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Poetry by Jim Minick, Darnell Arnoult, Bart Sides, Kevin LeMaster and Arthur Smith


Fall colors of Appalachia. (Photo by Ben Bateson.)

The colors have been glorious in Appalachia this fall, and so are the poems. It’s time to take a break from leaf-peeping and drink in some beautifully crafted words — I’ll have mine in the “cup of sun” Jim Minick shares with us. If you enjoy Minick’s poems that follow, please also see his interview with poet and scholar, Jake Lawson, conducted ahead Minick’s visit to East Tennessee State University’s campus on November 15, 2023. Another of Appalachia’s finest writers, Darnell Arnoult, offers four poems that delve deep into the spirit’s interactions with nature and the body at work. Bart Sides joins us, a southern Appalachia native living in central New England, with a lovely snapshot of 1963; and Kevin LeMaster follows from the hills of Kentucky with a pair of mesmerizing poems on the trials and tragedies of the world around us. The final poems in this installment are very close to my heart: four unpublished pieces by the late, much-missed Arthur Smith. As professor of English at The University of Tennessee, he guided a generation of young poets into the art and craft of poetry with the same vision and care with which he composed his own celebrated poems. Art died in November of 2018, and his absence grows ever larger for so many of us to whom he was an irreplaceable friend and mentor.


— Jesse Graves, Appalachian Places poetry editor




Jim Minick: 'Wrestling the Dead'; 'Cup of Sun'; 'Mort for Short'; 'The Oldest Spoon'


Jim Minick is the author or editor of eight books, including Without Warning: The Tornado of Udall, Kansas (nonfiction), The Intimacy of Spoons (poetry, forthcoming), Fire Is Your Water (novel), and The Blueberry Years: A Memoir of Farm and Family. His work has appeared in many publications, including The New York Times, Poets & Writers, Oxford American, Orion, Shenandoah, Appalachian Journal, Wind, and The Sun. He serves as coeditor of Pine Mountain Sand & Gravel.




Wrestling the Dead


For Brian Ott (1963-2022)



In art class, Mrs. Cooper made us

preppies & stoners work side by side,

together, like staves in a barrel

learning difference disappears for a while.

And every day, Brian Ott walked in late,

red-eyed & smiling, to sit beside me,

shoving a little shoulder shove, taking little

seriously as he settled on the bench,

spilling supplies over the table,

saying, Excuse me, in a mocking voice.

Then he’d ask what I was listening to

which led to Led Zeppelin & trading LPs—

Edgar Winter free-riding to Frampton,

Aerosmith’s sweet emotions raining on

Uriah Heep & Pink Floyd comfortably

numbing us back to Zeppelin in through the out door.

On the long bus rides to away matches,

those green seats cold & slick, we traded

punches, not the flat-fisted kind that don’t hurt

much, but the one-knuckle-elevated

kind aimed at bicep sure to bruise. Before

each punch, Brian blew on his fist, rubbed it

on his chest like polishing a brass knuckle

for its special task. I was always first

to flinch, so he always won. Forty years

after graduation sundered us staves,

we wrestled again last night & despite

him being forty pounds lighter, he had

me on my back in an illegal hold

& he laughed in his devilment as I

thrashed & hit & kicked until I woke.


How can a ghost still throw a punch so full of love?




Cup of Sun

In the cup of sun-

flower’s back, water puddles

and wren takes her bath.




Mort for Short

Mortality: The Disease.

Mortality: The Cure.

Mortality, the name

of my next dog

who will lick my face

and greet me at the door.




The Oldest Spoon

The hoot owl lifts up the dark for all to taste.

Your twitching hand

keeps me awake.

My body’s heat

scootches you away.

To spoon

is seldom easy.

In that hoot-owl dark, the Big Dipper is nothing but

Once I glanced into

where your parents slept

on a narrow bed

spooning for over fifty years.

Their ashes now fill

a single grave.

the oldest spoon pointing us home.




Darnell Arnoult: 'DAYLIGHT'; 'BAPTISM'; 'SACRAMENT'; 'WORK'


Darnell Arnoult is the author of the poetry collections Galaxie Wagon and What Travels with Us (LSU Press) and the novel Sufficient Grace (Simon & Schuster), with shorter works in literary journals and anthologies. She has received the Weatherford Award, SIBA Poetry Book of the Year Award, the Thomas and Lillie D. Chaffin Award, and the Mary Frances Hobson Medal for Arts and Letters and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. For 10 years she was writer-in-residence at Lincoln Memorial University, where she directed the Mountain Heritage Literary Festival, the Appalachian Young Writers Workshop, and summer writing workshops and retreats through Arts in the Gap. Originally from Henry County, Virginia, Arnoult now lives with family in Mebane, North Carolina, where she teaches private writing workshops and is a faculty member of Table Rock Writers Workshop and John C. Campbell Folk School.




