This installment of Appalachian Places welcomes the authentic voices of poets both new and long-treasured. Readers of Now & Then Magazine will need no introduction to Rita Sims Quillen, who served on the original Board of Directors, or to Linda Parsons, who worked for many years as the magazine’s poetry editor. It is a special pleasure to share their luminous poems alongside one of the most promising of younger Appalachian poets, Micah Daniel McCrotty. Readers may notice some common attentions in these poems, close listening to the songs of birds and moving water, care for the way we interact with nature, and a deep investment in memory and the saving grace it offers us.
Micah Daniel McCrotty: “Brumation”, “Second Sentence”, “Regulation”
Micah Daniel McCrotty lives in Knoxville Tennessee with his wife Katherine. His poetry has previously appeared in Louisiana Literature, Storm Cellar, Still: The Journal, Sycamore Review, and the James Dickey Review among others.
A petrified river of scree, a stone current
tumbling grey out of the mountain,
sloughed-off folds scarring ash-toned
sides of dry dells, the site of collapse
rippling out into timorous gorges.
This waterfall of rock records the hill’s
first history, deep pools of simmering
quartz a journal of gradual decay below
cascades. Timber rattlers gather in
hibernacula between boulder foliage
to amass like eddies of the air’s flotsam,
leaves their seasonal bed of brumation,
overwinter eyes watchful while frigid
coils simmer a crevice of living.
They remain attuned to the hum before
a great collapse, shiftings of sand
from under flanks of ridge-bank,
another shuddering exterior cleaved
through the tail of valley. But still
they wait without rattle or strike,
stagnant testaments to the ability
of the living to take on the temperature
and color of inhabited soil.
The way some tell it, Willie never pined
for his wife Amanda, or called out
during sentencing, but accepted just doom
for blowing ribs out the backside
of Tom Gilbraith’s body from close range.
Instead, he bid his mother and sister Donna
farewell, kissed his new bride, then began
to weep for fear of never again seeing
the beautiful green hills of East Tennessee.
But Amanda heard the clap and laughter
in the streets of Kingston, crowds calling,
confident as coyotes come yipping
into the yard. Soft green hills reflected
pale light back into her face, an etching
of horizon, castled peaks drawing
drizzles of rain through its innards.
She had wept, always knowing conviction
meant the banks of ol’ Cumberland
would capture and hold her until
Willie’s burial some 40 years hence.
When generation first filled the river,
blackeyed spotted summer gar chased banished
warmth, laid along scummy side channels on
the backsides of small islands or shallow
film-heavy sand coves to soak in sunlight
against the wide edge of air and water.
Retaining temperatures of departure,
the river’s new push emptied from black-mud
lake bottom. Unwilling to revisit
deeper channels until the last harbors
of heat gave out, needle-nose jostled gourd-
head while carp fled towards sludge banks and drainage
inlets, saddlebag skimmers perched on
exposed spines like drowned timber. In a passing
boat two fishermen spotted wordless slack
jaws agape and cast waxlines at basking
schools, brown shapes which sought a semblance of
older order amid floating debris
and flecks of nutrition, crosscurrent drift
bits from other scattered places filtered
into the eroded waters of their home.
Linda Parsons: “Worry Stone”, “Why I Write about Eggs”, “All Night, All Day”, “Glimmer Trail”, “Visitation: Necessary”
Poet, playwright, and editor, Linda Parsons is the poetry editor for Madville Publishing and the copy editor for Chapter 16, the literary website of Humanities Tennessee. Linda is published in such journals as The Georgia Review, Iowa Review, Prairie Schooner, Southern Poetry Review, and Shenandoah. Her fifth poetry collection is Candescent (Iris Press, 2019). She served as Now & Then’s poetry editor for 13 years (1996-2009).
Through pink clover and tickseed, this stone
I bring to the mudbank of the fast-moving
Garonne. Stone brought from Tennessee,
a world away—the lone honeybee, tickseed
and clover profuse at my feet. What stone
can carry worldly worries set down in mud
and debris? What travels made light
by bridge arcing past, the alone clacking
of trains? Mud and debris carry loss
unseen, memory’s rivered tug and reprieve,
muck where jon boats put in. Worries
snag before rushing past, this veined stone
put in, brought miles in my bag over the sea,
my lone thought to see worries swift carried
away, to see what rises, gift or pure light of time,
from the deep Garonne’s muddy sway.
Why I Write about Eggs
Again on the stool at my grandmother’s
vanity, round mirror sunlike, she cracks
an egg on my head, or so it feels as she braids
my hair, and I give in to the flow, her goodness
rooted behind me, right leg thick with phlebitis—
or is the flow grace, that highest love both
prickly ground and far horizon, thinnest skin
between white and shell called the bloom.
Long I sit in the memory of those Saturdays,
of not wanting to return to my mother. I hold
the oval of her brokenness to the light, veined
at the boiling point, tiny explosions ripe
for kintsugi, the molten past I stir and pour
over our crazed misunderstandings—
the egg, reborn, tossed one palm
to the other, still mad hot with time.
All Night, All Day
for my Earth Angels
Even at twelve, some of us had walked
on stones sharper than this, already mired
in the muddy lakebottom called childhood.
Our feet held to the coals of robbery
and circumstance, though we called it life
as we knew it, a pebbled shore we cooled on
after swamping the canoes. We’d righted them
for the final test, flung ourselves like bass
into the stern to graduate from Whippoorwills
to next summer’s Far Horizons. Victory fires
laid in pyramids, pinestraw quick to the flame.
Horseplay carried across Norris Lake.
