Welcome back to the poetry corner of Appalachian Places, and if this your first time visiting us, please take a few moments to browse our archives after you savor these new poems we are sharing. We open this installment with five brilliant poems of family, devotion, and the adventures of youth from Ohio Poet Laureate Kari Gunter-Seymour. Be sure to click over to Lacy Snapp’s new interview with Kari Gunter-Seymour, in which they discuss a range of topics related to these poems, including the Women of Appalachia Project. Next we head south to Rome, Georgia, as Catherine Hamrick offers poems that merge experiences of water with the passing of time. Our travels take us up to Western Carolina, by way of Southeast Ohio, with 3 poems from editor and scholar Jessica Cory that explore the flora and fauna of the Appalachian Anthropocene. Renee’ C. Lyons takes us back to the world of small farms that once populated so much of central Appalachia in “All Over the Chrome.” We close with a suite of poems from North Carolina poet John Thomas York that channel the life and legend of the great Doc Watson. Can’t you just hear the guitar strings ringing and that plaintive old voice singing to us from deep into the past?
Jesse Graves, Appalachian Places Poetry Editor
Kari Gunter-Seymour: 'She Would Have Crawled Through Hell on Her Belly Over Glass"; "Carolina Kin"; "Under Canopy of Oak and Wood Thrush"; "Today a Bird"; "Sometimes I Picture You Walking Too Far Ahead"
Kari Gunter-Seymour the Poet Laureate of Ohio, founder/executive director of the Women of Appalachia Project and editor of the anthology series “Women Speak.” Her poetry collections include Child of the Large-Beaked Bird (EastOver Press 2023) Alone in the House of My Heart (Ohio University Swallow Press, 2022) and A Place So Deep Inside America It Can’t Be Seen (Sheila Na Gig Editions, 2020). Her work has been featured on Verse Daily, World Literature Today, The New York Times, Rattle, About Place Journal and Poem-a-Day.
She Would Have Crawled Through Hell
on Her Belly Over Glass
Which is why I cannot tend the garden
without a tingle of nostalgia
or bare the honeysuckle’s unction,
those tender tendrils. I swear
she exuded hints of that nectar
even during winter’s wearisome months,
so connected was she to the land
and its ways, her eyes brimmed
in echoes of foothills and sky.
I would come to her broken.
She would cackle like a banty hen,
slap a thigh, dance a weebly-whirl.
Every care I thought to claim
When worries press in, I kneel
as she taught me, her trowel in hand,
attend the ‘taters and peas, the strawberries
plump, beginning to blush.
There’s a mare in the barn, hungry for apples,
the bluebirds’ box tidy and new-nested,
tree frogs eep and bleedle along the creek,
the light of her presence so vivid,
I have to squint my eyes.
Tether-born—thorns on a rosebush,
heritors of the hive, chroniclers
of who done what to who.
Nostalgia mongers, lined up like leftovers
wrapped in Tupperware or tin foil,
children clutched to calico aprons,
shy as bat-eared foxes,
moony as moths hitting a windshield.
all ribs and sternums, head cupped palms,
ball caps tucked low, oily rags in back pockets,
twang-hinged lips spitting tobacco
and local politics astride a string of hexes,
language clear as morning fog.
Inside the house—tintypes trim the mantle,
holdovers trussed up, Sundayfied,
clinging to Bibles and boggy timbers,
opaque around the edges—his eyes, her nose,
ancestral gap between front incisors.
Back of the barn—pats on the back,
slap of a knee, fiddle, banjo,
tang of Bar-B-Que, cob corn and ‘taters,
spice of the loblolly pines.
Under Canopy of Oak and Wood Thrush
Leaves float. Frost slicks the underbrush,
tips our red wool gloves, Gore-Tex boots.
We huddle, breath and heartbeat,
quash self-projections, the compulsive need to speak.
My granddaughter dreams of active shooters,
learns to build barricades inside her classroom,
memorize exit strategies.
Here, we stack acorns, study chipmunks,
listen to grass stories carried skyward on bird tongues,
pinpoint clouds between branches,
chirp silliest sing-a-longs.
