By Brent Martin • Contributor
Mention the name George Ellison to most people living in western North Carolina and what immediately comes to mind are tales of neotropical songbirds, Horace Kephart, James Mooney, Cherokee folklore, a dizzying array of plant life observations and of course, the beauty and wonder of the mountains themselves. I suppose that given his elegant and prosaic renderings of these subjects we should therefore find it no surprise that he is also a poet.
His new collection of poetry, Permanent Camp, is a kaleidoscope of poems that began more than 35 years ago when he and his wife Elizabeth, an artist, arrived at their mountain “shack” on Lands Creek in Swain County. The book’s ambiguous title and opening poem by that name originate with Ellison’s rumination on Kephart’s observation that there can be no such thing as a permanent camp – for, as Kephart says, “a camp of any kind is only a temporary hiding place.” Yet what we might imagine within the lines of this tone setting entrée is that Ellison has indeed found his permanent camp here within the folds of these ancient mountains.
There is no hiding within these poems though, for Ellison bares much to the reader of raw and personal moments surviving harsh winter nights, pondering the aftermath of a destructive fire, looking for a lost horse, the clarity of chickweed, or the instincts of a Kingfisher. Consider the poem, Sleepless:
The creek is frozen.
All this clothing and still I shiver.
The goat rattles loose boarding behind the shack.
A decayed tree on the ridge gives way under ice.
Peering into the mirror by lamplight I see the
mole splotch spreading on my right cheek
and gray hairs spurting from my nostrils.
This is no occasion for talk so I grin
a gap-toothed grin at my new
friend who grins back at me
gap-toothedly so we nod
back and forth time and
again in full agreement
that it’s cold.
There is a crazy wisdom in this poem, which points to Ellison’s homage and connection to the Chinese poets Tao Ch’ien and Han Shan. Midway through the collections there is a defined break where Ellison places his personal renderings of these two ancient poets in a way that works seamlessly within the subject matter of Appalachia. “Twenty Poems after Drinking Wine” and “Guffawing at the Wilderness: Thirteen Poems by Han Shan” sit boldly within the body of the collection, drawing the reader into the sparse and universal world of Chinese poetry, infused with nature as it is, and somehow completely integrating it into the inner and outer landscapes of Ellison. Brilliant and wonderful stuff, particularly since the two continents share an ancient and closely related plant world.
Along the way, there are also stories of ghost dogs, Cherokee mystics, God’s Horses, and much, much more, but worthy of note and further illustrative of Ellison’s influences, is his acknowledgement of nineteenth century British poet, William Barnes. Barnes was a master of rural verse, and his most persistent theme, as Ellison points out in the notes to his poem “Radiance A-zweep’en (In Praise of William Barnes),” is the holiness of the commonplace. This poem, originally titled “Crossing,” has as its central feature the onomatopoeia of a horse crossing a stream, a sound which the Ellisons live with nightly as their horse Sochan repeatedly crosses the ford outside their window. With a nod to Barnes, Ellison delivers a poem that translates a restless horse into an agent of radiancy and the crossing a place of illumination. This is no easy task, and the assemblage of word and verse in this particular poem illustrates his own ability to make holiness of the commonplace.
Elizabeth Ellison’s artwork adds an enormous dimension to Permanent Camp and deserves its own review, for it is a critical element in conveying the book’s gravitas. For example, “The View from the Horse Trail,” a stunning work of color that captures Appalachia in much the same way as Chinese and Japanese nature painters, fills one whole page opposite the poem “Seeing You,” a poignant statement on the beauty of two lives spent together in harmonious awareness of the natural world around them. The red home of their many years together sits diminutively in the bottom left corner of the painting, dwarfed by purple grey mountains and stark winter trees, which to me signifies the contemplative awe that they have shared together in so many creative works such as Mountain Passages and Blue Ridge Nature Journal.
Back to the original title poem. In it, George explains to Elizabeth of his next move upon their settling on Lands Creek:
“But the next move,” I say,
“and we’ll just go on home, over the ridge
and into the park, hide out on Peachtree,
up the Middle Fork, where it’s really quiet.
And the stones in the creek bed will speak quite clearly.
And the wind in the treetops will speak softly to the stones.
And without even trying the water will listen and understand.”
If there can be a clearer commitment to the love and power of a place, I’d like to see it. Permanent Camp in many ways represents the oeuvre of the Ellisons, and with its publication, it will find a permanent home within the region’s most significant literary contributions.
City Lights Bookstore will celebrate the release of George Ellison’s new collection of poetry and prose at 6:30 p.m. on Friday, June 8.
Permanent Camp is a retrospective celebration of living in and observing the natural world of the Smoky Mountains. Through poetry and narratives, Ellison relates raising a family with his wife as they make a life as a writer and artist inspired by the local landscape.
To complement Ellison’s writing, the vivid watercolor work of Elizabeth is featured throughout the book. To reserve a copy, call City Lights at 828.586.9499.