By Michael Beadle • Contributing writer
Anyone who’s spent serious time with a cat knows there are a myriad of ways to describe the feline mystery. They are inscrutable creatures. At times, indifferent. At others, intensely focused. Adorable and affable when they want to be. Experts of stealth. Part diva, part zen master.
The great Scottish novelist and poet Sir Walter Scott once wrote, “Cats are a mysterious kind of folk. There is more passing in their minds than we are aware of.”
Editor’s note: George Ellison’s column this week is a sort of fable based on one of the seldom-seen (almost mythical) rodent species found in the Smokies region that climbs trees with acrobatic ease and builds platforms from twigs that it rests on while watching the world go by far below.
Since the year 2000, I have written going on 750 Back Then “columns” for The Smoky Mountain News. I am enormously proud of that association. Many of the “essays” in my books have been filtered through SMN to their benefit. Even though I have always thought of myself as a poet, only four or five of the BT pieces have contained verse.
A word with a lovely sound, but with bleak connotations.
It’s a sunny, crisp afternoon in the high hills of Tuckasegee and Thomas Rain Crowe throws another log into the woodstove.
Unwinding into a nearby seat, the renowned Western North Carolina poet is all smiles. As owner/founder of New Native Press, his entire catalogue of printed works — including his own writings and those of others he has published — is currently on display in a glass case at the Jackson County Public Library.
About once a year or less, I work up the nerve to publish poems in this space. Head for cover. It’s that time of the year again.
As the poet Yvan Goll lay in a hospital in Paris dying of leukemia, a continuous line of some of the most celebrated artists and writers of the first half of the 20th century formed to donate blood to keep Goll alive while he struggled to finish his final volume of poems Dreamweed. With the blood of poets and painters coursing through his veins, he completed his masterwork and quickly died.
Rose McLarney grew up in rural Western North Carolina, where she continues to live on an old mountain farm. Daughter to a somewhat legendary biologist who founded the international conservation organization ANAI, she is a female reflection (a generation or two removed) of Kentucky farmer/poet Wendell Berry.
Her work poems have the pith, the profundity, the probing of Berry’s, and yet she is very much her own muse, making a new poetry that ever since her appearance on the Western North Carolina scene a few years back has raised the bar for all other poets who have taken note of her range of subject matter and her crafting of the language. Since then, she has gone on to earn an MFA degree from Warren Wilson’s Program for Writers and now teaches writing at the college. Her poems have appeared in The Kenyon Review, Orion, New England Review, Asheville Poetry Review, and others. She has been awarded various poetry prizes and teaching fellowships and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. In recent years she has worked locally with the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project based in Asheville. Clearly, with this first book, Rose McLarney has arrived.
I remember those early Asheville appearances and thinking that she, of all the young poets testing their wings alongside older “birds” at various literary events, would make her mark. And she hasn’t disappointed. In fact, she has taken the dictum of William Carlos Williams’s “ideas/images only in things” and catapulted that idiom into a new poetic stratosphere. To use her own metaphor, one could say that “some years there are apples.“ And in 2012, The Always Broken Plates of Mountains is a ripe, juicy apple indeed.
“The (Southern Appalachian) hills stabbed with sumac” have been Rose McLarney’s home for her whole young life. And her knowledge of the place shows in her observations and metaphors regarding nature and simple farm life. As she says, “It makes you want to cross your arms to stop the machines.” And her first book, here, is a reflection of her commitment to the rural landscape and lifestyle to which she is wed — from the striking head-on view of horses plowing on the front cover to the poems inside that are sparse and present on the page.
In essence, the 45 poems in this book are love poems. In some ways, it’s a book of love poems to nature, rural farm life, and to some lucky man. With a stern matter-of-fact tenderness, these poems, at times, take your breath away.
As if writing on old wormy chestnut boards rather than paper, in the poem “Poet” McLarney compares a poet to a dog with cataracts. Similarly, and in much the same way as her image of “buffalo stabbing their horns into rolls of hay,” McLarney addresses her subject matter — crafting her metaphors with stabbingly rich, romantic detail. Always referencing her own life experience and the places and people she knows best, McLarney conjures lines such as these from the poem “Covenant:” I’ll choose a love, as I choose my home,/an old white farmhouse, not far from where I grew up.
From my own life lived here in these same mountains, I recognize much of what she describes. Yet her lithe and facile descriptions are better than my memory. But it’s not enough to just generalize or pontificate about this young poet’s proficiency. McLarney is a young poet who is not, like so many of her peers, a master of the obvious, but who is a miner of cleverly coy emotions disguised as words. Here, amongst high hills, hellbenders and heartbreak, is a woman emerging — like Venus from a shell — into the physical world of work which is poetry.
