top of page

Poetry by Maurice Manning, KB Ballentine, Alan May, Sharon Ackerman


Appalachian river in the summer
Photo by Ben Bateson.

High summer has arrived in the mountains and foothills of East Tennessee, and we embrace the heat, Dear Reader, with poems that refresh like a cold glass of your favorite beverage. We open with five new poems from the great Maurice Manning, Kentucky’s own, and one of Appalachia’s most celebrated poets, fresh off his first season of The Grinnin’ Possum podcast. KB Ballentine joins us from Signal Mountain, Tennessee, with a poem of longing well-suited for our “galaxy of heat,” and Alan May follows from Knoxville, Tennessee, with three poems of rivers, horses, empty fields, and searching language. We part ways this installment with four poems by Sharon Ackerman of Virginia that weave family and place into intricate poems of tenderness and belonging.


Jesse Graves, Appalachian Places Poetry Editor




Maurice Manning: 'Smite'; 'Down Here in the Jailhouse on My Knees'; 'Out of the Mire and Clay'; 'Two Altars'; 'A Bit in the Horse's Mouth'


Maurice Manning's eighth book of poetry, Snakedoctor, will be published in November. He was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry, and is co-host of The Grinnin’ Possum podcast. Manning lives with his family on a small farm in Kentucky and teaches at Transylvania University.




Smite


Civilizations can do a number

on themselves and hasten their demise.

I've been reading about these matters, Jack,

in the b-i-b-l-e. People

mislead their own people, and people

mislead themselves. Then things fall down--

down, down, as a judge's gavel--

like pillars and temples, threads of the fabric


begin to fray, and it all unravels.

And, in our time, will fall the steeples

we've builded up and set so steep.

That's when the blind start leading the blind

to find the nothing they will find,

eh, Jack? Believe I'll head for the hills

when spring is sprung with daffodils,

and perch up yonder to watch the fall


when all of that begins--the end of time,

or what have you. That's also in the book--

and, Jack, I've given it a look,

when God comes back to declare the mess

we've made for ourselves is one we've made

and the payment back is long delayed.

And the people no longer live as people,

or children of God. They live as if


they're only children of themselves

who believe in nothing and nothing else.




Down Here in the Jailhouse on My Knees


Well, Jack, they're feeding me on cornbread

and beans, as the old tune goes,

and that's the situation--spare

as cold water you know where.


Nobody saying nothing now--

comprende? Button up the buttons

and pretend a touch of nothing is nothing

or the long shadow cast by nothing


and my, we know the score on that.

But this is how the doo-dah works--

either a little light appears

to lead me out or I have to make


the light myself--with help from you--

I've got the broomstraw, you've got the coal,

you've got the steady glowing coal,

and soon enough the little light


flares up, the empty shadow fades,

and I can see which way to go.

But it ain't easy is it, Jack?

It's not like sitting on the porch


and ticking time in the rocking chair.

What's going on with us is stark,

our blind inching through the dark.

I'd say we both comprende that,


though you've gone deeper down than me.

Molasses for the cornbread, Jack,

would be a change from the usual fare,

but now that I'm parched and relieved--


believe I'll mosey down to the river

and take a gander at all that milk

and honey on the other side

they like to talk about, and see


if my tin cup runneth over.




Out of the Mire and Clay


So, what's your plea on silence, Jack?

I figure someone like you, who's known

to be a ponderer of things,

has given it a little thought,

and surely through the hoary years,

you've had a chance to try it out--

to sit back, saying nothing,

and let time tick its silent gears,

to see what's what, and then whatever

it is that needs to be settles

quietly into being itself,

as on a flower, unfolding petals

unfold to leave the final flower

just standing there in yellow power.


Eternal silence, Jack, just think--

it's like a distance hard to see,

and I like looking at distant hills,

because that great beyond out there

is like a church with nothing in it.


Cold comfort, ain't it, Jack?

So plain, no thrills or frills.


I've always found silence is slow,

and silence has delivered me,

it turns out, many times, so being

at peace with nothing going on,

apparently, gives time meaning,

and folks like us look out and watch

or wonder, Jack, trying a thought,

then letting it sit like a stick of wood

that might arrive in the stack of kindling.