The Explorers from Camp Pellissippi sometimes
rowed over to Tanasi, soon turned back in their own
wake. Some of us had seen more than what boys
could do, already tinder to the fire. We knew
our angels, though we called them Grandmama
or Aunt June, other girls like blood sisters, even
the most unlikely—my stepmother—winged
all the same. On the bank, our voices one
under the constellated net: All night, all day,
angels watching over me, my Lord. We sang
as if we believed they were there, or would be
someday to swing the lantern when our way out
crossed into dark. We sang as if they might
appear, conjured from the bonfires’ white hearts,
to shield us, sword to arrow, our upturned faces
lit and burning.
At first thinking snail,
shimmer spooled from kitchen door
to rug, perhaps drawn inside by dog kibble.
The trail brushes away, easily as night’s
mystery surrenders to the offices of day.
Then I see not snail, but lightning bug,
red eye of its head, body cold, trailing
the gold of its travels that rubs off
when you cup the pulsed light peeking
blinking on like the best of remembrance,
whether lit or shadowed, some goodness
still waiting on porches past dark and bathtime.
In a dusting of days ago poking holes
in lids, their brief lamps, hot with courtship,
spark our astral selves to higher planes,
though Earth’s tug will have its say.
This thread at dusk I’ve been coming to
all along, in my palm an otherworldly glow,
What to cut back, what to leave a while longer. I leave the fennel’s plumage in the herb bed, the red-tongued persicaria muddling the path. I leave the black seedheads of coneflower and rudbeckia for the goldfinch. My rage for order conversant with the garden’s natural wantonness. All is lapsed, disarrayed, bronzed. All in its last extravagance under October’s bright-rung sky. I’ve heard fall described as a softening, but I see it as sharpening—the light, colors, air clicked into focus, the year winding down, a bittersweetness to pierce the heart. I work in stages, or I would be overwhelmed by the volume of what my sweat and grass-wet knees have stamped upon this earth—and this Earth—both my East Tennessee karst and hills and the world itself where my body’s clay vessel fills and empties season by season. The poet Tess Gallagher called gardens “islands of necessity.” My orbits in and out of the perennial beds I’ve curved like islands for 30 years have shaped me equally, crumbling my barriers to change, allowing imperfections to spread like creeping Jenny. Especially in this time of pandemic isolation, the necessity of one spade breaking ground centers me. I excavate not only my life, but also other lives before me—marbles, buttons, iron figures, bits of china—unearthed in land as crooked as my own lifeline. I’m drawn to the brick and bark path I created to separate two beds—one side straight, the other less so. I post a photo on Facebook, saying: “This path didn’t start out cockeyed, but weather and walking have made it so. As our own paths veer from what we hoped or planned—each way the right way in its time.” Friends responded on the importance of age and wabi-sabi in a garden (the imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete); the Anasazi pots punched with holes to let spirits in and out; the Kazakh weavers who always leave a flaw in their rugs to avoid the pride of perfection. All reminders of our seasonal breath, the in and outness of change that drives us inward for peace, outward to create and leave our often uneven mark, veering into something we cannot yet imagine.
Rita Sims Quillen: “They Call It Seasonal Depression”, “What Bees Say”
Rita Sims Quillen’s new novel Wayland, a sequel to Hiding Ezra, published by Iris Press in 2019, is the March 2022 Bonus Book of the Month for the International Pulpwood Queens and Timber Kings Book Club. She also has a new and selected poetry collection, Some Notes You Hold, (Madville Press) published in 2020. Her full-length poetry collection, The Mad Farmer’s Wife, published in 2016 by Texas Review Press, a Texas A & M affiliation, was a finalist for the Weatherford Award in Appalachian Literature from Berea College. She lives, farms, writes songs, and takes photographs at Early Autumn Farm in southwestern Virginia.
They Call It Seasonal Depression
I remember certain dead
on certain kinds of days
often in certain seasons,
sometimes when a particular cloud
combines with a particular breeze.
Fall rings the church bell of remembrance
annual alarm clock waking us up
just to say, “This ends. It is
and then it isn’t.”
Bears sleep, the birds leave.
Trees turn to cadavers.
We hunker down in our sweaters
with a lovely fire and warm cup.
Then it’s winter’s turn, skeletal and hollow.
Only blackbirds line the fence.
The world loses its skin and its voice,
now a place without sound.
The snow comes so we can track
that something actually lives.
These two seasons combine into a fifth season
called grief—when there is no escape.
Hawks soar on rip currents aloft
strong as the river below,
so high we are formless down here.
But Spring does always come.
Always, it comes,
lays a wreath, crosses itself
and moves the world on
having already forgotten the breezes and blackbirds,
The heavy step of all who follow hawks,
blessed to wake from this cold dream of a world.
(Leave this poem by a stream or stump
A smoke signal to the deeply wounded.)
What Bees Say
When I visit the park, my babies ghost it.
Little people entertaining each other
blind to the world, so noisy nothing breaks their din.
All grown up, far and far away from me now
they no longer breach the silence.
It’s such a deep quiet
I not only hear but feel
the heavy bee swarm to my right,
a white-hot energy humming on a low branch.
Their loud pulse is a fugue of worry,
collective frantic panic:
Will we still be us tomorrow?
When there’s no way back to where we were,
we must swarm out on meadows’ breath.
Bees form their tightest knot
when silent air signals the world is broken.
They smother each other with hope
once the center is gone.
Nature knows well how to rewind
but wastes no energy there,
knows all about recriminations, regrets
the replays and reprises but holds
those echoes from evening’s soft call.
No shadows or ghosts in bee tree or fox den.
Stop looking back, tempting a salty fate,
the hum says.
You were never meant to be a pillar.