Today a Bird
Only an open-handed woman
understands the way a brain plugs in its love,
surrenders to the authority of propriety,
breasts sweating under secondhand
polyester, a woman who leans invisible
into the world, cups her proclamations,
struggles to perceive how the petite and ponytailed
learn to prance, toss their lanky manes,
a woman who’s known a patch of grass
her whole long life, its rises and hollows,
the sting of rain, knobs of wild yarrow,
streaks of dazzling dusk, knows a bluebird
flown headfirst into a window is beautiful,
even in its stillness, laid out
in a pasteboard box of tinsel and fading blooms,
sight the softest form of touch.
Sometimes I Picture You Walking Too Far Ahead
We wore Carhartt bibs, Red Wing boots,
denim ball caps turned backwards,
smoked Marlboros, ganja when we could get it,
drank Everclear and Hawaiian Punch
mixed in Ronald McDonald collector cups,
sang Cindy Lauper’s Time After Time,
Bonnie Raitt’s Something to Talk About,
rode the ridges on a used Yamaha 1100.
Local boys called us dykes
because we wouldn’t put out.
But I quit the quaaludes right after
we woke up soaking wet under a beech tree
outside a town neither of us recognized.
You’d get fired up, unbuckle your bibs,
skinny dip anytime there was a full moon,
claiming your ginormous breasties
would keep you afloat indefinitely,
spout on about whose ass you’d like to kick,
the latest fool who tried to kiss you,
your up-to-the-minute political twaddle,
sung loud and purposefully off pitch.
To this day, neighbors go out of their way
to describe drowning as a peaceful passing.
All I know is this loneness of body,
curse the way my legs still carry me forward.
Catherine Hamrick: 'Around the Corner'; 'Swimming after Trout'
Catherine Hamrick is the copywriter and content strategist for Berry College in Rome, Georgia. She previously held senior editorial positions at Better Homes and Gardens, Cooking Light, Southern Accents, Victoria and Meredith Books. Her poetry and prose have appeared or are forthcoming in The Blue Mountain Review, Pine Mountain Sand & Gravel, storySouth, GreenPrints and elsewhere. Hamrick placed as a runner-up for the Natasha Trethewey Poetry Prize in 2020 and 2022. Find her online at Random Storyteller
Around the Corner
David and Danny stray from Farmer Brown’s field,
following its creek in search of mysteries
when something scuttles in the shallows, pinching
and pleasing. “What is it?” whispers David.
“A fish, a crawling fish,” says Danny, folding
on his knees at the bank’s edge, stretching out
his hand, hesitating, frightened at the pincers
but thrilled to the shell, thick and calcified.
“Why is it?” whispers David, and Danny hovers
his fingers over the water, just an inch,
and glimpses the broken joint of a missing leg
before rapid tail flips jerk the creature backward.
At five, he’s out of words, agitated by the heat
and the racket of cicadas buzzing
and clicking their last month high in the trees
after shedding years burrowed below.
At dusk, the crickets start their tinny chirrs,
between the whines of katy-did-katy-didn’t,
and tree frogs throw trills like ventriloquists,
calling out thunderstorms in steamy air—
with night vibrating against the screens,
Danny forgets how his father sounded,
losing one more piece to a summer hollowed
like cicada husks littering the ground.
At thirty-five, he overhears retired guys
in a diner, sipping coffee and devouring
Danish while they recite obituaries
that praise fruitful years (or mask wasted days)
and sigh, “I had no idea so-and-so was sick.”
But he’s too hurried for capsule biographies
of politicians and poets, teachers
and engineers, CEOs and truck drivers,
because fall cleanup is overdue since the cold
silenced the nights, and he cannot put off
patching bald spots and mulching perennials;
the checklist is longer than he’d like to think.
Danny goes around the corner of the house
to grab a rake; his son rattles the playpen,
pulling up to find his feet—his eyes grip the sky,
full of cloud rollovers, as Danny returns, glancing
sideways, at his father’s black hair, an instant,
like the crawfish dart, while his son yearns upward.
Swimming after Trout
The sun prickles me,
and the dock creaks, rocking
on algae-spotted Styrofoam.
A silvery leap spatters
this drowsy morning,
now tail-thrashed alert
as trout flee weed beds
and sunken logs
for spring-fed depths—
far from the snaking neck
and strut and stalk
of a great blue heron.