When the calf dies, he buries it
with the tractor. He is sorry,
but there are vultures.
Afterward, the mother
bellows at the tractor,
suspicious of the steel bucket
that brings her hay.
And I think most of how I love him
when I sleep alone, and lie awake,
imagining how tractors overturn,
and animals are angered –
what could keep him away.
What’s most noted are the cold body,
the cold machine, and the place left empty,
though the field is daily filled
with a herd of thousand-pound animals
seeking shade from the sun under willows
and steaming in the rain. [pg.26]
In this poem and in the one titled “Where I Will Live,” nowhere is McLarney more on target regarding the love poem theme in this collection. Again, here in the final stanzas of the poem, she reminds me of Wendell Berry.
So people could try to grow
on the good land, he says, they built
in the hardest places.
I bought the farm. I’m moving in
to the house, beyond the barn,
on stonier ground. He’s come to help me
feel at home.
But McLarney is not a one-dimensional writer. She has many tricks up her sleeve, and many voices. In the long three-section, five-poem poem “Before Me,” she takes on the voice of an old mountain woman from previous generations who is living secluded in a hollow on a mountain farm. In looking back on these past generations, she returns to her own voice in heartfelt humility in the poem “Disclaimer” to say:
It’s the talk of people past
though I am an inexact student, unfaithful
to the details.
I think they would forgive me
for what I do with words,
like a new girl, who can only
sign her name with an X.
In what may be her signature poem in this collection (“Epilogue”) and like the wise old women in that poem, I truly enjoyed “setting a spell” with these poems that “make a magic of slowness” [pg.70] here amidst “the always broken plates of mountains.”
Rose McLarney will be at City Lights Bookstore in Sylva on Friday, April 13 at 7 p.m. to read from her new collection The Always Broken Plates of Mountains.
The Always Broken Plates of Mountains by Rose McLarney. Four Way Books, 2012. 70 pages.
Thomas Crowe is the author of the non-fiction books Zoro’s Field: My Life in the Appalachian Woods and The End of Eden: Writings of an Environmental Activist, and a recent collection of poems placed in the Southern Appalachian mountains titled Crack Light. He lives along the Tuckasegee River in Western North Carolina.
There is a refinement to Catherine Carter’s poetry, a sense that each poem is finished, polished and complete, worked exactly the right amount and not a jot too much. There’s also in Carter’s poems an edge, a whiff of wild abandon lurking just beneath the placid surface.
This accomplished poet once published a romance novel under a pseudonym. And Carter remains fascinated by this often-maligned genre: She hopes one day to write another romance novel.
“It really was fun, and I would like to do it again,” Carter said. “I might have to try other genres first, though — it’s the generic conventions that make genre fiction most fascinating, the what-can-I-change and still have it be genre? Is it still romance if the big good-looking dominant guy is a villain? Still mystery if the detective’s kind of a goof who doesn’t solve the puzzle by intellect? Still a western if the hero talks about his feelings without being tied to a stake first, or isn’t white, or doesn’t like horses? The only way to find out is to write the book, unless someone else has already done it for you.”
These paradoxical crafted-with-care, you-better-watch-out qualities permeate Carter’s just released book of poems, The Swamp Monster at Home, just as they did her previously published book, The Memory of Gills. That book won the 2007 Roanoke-Chowan Award for Poetry.
Carter lives in Jackson County and teaches in Western Carolina University’s English department. She directs the English Education program. Carter is married to Brian Gastle, the English department’s head and a specialist in both medieval literature and professional writing.
Louisiana State University Press published The Swamp Monster at Home. The 68-page book was released Feb. 13.
Dive into Carter’s poems, and you know instantly that here is a person who takes form seriously, even — or most especially — when writing free verse. Carter writes knowing, respecting and honoring the rules of her craft, and she knows exactly when she should consider breaking them. The poems she writes are influenced by traditional poetic form.
That respect for craft shines through the selection of poems in The Swamp Monster at Home.
Carter sounded amused and bemused when talking about students who buck learning form because they fear doing so will “cramp” their style.
“Imagine a carpenter saying that learning to use a plane is going to ‘cramp’ his style,” Carter said, shaking her head in disbelief.
Carter’s poems generally begin as a solitary line that she hears in her mind’s ear.
“If I hear iambic pentameter, I know this is going to be a more formal poem. If it is loose, that tells me something else about the poem,” Carter said.
At age 44, Carter’s poetry is more reflective and perhaps more inwardly open and vulnerable than those pieces she’s published previously. And sense of place is strongly evident, whether Carter is writing about her tidewater home of Greensboro, Md., or about living here in Western North Carolina.
