Notable Books by North Carolina Writers: January, 2006
James Applewhite and Jonathan Williams
As a new year begins, the phrase "ring out the old, ring in the new" keeps nagging at me. I don't want to ring out the old at all. I want to keep the old always in clear sight, especially our older poets who have done so much to prepare the way for our emerging poets, whether as teachers, mentors, or influences. These are the voices that will continue to resonate in North Carolina literature, no matter the year in which we find them.
This month we feature two of our most enduring voices, Jonathan Williams and James Applewhite. Both have recently published volumes surveying their careers across decades, from their early work to the present, and both will help us ring in another year of showcasing and celebrating North Carolina poetry.
-- Kathryn Stripling Byer
Selected Poems, by James Applewhite
Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005, www.dukeupress.edu
To learn more about James Applewhite's life and work, click here.
photo by Kinsley Dey
Visit with Artina
She lives in a house whose color is bone left out
In the weather, over-lap siding gone pallid as wood ash.
A sheen condenses out of the air on the polished grain.
Three little ones, their hair braided up in corn-rows,
Flock at her skirts, touch hands to her knees for comfort.
She is seventy, rake-handle thin, her shanks are bowed,
Her hip is troublesome ("some days I jes can't go");
Peculiar highlights luminesce on her cocoa skin.
Her hands are white inside, and shape whatever
She says in the air, or touch her three to be good.
"That ten dollars a week I used to get -- I was study'en on it
Yesterday. I raised Joseph, Bernice, Wilma Doris, and theirs,
An they didn't never go hungry, we always had more
Than cornbread and greens 'a sett'en on the stove" (lives
Of collard greens pile high in the room) "I did it, Lord,
And now I feel good, jes like the little birds 'a sailing
In the air" (her fingers are bones for believable wings).
"Back when I worked for your folks -- I felt burdened down,
Like everybody else was higher." The right hand hovers
Over the left, in a different world. "For three years I dreamed
This dream, when I got down sick. It was all a dark cloud."
One palm wipes the air full of darkness over
The plastic flowers, the brown-earth sofa. "And a great crowd
Of people. They was troubled, trouble was among 'em.
I was to lead 'em, I was among 'em but I was apart.
I walked in the middle between 'em but I was far off."
Her hands have quarried cloud-pillars from the troubled air.
"An so I could get 'em there, he gave me a star."
One sure finger, in all the blue spaces of her room,
Picks out this point, maybe floating lint or a sungrain
Alone, places it, a star, in the middle of her forehead.
"An my mother, an my grandmother, what was Mothers in the church;
I 'scerned 'em on a hill, a way off." Her palms smooth the air,
She makes white robes with her palms. "I 'scerned 'em on a hill."
"These were the words that were give me: 'by the grace of God
I shall meet you.'" The house of her skin is strangely sheened,
Like sky-reflection polishing boards, or color
Rain water has caught from the air, in whatever low place.
Snow on ground and
Brown weeds above: patches
Like fragments of dinner plate
Where sun brushes clay.
The washboard wall is in shadow,
Holds skim milk light
The way a bedsheet hung out to dry
And catch cold's cleanliness
Gathers sheen from the sky.
The white boards appear
Translucent, like a woman's skin
When she is old and left alone
The January afternoon;
Seem translucent with enclosing
Light I see through an upstairs window
Collected in a dresser mirror;
Or see from glimpsing
Through front and back windows,
All the way through those rooms,
Through this still afternoon
In her life and back into sky,
Where sun slants clearly
Without clay, or broom sedge,
Or skin to make rosy, there
Where wind's too thin to be seen.
Foreseeing the Journey
The fan inhales one continuous breath: through
This upstairs room I am lying awake in, foreseeing the journey.
This creek, this street, this one row of houses, diagram Town.
As simple as the world. As air and light. Old birthplace.
Tomorrow we'll go with the current, canoe around snags --
As I guide my son through the thicket of childhood --
Past moccasins uglier than the Biblical serpent.
Passion-flowers as in Rousseau's jungles.
This four-bladed beating, as of great hawks crossed,
Sucks moths from their flight, with light's
Exhalation, draws foil-glint wings from the corn.
Its rumble surrounds me. Our bungalow lifts off, zeppelin
With roof, shadow more angled than a biplane bomber.
I seem Huck Finn visiting a house on the flood.
