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.