We feel a chill in the air in the poetry corner of Appalachian Places as fall moves toward winter in East Tennessee, and we welcome the season with a new meditation on a frozen landscape from legendary poet Don Johnson. Denton Loving offers four poems with a generous view of mountains, oak trees, and an expression of gratitude for a fellow poet’s honest vision. Thomas Alan Holmes shares three poems of engagement with art, family life, and remembrance, with rigorous attention to poetic forms (two of these are sonnets) that expand the sonorous music of his work. We leave you with two poems by Sam Barbee to savor the apple harvest and the “holy realm” of South Holston Lake.
Don Johnson: 'Freezing Fog'
After 30 years, Don Johnson retired in 2013 from East Tennessee State University where he had been a professor and Poet in Residence. He is working on a rewrite of his sequel to his first novel, Blue-Winged Olive, tentatively titled Deceiver.
Mist silvers the bare branches
of the redbud. She has gone
out to photograph the white yard,
the dried wild asters, changed
suddenly to iced love knots
glowing blue against glazed
leaves. Settling thick above
the pasture, fog obscures
the footprints she has left.
Even the chimney’s gray smoke
fades, lost in the same vapor
eclipsing her house.
When the freezing mist
crystalizes one sleeve
of her nylon jacket, ice creeping
from wrist to shoulder, she
stiffens in mid-stride, praying
the morning sun will
never clear the gray mountain.
Denton Loving: 'Optography'; 'Letter to William Brewer'; 'Returning'; 'Feller'
Denton Loving lives on a farm near the historic Cumberland Gap where Tennessee, Kentucky and Virginia come together. He is the author Crimes Against Birds (Main Street Rag) and Tamp (forthcoming 2023 from Mercer University Press). His work has been published in a wide range of journals such as The Threepenny Review and Iron Horse Literary Review.
If it’s true an image affixes like a negative
to our eyes after life’s gloam turns dark,
then I will still see the trace of mountain.
Of slope, escarpment, cliff line and crest.
Of coal-robbed wounds where trees won’t grow.
Of hollowed faults and white rock walls.
Mountains are so good for our souls,
their durability might be mistaken for love.
But when my body returns to dust,
I’ll be no more mourned than a fallen hawk.
The hard quartzose sandstone of this range—
once raised heavenward by tectonic thrust—
will remain as stoic and unmoved
by my passing as it has stayed untouched
by the ages of wind and rain
that long ago eroded all the softer rock.
Letter to William Brewer
Truthfully, I’ve tried to stay ignorant and unaware
of OxyContin, heroin and fentanyl-laced meth,
but my friend Annie told me to read your book.
Thank you for the poems you wrote about Oxyana—
the name you gave Oceana, West Virginia. I live
a few mountains south. Last year, a neighbor boy
broke a window and slinked through my house
like a hungry fox to steal an HDTV and a hunting
rifle that had been my grandfather’s, to pawn
though I figured he was plenty flush, always parked
at the end of our gravel lane selling pills. A teacher
told me about a mother late to drop off her kids
because, she said, of snakes in her Suburban, slithering
out of the cd player, wriggling over the pedals,
even in her shoes which is why she was barefoot
and it February. In her clothes too, which is why
she stripped in the front office. Police escorted her
to the hospital. Who knows what happened next.
Maybe nothing. After I read your book, I slept
as restless as a flame. I dreamed a tornado ripped
through my valley, leveled homes, stole people
from their beds. I walked through great oaks, beech
and sycamore splintered like brittle bones. I walked
the winding vein of road to my untouched house,
which was when I knew it was a dream because
no one remains unplagued.
My heart is divided,
split in devotion
to where I am
and where I want to be.
My wish to sew
my own life line
with a single, simple thread
is thwarted by these
their foothills and low reliefs.
So my path unwinds
that twins and twists
but never breaks.
This is the white oak that grew among other oaks and beech,
pine and hemlock. This is the tag that marks the tree.
This is the saw with whirring blades. This is the sawdust
that thickens the air. Praise the machine and the task it achieves.
This is the creak of the trunk splitting. This is the fracturing
of fibrous limbs as they bend and break. Praise the thunder
of the falling. Praise the quake of the earth accepting its weight.
This is the log that will be hauled to the sawmill, cut into lumber
and measured by board feet. Praise the planks that will shape
This is the crown of the tree. These are the branches left to rot.
This is the wood’s cellulose and lignin that replenish the soil.
These are the fungi, the beetles and the earthworms that flourish
in the oak’s remains. Praise decay and decomposition.
This is the feller who brought the tree down. Praise the worker
and the work of felling trees. Praise the quickening pulse
and the flowing blood.
This is the first green leaf from last year’s acorn, taking root.
This is the light that enters the woods and cleanses the wound.
Praise the wood and the woods. Praise the light, praise the wound.