Books from around me hover their pages. With Zane Grey
And Edgar Rice Burroughs, presents bobbing up like helium
In the attic -- my Christmas models in a loose formation --
I fly in the flock of these presences, owls with the heads
Of dead relatives, the photograph of my mother's brothers
Sailing in the ghost wind, until the huge cry they feel
Becomes one with the wailing of the fan,
This rest what I can do and no more fear.
Almon who told me the Cyclops' blinding
Looks so beautiful there, delicate of feature, shy
With sister, ignorant of the years of high school teaching,
The loneliness to come. But not consumed
By my mother's weeping, for all who have died,
Her father Mercer's fall under his buggy,
I fly in this house and its history
As in Lord Greystoke's plane above the trees.
Would any of us be born into the world
If we had it to do over?
Through this sleep of the unborn and of spirits
The propeller tom-toms a message.
The attic fan in this window, ill-designed,
Dangerous, great blades unshielded, drive belt
Exposed to the unwary night walker,
Put in by my father in jack-leg fashion
Like everything down east, by him who lost
His fingers to an air compressor belt,
Seems the risk of all living. I'm flying too high
But in the dawn light chill I reach down
To find a blanket green as leaves.
I pull up the jungle over my body.
If you understand my accent,
You will know it is not out of ignorance.
Broom sedge in wind has curved this bent
Into speech. This clay of vowels, this diffidence
Of consonantal endings, murmurs defeat:
Caught like a chorus from family and servants.
This is the hum of blessings over the meat
Your calvary spared us, echoed from an aunt's
Bleak pantry. This colorless tone, like flour
Patted onto the cheeks, is poor-white powder
To disguise the minstrel syllables lower
In our register, from a brownface river.
If it sounds as if minds were starved,
Maybe fatback and beans, yams and collards
Weighed down by vitamins of wit, lard
Mired speed, left wetlip dullards
In cabins by cotton. But if bereft
Of the dollars and numbers, our land's whole
Breath stirs with its Indian rivers. Our cleft
Palate waters for a smoke of the soul,
A pungence of pig the slaves learned
To burn in pits by the levee. This melon
Round of field and farmer, servant turned
Tenant, longs for a clear pronunciation,
But stutters the names of governors, Klan
And cross-burnings, mad dogs and lynchings.
So ours is the effacing slur of men
Ashamed to speak. We suffer dumb drenchings
Of honeysuckle odor, love for a brother
Race which below the skin is us, lust
Projected past ego onto this shadow-other.
So we are tongue-tied, divided, the first
To admit face to face our negligence
And ignorance of self: our musical tone
Of soul-syllable, penchant for the past tense,
Harelip contractions unable to be one.
Light which is being in the world
while others aren't, how you strike
the leaf, which frost has thinned like skin
(translucent to your probing, veined),
my thought still tender with the wound of
what is not and what is yet. Light,
in my years left in the sun, let me rise
within excitement, knowing, like a body
from a dive, breaking surface continually
toward your pinpointed velvet,
your early coming to dew and birdsong.
Harp me, responsive to your praise, permit
my lips, through your returns, to speak an
awareness -- extending to farthest stars,
from tissue of leaf lit green within.
Light, existent from the start, not to be
extinguished by my or anyone's exit, circle
on yourself, oh self-subsistent seeing, await
new leaf to illuminate. Infuse my doubt,
glow in the sphere of your nature.
You remembered waiting for the horses that would
bear you to the death of your father―the day
tempestuous dark and wild, your companions
a single sheep, a blasted hawthorn.
Reinventing this proleptic sorrow, you knew
the hanged murderer, a woman with pitcher
on her head, garments vexed and tossed
by a wind of visionary dreariness.
This intensity sanctified loss, lifting violet by
a stone into poetry. On Grasmere peaks
you climbed near stars, fathered yourself from
the living nothingness past hearth fires
and language. You hated Robespierre,
learned guilt, knocked sense into the gilded diction
of your day with "Sir Patrick Spens" and Coleridge's Mariner.
Your voice spoke familiarly to me
from a school anthology. The scenes your words
had painted moved, I knew from inside it another
climate and time. You inspired my first few poems―
you and the good doctor Williams.
Next year, walking to Grasmere felt lonely
and free, sunshine thin in late summer. Stephen
Gill at the museum outlined your favorite walk,
William, with Dorothy: away from
Dove Cottage, around the lake, over a small mountain,
and back. When I looked down from that peak
on Grasmere Lake, I felt complete. Words in my inner
hearing spoke. Ancestors moved,
their moods raged and ranged in rain and
blown mist. Grandfather Wordsworth, your wind
hit with sleet mixed in, rattling my poncho
with a blast out of Scotland.
