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Poetry by Don Johnson, Denton Loving, Thomas Alan Holmes and Sam Barbee

Photo by Ben Bateson

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.

Freezing Fog

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

rolling Appalachians,

their foothills and low reliefs.

So my path unwinds

like cable-stitch

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

a dwelling.

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.

Apple Harvest

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.

Lake Shoulders

- 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.


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