Thomas Alan Holmes: 'On Homer’s Fox Hunt'; 'Pearl'; 'Knife'
Thomas Alan Holmes’ poems have appeared in such journals as Louisiana Review, Valparaiso Poetry Review, Appalachian Heritage, Still: The Journal, and Appalachian Journal. With Daniel Westover, he recently edited The Fire That Breaks: Gerard Manley Hopkins’s Poetic Legacies (Clemson U P, 2020). Holmes specializes in Appalachian literature as a professor at East Tennessee State University. Iris Press released his In the Backhoe’s Shadow, a poetry collection, in summer 2022.
On Homer’s Fox Hunt
At once, I’m fooled and think the view I share
is what the fox can see, the sea, a green
and jewel-like glow along the shore between
two snowy banks, but, no, I’m in the air
and near a pair of crows, aloft; from there
I see a smooth, unbroken, snowy plain,
no cover for the fox. Should I explain
my broken self I see depicted here?
I thought I am the rust-daubed fox, away
from its familiar haunts and trapped alone,
a resignation that feels languorous
and desperate. Should I, now crow, betray
some secret need to feed on what I’ve done?
Like crows, the snowflakes pile on, dangerous.
I’ve seen you swap it up, the cymbal crash,
the challenge to play keyboard, march the miles,
emote on cue for football stadiums,
encouraging your bandmates, pushing carts
and loading trucks, halftime percussion pit.
I’ve known you sit for hours drawing hands.
You could have drifted as another flute
among the flutes, except, not you, you took
bassoon, so tall with its own voice, distinct
but fitting in, but filling in, once missed,
a needed complement to melody,
foundation, contrapuntal, subtle, strong.
I think you learned before your brothers did
how much it hurts to care. You never stop,
all too aware that open arms leave hearts
without defense, so what is fierce and brave
can bear the hopeful child their whole life long.
I bought bone-handled stockman Case, a green
dye in the bone I hadn’t seen. I knew
it wouldn’t be for show; he’d put it through
rough work, to pry a rusted-shut machine,
to slice an apple swiped on pants to clean,
to strip a wire, to shape the tire-patch goo
and striate rubber, too, and twist a screw
when thumbnails wouldn’t do. It could have been
a Sunday knife, a precious thing, but he
knew what a knife was for and showed his pride
by making it do everything. Why be
reluctant? Take it. Let it slip inside
my pocket with his years’ utility
kept folded in it ever since he’s died.
Sam Barbee: 'Apple Harvest'; 'Lake Shoulders'
Sam Barbee has a new collection, Uncommon Book of Prayer (2021, Main Street Rag). His previous poetry collection, That Rain We Needed (2016, Press 53), was a nominee for the Roanoke-Chowan Award as one of North Carolina’s best poetry collections of 2016.
He received the 59th Poet Laureate Award from the North Carolina Poetry Society for his poem "The Blood Watch"; and is a two-time Pushcart nominee. His poems have appeared recently Poetry South, Literary Yard, Asheville Poetry Review, and Adelaide Literary Magazine, among others.
When I pluck your polished myth,
recounted in shiny red language,
I am left with a sour set of dilemmas,
those I must try to stew into answers
for ripe questions you continue to core.
A bushel slat-basket of apples will not be solved,
reclassified to advance an argument. Never
spilled for the good of any harvest.
It contains tidy resolution: ripe and red,
unpeeled, bake-able, with or without brown sugar crust.
One afternoon soon, my harvested solutions
will be set on the porch in the cool autumn air,
and into a hardwood bin, then trucked to market
in gray morning with other unripe crops
peeping between the splintered ribs.
- South Holston Lake, Tennessee
Water wails behind our boat, sawn open into silver spray.
Distance blurs mountains as depth does the lake.
Sun-washed conifers ripple over a neighboring range,
waves of velvet needles shimmering in wind.
Surface glows green, darkening with each waterborne
strata just below. Luminous canopy becoming murky.
Stubborn bedrock, veins of granite, heave along red cliffs,
like tongues lapping up. Lawless tree and underbrush roots,
frayed nerves competing against springs to control eroded runnels.
The forest quakes, senses tremors deep-down in flooded valleys:
each a submerged nucleus − cedar-shake rooftops, split-rail fences,
sweet high-mountain hymns and omens − prickly like pinecones,
firmament in crystalline elder-water enveloping an atmosphere
beneath, and dominion of lungs unknown to preoccupied men.
Wedged up on an atlas-back, this immersed globe sanctifies
serenity. Boats shuttle overhead. Fowl paddle contours.
Rainbow trout patrol the holy realm, oversee ancient covenants.
Below, the solar sparkle like bright smudges dapples wakes and pulse of oars.
Above, each petrified entity beckons rain to dampen remaining days,
and swell the dam’s level summoning fresh essence in their water-locked void.