My toes line the edge
of wave-slapped wood,
and I dive, in an arc,
into the current,
desiring mute cool green
until it presses
hard on my breast,
and I push upward,
bursting into white air,
and a gasp of joy.
Jessica Cory: 'The Smell of Memory'; 'Ode to the Autumn Daffodil'; 'Forked Tongue';
Jessica Cory teaches at Western Carolina University and is a PhD candidate specializing in Native American, African American, and environmental literature at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro. She is the editor of Mountains Piled upon Mountains: Appalachian Nature Writing in the Anthropocene (WVU Press, 2019) and the co-editor (with Laura Wright) of Appalachian Ecocriticism and the Paradox of Place (UGA Press, forthcoming 2023). Her creative and scholarly writings have been published in the North Carolina Literary Review, North Dakota Quarterly, Northern Appalachia Review, and other fine publications. Originally from southeastern Ohio, she currently lives in Sylva, North Carolina.
The Smell of Memory
Lilacs curl against the clapboard,
their linen-fresh scent clinging to the petrichor.
We cut a few, carry them inside to dress the kitchen table
to the cemetery to dress graves
in a tin bucket to share with neighbors.
Their petals drop and become bookmarks
trails leading us home.
Ode to the Autumn Daffodil Amid the roadside weeds on my way home,
I spy it out the window to the right.
Growing between the trees, kudzu, and loam,
Its petals reflecting the sun’s own light.
At forty miles per hour, hard to tell,
exactly what type of flower it was.
The yellow of a faded daffodil,
face open like lilies or irises.
This time of year though, only goldenrod
Speckles these hills with its radiant hue
And thus I thought my vision surely flawed
To see this sunny capturer of dew.
The next day I returned and looking back,
found a weathered Dollar General sack.
I lay down my homeland
and latch onto another.
Trade the Paint for the Pigeon,
Scioto for Tuskasegee,
Buckeye for Tulip Poplar.
Move from the land of the Shawanwa
to the Ani’yvwi’ya.
In this space so strange
yet familiar, I place
blackberries in my cart, returning it to a sign labeled buggy.
maybe becomes might could
lights get cut on
I get confused.
As I latch on, the gashes in the mountains
get deeper, slopes get steeper,
tea gets sweeter. But the honeysuckle,
Lord, the ‘suckle tastes the same.
Reneé Critcher Lyons: 'ALL OVER THE CHROME'
Reneé Critcher Lyons is an Associate Professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at East Tennessee State University, Johnson City, TN. Serving as the Program Coordinator for the School Librarianship Program, she holds both a M.L.S. and a M.F.A. in Creative Writing. Renee' has published in YALS, Children and Libraries, and the International Journal of the Book. The author of The Revival of Banned Dances (McFarland, 2012), she serves on national book award committees for the American Library Association and The Nature Generation and is secretary of the board of directors for the National Children’s Book Literacy Alliance.
ALL OVER THE CHROME
Over in the orchard of my soul,
campfire lights flicker.
And, once again, brother’s face
glows like a rainbow –
kaleidoscope of color cascading to gold,
overseeing a tiny island of mountain.
Memories of our parents’ voices echo from the past.
Ripped-open gunnie sack tied to the shoulder
holds 75 pounds of potato eyes –
staring upwards, wondering which will
next meet fate.
Drop each one, big brother, and press them into the earth
with your heavy, laced, high-top boots.
Fly messages over your shoulder,
“Cover them good, little sister.”
“Keep it between the rows,” Dad insists.
At age 13, push the tractor’s choke in,
hear gurgles smoke from the spout.
Let out the clutch; ease the lever down.
Reach for my uplifted arms that beckon
for the side seat, and
with a turn of your head, fix eagle eyes
to navigate collapsing waves of dirt.
“We’re ‘bout out,” Dad hollers.
Pile a muddy, running water crate of
plants onto your shoulder.
Carry them w a a a ay out the row
and place a bundle in my arms.
As I release them, one by one,
wedge a hole, plunge roots deep.
With a smack from your planter,
pack the soil
for a vegetable’s new home.
“It’s gonna storm. Go get the cattle off the top.”
falls Dad’s urgent command.
Arms flying, herd bovine down the hill
with the help of that Spot of a dog who always
gets more than his share of table scraps.
Safe the brutes are from the zig-zag bolts of death,
one more time.
