles Dodd White, Gurney Norman, Denise Giardina, Mark Powell, Pinckney Benedict, and Chris Offutt. Readers should get Red Holler: Contemporary Appalachian Literature, edited by John Branscum and Wayne Thomas, or issues of Appalachian Heritage, Still, and Appalachian Journal to see the newest work coming from Appalachia. Countless others could be added to Barnes’s list, including Harry Humes, Jayne Anne Phillips, Tom Bailey, the late Irene McKinney, Ann Pancake, RT Smith, Fred Chappell, Joseph Bathanti, and Scott McClanahan, whose memoir, Crapalachia, is a self-admitted yarn. “God bless those who keep trying to make myths,” he writes.
One of the finest mythmakers in contemporary Appalachian letters is Rose McLarney, a poet from western North Carolina. Although she now teaches in Oklahoma, while looking for her first teaching job back east, McLarney “was living without electricity, hiking 17 miles to use the phone or internet.” Her first book, The Always Broken Plates of Mountains, hits elegaic notes, as in poems like “Autumn Again,” where the sumac-stabbed hills create a beautiful color, but “this time of year, there is always / a wounded feeling.” Her first book was not provincial, but her newest release, Its Day Being Gone, widens her range.
The book begins with violence. In “Facing North,” the narrator needs to put down a sick goat. “Silent animals” on the farm watch in judgment. She is not without guilt, wondering if she “should have given her southerly pasture,” and then cleverly turning the hesitance on herself, thinking “I should have gone in another direction.” Her threnody might seem archaic. After all, “In this era, when there is no need / to farm, who is drawn to have livestock, / which die so much?” Yet again, the narrator has used “animals / as the figures for my sorrows.” But she is “still here. / I can’t stay away / from the hard images.”
Those hard images, like the tenuous truths of McClanahan’s memoir, are no less painful if they are myths. Later in the collection, McLarney writes “much of what you grew up with had already faded– / there was less paint than rust on the metal, and littler / hope.” This tension between past and present, reality and hope moves the book forward. In “Shadow Cat,” the narrator walks a dirt road, thinking how the “houses on bits of flat / kept their backs to the walls / of mountains, knowing / their place.” The natural world reigns, and is untouched until higher up the mountain, where a man pulling a bulldozer whispered a warning: “Careful out here alone. / Big cat will get you.” She’s been hearing such admonitions her entire life, although few people have actually seen such animals. She wonders if the warnings are a comfort, “keeping alive the belief / that what wildness abides / out there is the danger.”
Dangerous, but it is their wildness, and the narrator of “Watershed” defends the local, “murky” waterways. She is not interested in clear water “filtered by mosses and lichens.” She wants an “ancient, worn landscape,” where she can swim over sunken cars. A certain level of toughness is expected. Someone who enters her house must be “unafraid / of stumbling on sagging floors, into low doorframes, features / of old structures, the past, people I know.”
Great books can be local, but Its Day Being Gone gains another dimension through the inclusion of McLarney’s chapbook, Hone Creek, originally published in Mudlark. The poems in this sequence dramatize the upheaval of South American communities from hydroelectric damming. “Imminent Domain” introduces the section. Although McLarney does not identify herself as an activist–“as much as [my poems] say what is wrong, [they] end up admitting my complicity”–these poems are written with anger. Although some of these engineers “meant well,” “Power always is sent to serve regions other / than where it is made.”
The disparate regions are also connected by methods of storytelling. McLarney’s narrators often smirk, as good yarn spinners do. “Setting,” a story about a thief and his lover, is told “because I want your attention. For you to come for dinner again.” These “bellyful tales,” told “when no one is hungry,” are variations on a theme:
No, there’s nothing new in it. But it couldn’t be richer.
What would you rather have than a thing you know
spiced and simmered, spoken and seconded,
in another’s accent?
Its Day Being Gone is several books in one, and “Story with a Real Beast and a Little Blood in It” helps decode the synthesis. A bull breaks loose, and after the men, “butted and bruised / with rope-burned hands, give up,” the narrator makes a path of sweet feed that leads into a gated fence. But she pauses the poem to warn that we should “not look to make any allegories, / for any meaning beyond the marvel.” In Its Day Being Gone, McLarney has it both ways. Her stories are real, but they are symbols. Appalachia will remain, but it helps that the region has such skilled writers to document its truths and myths. McLarney’s poems contain enough eloquence to make a passing world permanent. Her work reminds us that when the bull ran, when the past began to fade, you “followed / on your knees down the mountain, noting / even in brambles, as you bled, the stars.”