A stick that goes into a stack--

I like the thought and sound of that,


a rhyme to level hopeful mood

with gloom, and bring them into ease.

Which brings me, Jack, to another question,

another one for you--what kind

of crackpot do you think invented trees?




Two Altars


We've got some activity, Jack, just over

the hill, and I'm pretty sure it's The Squire--

up to no good. He's burning something

that shouldn't at all be burned. A spindle

of smoke is turning into the sky,

leaving a lingering, yellowish haze


that shouldn't be there to sting my eyes.

But I can't be bothered with his ways--

he has a theme, he has a scheme,

which always is to plunder my scene,

and plundering that, he plunders me,

when all I'm trying to do, dear Jack,


is ready the garden for planting time

and mark which seeds require the moon,

and which require the season's signs

so worms and bees can join the tune

that turns the dead ground over and brings

from underneath, the living ground,


that calls deep roots to follow down

and wait. Revival is my thing,

and turning furrows makes me sing

with all the holy moonlight sounds.

I wake up humming in the bower

that has not one ungodly hour.


And though The Squire may burn his wretched fire,

a still small voice calls me to join the choir.




A Bit in the Horse's Mouth, Jack


I heard a preacher, Jack, whoop out

a big amen for a man who'd been

delivered from cigarettes, okay,

and that has always touched me, Jack,

because if you're going to bother to pray,

one way is to start on the smaller end


of things--no wisdom or kinder heart,

or help for the suffering masses, only

a nudge to stifle a snag on the path

of living a life with oomph and so forth.

But who knows what that looks like, Jack?

It's a comical dilemma, ain't it?


Hell yes, I've got religion, Jack,

and never not had it, in fact--

I was raised in the church-house doors

whenever they were open and we

were always there, often missing

my father. Lord, I've come to terms


with that, although it's still a bit

of a burr. Raised in a faith of fathers

and knowing he was missing, but out there,

a wanderer, a soul alone,

but in the end finding his way,

though having little to show for it,


curled up and stricken in his bed,

no declaration or salute--

he got where he got in the end and died.

And that informs my living, Jack,

a ghost to haunt and round my praise

or visit me on lonely days.




KB Ballentine: 'Ache of Wanting'


KB Ballentine’s seventh collection, Edge of the Echo, was released May 2021 with Iris Press. Her earlier books can be found with Blue Light Press, Middle Creek Publishing, and Celtic Cat Publishing. Published in Atlanta Review and Haight-Ashbury Literary Journal, among others, her work also appears in anthologies including I Heard a Cardinal Sing (2022), The Strategic Poet (2021), and Pandemic Evolution (2021).




Ache of Wanting


The raven barks

his sentinel’s call


in this season between

seed and harvest.


A ragged echo

fraying the skies


over stalks withered,

soil cracked and shriveled.


No filaments of lightning,

no cloud whiskers the blue


gaping its empty throat.

Wind abandoned this place,


swallowed the wildness.

Now oak and cottonwood


brittle in a galaxy of heat,

even the stillness parched.


Crumbs of dust float,

coat all we see.


Etched in the branches,

the raven risks his wings –


shadow fading

then gone.




Alan May:  'THE WATAUGA LAKE AND THE DISPOSSESSED'; 'O, FOREFATHER'; 'WINTER MONSTER'


Alan May has published three books of poetry. He holds an MFA in creative writing from the University of Alabama. His poems have appeared in The Hollins Critic, The New York Quarterly, Plume, The New Orleans Review, Diagram, The Laurel Review, and others. He works as a librarian for Knox County Public Library, and he hosts a poetry podcast called The Beat.