“Quit messing and gomming,” Mom pleads as you wash through
the front door, sloshing thunderclap drizzle at little sister’s feet.
“Climb on up there and keep it in the truck bed,” Dad instructs.
Up through the holler, along the mountain’s incline, and
to the barn – youth rides high.
Guardian of the straw – one long strand sticking out of your mouth,
many broken pieces clinging to your sweaty body.
“Lemonade,” big brother calls, spinning me
round toward the kitchen.
“Her bag’s full,” Mom smiles.
Milk pail on an arm’s crook,
Morning dew and evening calm.
Squirt little sister with a warm stream as I
watch you and the calf fight for udders.
Set the pale, creamy liquid, topped with drowning flies
and cow-hoof debris, at Mom’s kitchen door.
Take the apple peelings, peach fuzz,
blanched skin of tomatoes, prickly coverings of cucumber
and “Slop the hogs.”
Pour the mess through the window
into the mangy trough – listen to the Hampshire grunt.
“Your snout’s as dirty as the hogs’, little sister,” teases big brother.
“Nothing else to do on a hot summer afternoon?” Dad asks.
“Grab the sickle and mow briers off the Knob.”
Swing the blade of crescent moon
to the rhythm of your tune of blue,
stopping long enough to provide well-deep wisdom
to a skin-splintered sister:
“Don’t ever let a thorn’s flower fool you, girl.”
“Never be idle,” Dad instructs.
Whittle a new cabbage stick on the porch of March winds.
Or, sharpen the blade that will slice the bounty,
forcing firefly sparks from the flint,
breaking just long enough to shoo little sister’s hands away.
“Those fingers of yours are bony enough,” my protector chides.
My parents’ voices fade into my own...
“Teach me,” I demand over and over.
Teach little sister how to make a blade of grass whistle
and about the sweetness of birch bark.
Teach her when the plums are ripe and
which limbs are best for climbing the cherry tree.
Leader of the pack –
Despite all the wisdom freely shared, all you ever asked of me as we grew older was:
“Take good care of my car.” (How you loved that fire-engine-red Dodge)!
It took little sister a long time to find the cheesecloth.
But, finally, big brother, I’m busy shining your hubcaps.
Now others, too, can see the golden firelight spread
rays of rainbow color
….all over the chrome.
John Thomas York: 'The View from Deep Gap'; 'Singing School, The Sacred Harp'; 'Barnyard Bourdon'; 'Discovery'; 'Newport Folk Festival, 1963'
John Thomas York grew up on a farm in Yadkin County, in northwestern NC. His full-length poetry collection, Cold Spring Rising, was published in 2012 by Press 53. Since then, his work has appeared in Tar River Poetry, KROnline (Kenyon Review), Poetry East, Appalachian Journal, and several other magazines and anthologies. He has won both the James Applewhite Poetry Prize and the Alex Albright Creative Nonfiction Prize from North Carolina Literary Review. Website: www.johnthomasyork.com
The View from Deep Gap
Navigating a snake of a road,
creeping along in a cloud
and listening to Doc on the tape deck,
I found a mountain
materializing out of thin air
(out of thin air the bare
blue trees, the Parkway overpass),
and then I stopped to stare
at the wide valley covered by a fog
as level as the ocean.
And the ridge on yon side might've been
the Hills of County Down,
or the Highlands, the Beacons, the Atlas
Mountains: who knew they were
so close, the Mothers and Fathers, their songs
like seeds in black furrows,
Pretty Saro walking a dark holler
and weeping, reading a poem
she will long understand, her lover
a poor man, cursed for to roam?
And I, a pilgrim heading home,
heard the old song
in the fading light, and felt the everlasting
charge in flesh and bone.
Singing School, The Sacred Harp
When General Watson kept time, arm waving
palm-down, pumping the congregation,
the people sang their syllables, warming
up to the melody, then the lyrics,
voices free of vibrato, just this side
of shouting, four parts finding places,
as if a fiddler were tuning as he played—
maybe there was an ancestral memory
of bagpipes, of reeds that made the feet
twitch and the hair stand at attention—
they sang of the Savior's promise,
they called on a spirit from a deep vein
of salt, the grit that preserves, a savor
on the tongue of every singer: and you,
Arthel Watson, sat on your mother's lap
and smelled the salt, but tasted your Mama's sweet
voice, the first you heard, nine months of ballad
and lullaby—the first songs you learned by heart.