Wandering wherever it blew me I faced into ice,
seeking the highest place, a farther pasture --
clambering stone walls, forcing my steps through
gorse that pierced my socks
toward the tarn with sheep like wooly boulders.
Clouds gone, rainbow over, I covered a scrawny
hemlock with my sky-colored poncho and walked apart―
the wind then drying it, flickering it
into blue flame. The name then streaming my breath,
William, held your name and my wife's
against the Atlantic distance. This banner
of desire carried me to Liberty's
for a William Morris fabric, then to Windsor where I
purchased the antique scuttle, once too dear
as we'd admired it, together. Casting love into these things,
I winged with the quick days home.
The scuttle shines today on our hearth, worth more or less
as we remember or forget. Men were immortal
and omnipotent, Shelley whispers, if Intellectual Beauty
haunted us in permanence.
Did he ask if my gifts could recompense
my wife for loving her intensely in absence?
We met at the airport, William, our embrace
like Eve's and Adam's, after.
Jubilant Thicket: New & Selected Poems, by Jonathan Williams
Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 2005, www.coppercanyonpress.org
To learn more about Jonathan Williams's life and work, click here.
photo by Reuben Cox
Five Trail-Shelters from the Big Pigeon to the Little Tennessee
1. Davenport Gap
the tulip poplar is not a
poplar it is a magnolia:
the young grove on the eastern slopes of
Mt. Cammerer reminds me
of the two huge trees
at Monticello, favorites
of Mr. Jefferson;
and of the Virginia lady
quoting Mr. Kennedy:
the recent gathering of
Nobel Prize Winners at the
White House -- the most
in that dining room
since Mr. Jefferson
wind, a linodendron
2. Cosby Knob
DeWitt Clinton (besides
looking like Lon
Chaney on tobacco-tax stamps)
comes to the eye
in clintonia borealis --
of which fair green lily
there are millions
on this mountain,
it is a mantle
for fire-cherry, yellow birch,
and silver bell
3. Tri-corner Knob
here the shelter's
in a stand of
red spruce and balsam fir
for dinner: lamb's-quarters,
cress from the streams
on Mt. Guyot,
wood sorrel, and
cold argentine beef, chased with
4. False Gap
no Schwarzwald stuff,
no magic grouse, no
Brothers Grimm -- just
Canadian hemlock, mossed and lichened,
like unto maybe
too much for a haiku?
you hike it and see
5. Silers Bald
just in front of the
round iron john
in the beech grove
the fresh bear droppings
to think about
Dilmus Hall, Who Assures Us He's Been Right Here in the Flesh
for about 4004 Years One Way or Another, Delivers Some Gospel:
you have eyes
you put the two
The Ancient of Days
would that I
had known Aunt Cumi
she lived in the Deyton Bend Section of Mitchell
County, North Carolina many years ago
there is one of Bayard Wootten's photographs of her
standing there with her store-bought
teeth, holding a coverlet
she sheared her sheep, spun
and dyed her yarn in vegetable dyes,
and wove the coverlet
in indigo, the brown from walnut roots,
red from madder, green from hickory ooze, first,
then into the indigo (the blue pot)
Cumi, from the Bible
(St. Mark 5:41)
"DamseI, I say unto thee, arise!"
she is gone, she
enjoyed her days
Three Sayings from Highlands, North Carolina
but pretty though as
you can put up with
Doris Talley, Housewife and Gardener
you live until you die
if the limb don't fall
Butler Jenkins, Caretaker
your points is blue
and your timing's
a week off
Sam Creswell, My Auto Mechanic
The Hermit Cackleberry Brown, on Human Vanity
caint call your name
but your face is easy
now some folks figure theyre
not a bit
just good to hold the world together
like hooved up ground
Daddy Bostain, the Moses of the Wing Community Moonshiners,
Laments from his Deathbed the Spiritual Estate of One of His
God bless her pore
good kindlin wood
Three Thefts from John Ehle's Prose
the possums climb higher
in the persimmon trees
a red pumpkin
in a row of yellow pumpkins
in a field
Mrs. Sadie Grindstaff, Weaver & Factotum, Explains the Work-
Principle to the Modern World
could do a lot of I
could do a little
Aunt Creasy, on Work
I make the livin
just makes the livin