DAYLIGHT

Withdrawing

moonlight bends the world toward a resurrection

of birds.

Sun and song calling other tongues to cry away

the shadows.

Fish pack the glassy river as it curves and hears an engine

louder and

righter than any long-haul spiral of mankind’s building or striking.




BAPTISM

We can sit still. Keep silent. Ease our breath to stopping.

Let the phoebe, the sycamore, the rushing river, the sandstone

call themselves in their own sounds and their own silences,

and for a moment the neatness of the world may abide,

its heathen vastness and its vast variety, far and near,

which only a world without us knows. And then we must

call all things by name out of the silence to be with us again,

in our minds and in our books, or suffocate from our own namelessness.




SACRAMENT

How is it you take the Lord into your body?

How is it you take love and mercy and grace

into your mouth, onto your tongue to taste

like a nutritious meal. Only it tastes like a quarter

size of cardboard. The secret: don’t be literal,

and yet be literal. Taste the blessing

itself. Like this. Lower the kneeler, careful

not to let it fall. Kneel. Bless yourself with the sign

of the cross. Close your eyes. Press them to the seam

of your folded hands. Taste the bread of life. Here

is where it gets literal. Otherwise, you might

as well be Methodist or some other sect

that thinks bread stands for something.

As the papery wafer melts into your tongue

and across your heart, your psyche, let the taste

of Christ in, along with His mercy, all the pain,

all the light. His beneficence. There is an aftertaste.

If you don’t eat breakfast or a late lunch, it will echo

around molars and incisors, tonsils, cling to the ribbed roof,

keep you mindful of sacrifice, of what it takes to love.




WORK

Moonlight freely wants its glory,

holy howling eyes singing 

heaven’s blues. Heaped-up songs

break thrones. Understand sound.

Hidden glory lightly consumes 

the double-dog coming. Ankles creek

weighted tears. All mouths touch

my own. An original voice masters its living

tongue. Its giving tongue. Its burning tongue.

Walk it home. Believe in the tree,

in the owl, in the light. Believe and move

from the crouching dark. Cross

grief and master fierce wanting. Walk

your own soul’s endless entrance.




Bart Sides: 'HERB GATHERER, 1963'


Bart Sides is a teacher, poet, fly fisherman and fly tie-er, bluegrass banjo picker, and barbecue pitmaster (though not always in that order). Reared in Southern Appalachia, he lives in the mountains of Central New England with his wife of 49 years and four cats.




HERB GATHERER, 1963

A wise woman walks through

The woods north of Grandfather’s

Chin, old beyond knowing,

Looking…searching…seeing…cutting

With razor sharp knife, twine-tied, to

Her wrist—

Ginseng, coltsfoot, amanita,

More, dropped into the

Croker sack hanging from

Her elbow.

Wisdom passed beyond

Time beyond

Place from

Grandmother to

Mother to

Daughter to

Daughter?

Cell towers and

Satellites stream content—

Wisdom-less. Do daughters hear

Anymore?

Do wise women walk through

The woods?




Kevin LeMaster: 'To Dust'; 'The Low Hum of Strange Music'


Kevin LeMaster’s poems have been found at SheilaNaGig online, Flying Island Literary Review, West Trade Review, Main Street Rag and others, and he has work forthcoming in Gyroscope Review, Hive Avenue Literary Journal, and BarelySouth Review.  Kevin is the co-editor of the upcoming anthology Poetry by Chance and the judge of the Golden Die Contest that supplied the poems for the anthology. He has been nominated for a Pushcart twice and once for a Best of Net.




To Dust

the weeds have overtaken

its block walls, dragging

the bones down

through tendrils of grass; thousands

of tiny fingers reaching higher

until all that is left is its dark

green wake. its insides smell

of black mold and musty

cigarettes, dingy walls

evidenced by the smokers

who lived there; three packs a day

cradled in the hand, sporting

the long yellow nail.

its walls run with rainstorms,

trickling down the dated paneling

and onto the concrete floor

and I am a belly full of stones, river worn

and waterlogged, full of hurt and longing.

a house well lived with all its secrets

is soon to be buried with its memories,

underneath the garden with the dogs

and the hamster, mummified and wrapped

in a white cheese cloth that emerged

from the rich earth during planting

season, the bleached bones white

as stars on a warm summer night.