Reaching into his Christmas stocking, he always found
Papa showed him how to breathe, how to tongue
How to play "Cotton-Eyed Joe" or "Cripple Creek"—
Arthel took it everywhere, until it fell out of his pocket,
in hayloft, laurel thicket, or roadside ditch.
Then he returned to kitchen music, spoons or forks tapping
pans, tin cans, the wood stove,
Until Mama shooed him out to the porch, there to play
brush and washtub, milk bucket, nail can
Where Brother Arnold jumped onto the porch boards clogging
to shake the dirt off his brogans, shaking
the plates on the kitchen table.
And when the postman brought him a new harp, Arthel
decided he wanted a bass line,
Rigged up a steel wire, one end attached to a hook
on the barn door, the other to a stob stuck in the dirt,
Pushed and pulled the door until the throbbing harmonized
with the harp,
And he played "Home Sweet Home," right hand flailing
while the left held the harmonica,
And he stopped long enough to sing, "Be it ever so humble
there's no place like home!"
The barnyard drone booming over the farm, the bourdon
blooming into lips, fingers, toes—
a thousand songs, music everywhere.
His brothers lead him to a place
where the water pools, where a rope dangles
from a limb, one brother handing the rope
while another waits to guide
Arthel away from the rocks—Oh, the thrill of a swing
in a bright fog,
the cool darkness of the creek bank.
Or he walks the road barefooted without a guiding arm,
his feet learning patterns of gravel and rut,
he listens for echoes of road bank and ditch weed,
pretends to be a boy made of rubber, laughing with the others
when he stubs a toe or skins elbows and knees
or when a tree limb surprises crown or forehead.
Or the whiff-whaff of the crosscut saw,
his father guiding him to the handle, teaching him the song
of labor, the smell of sour locust or sweet pine dust,
the ache, the sweat, the grinning
when his daddy says, "Good job, boy!"
Then night cooling the tin roof, the occasional plink,
voices retreating into yawns gaping, then the hoot owls
talking in the holler, the moon a dazzle
at the window like that girl who is always out of reach
when he tries to play tag.
Then one day, a cousin leaves a guitar in the corner
and Arthel picks it up, takes it carefully to his chair,
strums searching for a chord as if
he has caught the girl he will marry:
his daddy promises Arthel
a Silvertone of his own if he can learn a song
by the time he's home from the saw mill,
so the boy searches the frets, finds three chords,
three magic words that together make
a vow, marrying Arthel to six strings
and a breeze from the southeast easing
through the corn, or the north wind singing
around the corner of the house, or the west wind
in the pines playing a song nearly forgotten
or a song never heard before.
Newport Folk Festival, 1963
He came from a four-room bungalow, a house
where no telephone rang, where the light
in the window shone from an oil lantern,
where instead of bathroom they said out house, slop jar.
He came from wood-shedding for ten years
with Jack Williams and the Rail Riders,
a combo playing rockabilly or jazz or fiddle tunes
for square dances, Doc picking
a Fender Telecaster, going electric to be heard
above the stomping, flirting, fussing—
or, before that, he came from busking at street corners
or in front of cab stands or barber shops
in Wilkesboro, Lenoir, or Boone, Doc collecting
change in a cup to take back home,
or, before that, he came from the School for the Blind,
Django Reinhardt on the Philco,
he came from Deep Gap, Daddy leading
hymn-singing or Mama churning butter and singing
of Tom Dula, Omie Wise, or Little Matty Groves,
or his father-in-law fiddling, saying,
Look down, look down that lonesome road,
or the Watsons winding up
a Victrola, Doc wearing out his recordings
of the Delmore Brothers, the Skillet Lickers—
And thanks to Ralph Rinzler, here
is Doc, abashed by folks who have come
not to drink or fight but to watch fingers
on a borrowed Martin guitar,
the man never missing a step as he builds
with dazzling economy a stairway
winding skyward, and the listeners
follow up and over "Black Mountain,"
they feel the final rush downhill, the bump
that lifts them from their seats
as if gravity were diminished,
as they whistle, clap, and holler.