“The sense of place has been a preoccupation from the beginning, but it is a story I can’t seem to stop telling,” Carter said.
Take some of the imagery in the poem “Hydro Plant Accommodates Rafting Industry:”
“All the long drive upstream,
the rocks were knobby-dry,
the stream lay sullen, low and slow,
in broken symmetry.
Its mortal bones exposed.
Its quivering, glinting flesh
was gone to feed the power grid,
its slender nervous fish
cringing in too-warm pools ...
“The temporary flood
was short as autumn love,
with months of dust on either side
no torrent could remove,
but lit the day as love will.
Briefly the stream put on
its spangled flesh to resurrect
the shrunken skeleton.”
Carter grew up in a family that cared about literature. Her father was a biologist and her mother an English teacher. Both are now retired.
“My parents really rock, they are world-class parents,” said Carter.
Asking a writer who has influenced their work isn’t a very fair question, though it’s not unexpected in an interview. The truth is, of course, that everything a writer has ever read influences their subsequent work. That acknowledged, Carter in particular selected the work of Thomas Lux as shaping her later development as a poet. Lux is an internationally recognized writer who teaches at Georgia Tech.
“He has a dark and funny sensibility that really speaks to me,” said Carter, adding that one of her most productive and fulfilling periods as a writer occurred during a workshop/retreat led by Lux.
Carter also spoke with admiration about fellow Jackson County poets and writers Ron Rash and Kay Byer. She credits Byer for persuading LSU Press to seriously consider her first book of poems.
“That they even looked at it was because of Kay, and I owe that to her,” Carter said.
Catherine Carter will read from The Swamp Monster at Home at 7 p.m. Friday, March 9, at City Lights Bookstore in Sylva.
That Time Again
While I wake in the black
Early morning, the morning
star is Saturn, burning
yellow and steady in the window’s
icewater square like a warning
flare. You lumber toward the shower
and returning day, while in the winter
night Saturn and I
stare at each other, wary,
cold as two diamonds.
You have left your shirt
on the quilt, its warmth
turning thin in the chill.
After a while I lean
out stealthy and quick and catch
it under the cover by its collar,
hide it against my side
where Saturn won’t see.
November Evening, Splitting Firewood
A neighbor drones his leaves away
with a leafblower, another combs
his with a rasping rake, while in my leaves
I stand ankle-deep, braced to the slow
swing of the axe. The damp heavy logs
are splotched bright with fungal jelly
like orange marmalade, like flesh if flesh
were the color of goldfish. Witches’ butter:
in old stories it means a hex.
Maybe I’ll scoop it off the log.
Spread it on my neighbors’ toast,
act for the lost leaves.
Maybe there’ll be a golden quiver, an alien
taste, and then leaves
sifting over their quiet bodies,
slowly covering them under. But I
am the only witch here now,
writing dark thoughts
on the dry paper that whispers
under my soles, changing cold weight
and wood into heat, into light the color
of witches’ butter.
They’ve never seen it spelled,
I guess, only heard it said
in church: so when they write it down,
the Promised Land, heaven, becomes this other
thing, the Promise Land. Their heaven
is the land of promises, where
eternal checks are always in the mail
and every morning finds us in the gym.
Where those jeans, you swear, make me look small.
Where of course Monsanto doesn’t plot
to own each seed of every spear of corn.
Where your senators really read your mail. Where
we’ll see the beloved dead again, and never wish
we hadn’t. And it’s the land where you and I
can each admire and like and love the other
forever, forever, I promise, forever.
The Haywood County School District will hold its district competition of the Poetry Out Loud (POL) National Recitation Contest at 9:30 a.m. on Dec. 1 in the Tuscola High Auditorium.
The competition will feature school champions from Haywood Early College, Pisgah High School, and Tuscola High School. District winners will move up to the semi-final competition to be held in Greensboro on Saturday, March 24, 2012. Winners of the semi-final competition will compete in Raleigh for the North Carolina Poetry Out Loud state championship.
This is the second year that Haywood County High Schools have participated in Poetry Out loud, a program presented by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Poetry Foundation, and advanced through partnership with local arts councils like the Haywood County Arts Council. The Haywood County Arts Council supports Poetry Out Loud by providing performance opportunities for students, transportation funds to attend competitions, and gifts for winners.
In 2010-2011, Ann Kram, a senior at Tuscola High School won the district level competition and Pisgah High School senior, Ashley Lee was runner-up. Ann went on to perform at the state POL competition in Raleigh.
Poetry Out Loud, is a national recitation contest that “invites the dynamic aspects of slam poetry, spoken word, and theater into the English class. Poetry Out Loud helps students master public speaking skills, build self-confidence, and learn about their literary heritage.”