THE WATAUGA LAKE AND THE DISPOSSESSED

I know the river runs away for fear of your vacant eyes I deny the dam and its locks the man walking the length of the barge against the current houses beneath the lake I can’t descend the stairs to your heart so I loiter in the backrooms of poolhalls the roof of the old Victorian like a raft free of the flooded house but it all sinks by daylight or rots in the mud and muck when run aground




O, FOREFATHER not much / has changed / the horses chomp at the oat / grass / the cowslips pop up / by the river / the speed / at which we travel / matters / little people / are / walking / shoeless through / the shards / of houses / in a valley

nearby / and / the muffled / noise of talk / talk / talk / the trees / are dying and some / are now / painted / with rubber the space / between / us grows / and tiny tyrants / are / everywhere they hide / in the cornflakes / for / instance I trust / no one / but / the horses / who play in the valley / near / your / homestead the horses / who chuff / and snort their hooves / tap the code / that I / scrawl on the red / barn / against / a red / horizon and / o yes / there are / vultures pecking / in the high weeds / near the lake I hear / you walked / a million / miles to meet / our / foremother




WINTER MONSTER

A lonely boy with a pellet gun shoots the sky Sky that looks like a bank of snow like the pale Eyes of a movie star an assassin A train grubber grubber of trains eyes Of a little girl holding her breath She's forgotten how to breathe what started out As defiance ends in terrorism we are Drifting into this eternal landscape The dead leaves murdering the dead grasses An empty field small house collapsing barn Frozen shirts and dresses hang on an invisible line




Sharon Ackerman: 'The Morning My Father is Buried'; 'All Our Histories'; 'The Field'; 'Heritage'


Sharon Ackerman resides near the Blue Ridge of central Virginia. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in the Southern Humanities Review, Meridian, Still: The Journal, Atlanta Review, Cumberland River Review and various others. She is the winner of the Hippocrates Poetry in Medicine international poetry prize, London 2019. Her poetry collection Revised Light was published in 2021. She is poetry editor for Streetlight Magazine.




The Morning My Father is Buried


It is early November

a first breath of frost tarps

the grave white as a bible

slicking the incline where six


men stagger to keep purchase

on our family plot, coffin

sealed and shouldered.

They are so careful of you,


of leaves that want to play

with our mourning, unseat it

to a tumble. I know how small

my faith is next to this mountain,


have seen waters gushing

down it, how its blaze rares up

in autumn, spits when a drop

of rain hits it, acres of red-gold


fed by the flint of the dead.

It isn’t death’s wound, but the snap

of steel that locks you in

a hymn sung in metal notes


sunk in the ore of women’s voices.

I see you banging a spoon

on Sunday morning to wake us up.

If I lean in, my shadow leans


in toward you as you fall.

It’s that other world we must believe

in, where lowered to a native

land, rivers can shout, praise come.




All Our Histories


There is a picture of my grandma

at seventeen, skin like sweet milk

her eyes so very wise

full of canning and floods, every

kind of venom a mountain can muster.

Looking at her is a kind of loneliness,

like the miles between towns

or the overhang view of a valley

where you can see how a river runs

but it’s too far off to swim.

There was a husband she loved

who died young, done in by coal mines

or a bad heart, twin stories

flowing side by side. Another man

who may have been bad--- or not,

who she may have married,

or not. And in time, ten children

jumping the banks, wet filaments

spreading north. But this is the girl

before, who cannot disclose

what she doesn’t know yet.

Old stories will come from high up

and later, from many directions

so they can’t be told apart---

Like the haying wagon and thunder

they rumble through us and are gone.




The Field


It’s sweet how goldenrod waits

at the end of summer

milkweed unscrolling its husks,


tithing seeds. In just a few weeks

nettle will snap in umber

tones underfoot, a low flame light


the field where flights of doe turn

themselves loose at sunset,

bodies near as they pass,


yet muted. They don’t understand

even now, their own distances,

old love, the ache of it.




Heritage


You don’t know what you’re made of to start

so many things run in the blood

a looseness of limb

quiet from a long line of quiet.


The brine of a river in the hair

means born, one name flowing

into another, inked cursive

in a bible that says come or be summoned.


I’m baptized because my daddy

believed in the brown leaf

smell of water, loading his child’s pockets

with the living and the dead,


until the streams bore that weight.

Wade out on silt and it begins to exhale

below your feet. I felt it once--

my mouth flooded by something lighter than love.

Comments


bottom of page