The Low Hum of Strange Music

the gas pumps behind my house

simultaneously bellow

like the closing prayer during Sunday’s

service, young me squirming for an end

that seems to go on forever. yet I go

inside anyway, mesmerized, top off

my tank and buy a coffee. the local

newspaper tells of another overdose

just in back of the Speedway across

the river and I am unable to react

anymore. welcome to new small town

America, just a place to live and die,

with nothing in between. still, the pumps hum,

fill us with false hopes of prosperity,

of commerce, of feelings of something

you can't buy here.




Arthur Smith: 'Haywire'; 'Never, Again'; 'Purse'; 'Yesterday's News'


Arthur Smith  was born in central California.  He received degrees from San Francisco State University (B.A., M.A.) and from the University of Houston (Ph.D.). He passed away on Nov. 9, 2018. His first book of poems,  Elegy on Independence Day, was awarded the Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize and was published by the University of Pittsburgh Press in 1985.  That same year, the book was selected by the Poetry Society of American to receive the Norma Farber First Book Award. His second book of poems,  Orders of Affection, was published by Carnegie Mellon University Press in 1996, and his third book,  The Late World,  was published in 2002, also by Carnegie Mellon University Press. His most recent book of poems is  The Fortunate Era  (2013).  His work has been honored with a “Discovery”/The Nation  Award, a National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Fellowship, two Pushcart Prizes, and his poems appeared in numerous journals including  The Nation, The New Yorker, Poetry, The Southern Review, The Kenyon Review, and  North American Review.  He was professor of English at the University of Tennessee.




HAYWIRE

Wouldn't you know it'd go haywire in a Chevy,

mid-winter, 1986, somewhere

in the southern snow-coated hills

of West Virginia, thirty or so miles north of where

the Hatfields and McCoys

were still at it, my mother, 62, along

with her younger sister Doris, sweet Doris, the last

living two of eight, not counting the one boy

still-born,

both of them wrapped

around

the steel re-enforced concrete bridge abutments

over a small creek frozen fast. Both lived,

my mother, Iris, with crushed ribs

and a bruised heart, literal, in addition to the one

she lived with most of her life.




Never, Again

All my life I’ve been in love with bamboo

And its hundreds of uses, from floorboards

To food, beautiful to look at, and beautiful

To hear in the wind its leaf-blades slicing,

Its tall stalks chattering among themselves,

In love with its one-mindedness. Same

With Bermuda grass scheming on nothing

But desert air and grit. Kudzu, too, you can

Lie down beside it and watch the beast unfurl,

And what’s inside it never

Grows old. Never. Star-ships, ova, each light

In the cosmos nothing but ash.

Tonight a huge wolf spider

Jumped to the kitchen floor

From the garage, and I tried to bluff it back

Out with my shoe but stepped on it. Dozens

Of the tiniest spiders I had ever seen

Rolled off its body in all directions,

Like soldiers, like brown sound waves.




Purse

I was drying and sorting

silverware back into

The plastic slotted bins where

everything but the knives

Lay spooned like children,

and there it was,

From years ago, my mother’s

father’s coin purse

She pushed on me

before my flight, so insistent

The force of her hand.

A key-ring divorced

From keys, a key with no lock,

a key to what

Once was. She likely

made it for him— Christmas,

Birthday? She never said,

the leather damp-brown, creased

Like a palm, but I can tell you someone

had to kill whatever

Lived inside that skin,

and then someone—sometimes

The same— had to cure

and cut and fold

And hand-stitch the leather, and

close it with a small snap

In southwestern

West Virginia

Where my mother’s family lived

without locks but with guns.




Yesterday’s News

I’m hurrying back in with yesterday’s news—

The headlines like crepe paper, words

The weather had gotten to.

Every morning it’s late spring,

A miracle, like Easter without clergy

Or living past your actuarial age—

Like the hundreds of thousands of years

From before the last ice age—for light

From the sun’s core to rouse the muted

Marigolds this morning in my neighbor’s yard.

When the rains ended, the blossoms looked

Bewildered, but only because they didn’t

Wish everything in the world more like them,

And they had forgotten, once again, who

Or what they were, just as I had.

This is the spirit that seeps

Into the field and makes the honeydew

Sweeter than anyone can remember.

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