Monday, January 28, 2008

A Poem by Robert Morgan

Canning Time

The floor was muddy with the juice of peaches
and my mother's thumb, bandaged for the slicing,
watersobbed. She and Aunt Wessie skinned
bushels that day, fat Georgia Belles
slit streaming into the pot. Their knives
paid out limp bands onto the heap
of parings. It took care to pack the jars,
reaching in to stack the halves
firm without bruising, and lowering
the heavy racks into the boiler already
trembling with steam, the stove malignant
in heat. As Wessie wiped her face
the kitchen sweated its sweet filth.
In that hell they sealed the quickly browning
flesh in capsules of honey, making crystals
of separate air across the vacuums.
The heat and pressure were enough to grow
diamonds as they measured hot
syrup into quarts. By supper the last jar
was set on the counter to cool
into isolation. Later in the night
each little urn would pop as it
achieved its private atmosphere and
we cooled into sleep, the stove now
neutral. The stones already
pecked clean in the yard were free to try
again for the sun. The orchard meat fixed in
cells would be taken down cellar in the
morning to stay gold like specimens
set out and labeled, a vegetal
battery we'd hook up later. The women
too tired to rest easily think of
the treasure they've laid up today
for preservation at coffin level, down there
where moth and rust and worms corrupt,
a first foundation of shells to be
fired at the winter's muddy back.

(from Groundwork. Frankfort, Kentucky, Gnomon Press. 1979)

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Literature and the Land

Here in the Appalachian Mountains, there is a special bond between the Land, the People, and the Literature that seems to exude from this region like sap. One of the best Christmas presents I received this year, besides the little tins of gourmet coffee my mother gave me, was a book from my father and stepmother by Georgann Eubanks entitled Literary Trails of the North Carolina Mountains: A Guidebook. Many people have put together travel guides of North Carolina in the past, from touring the back roads to Hollywood film shoot locations, but this one I found delightfully different. Not only are there detailed directions, points of interest connecting place with the authors who stayed there or wrote about it, but the whole book is peppered with authors’ poems, fiction excerpts, and commentary on the place or setting. From Paula Steichen describing her grandfather Carl Sandburg, Robert Morgan describing the French Broad steamboat The Mountain Lily, to Sharyn McCrumb writing about Frankie Silver, this book runs the gamut with 18 tours of the North Carolina Mountains through the eyes of the writer. Some literature references surprised me, like the fact that Henry James once stayed in the Biltmore House and criticized it for being so isolated in such an impoverished part of the country. Some of Eubanks praises for the showcased writers or transitions into the literature excerpts do seem saccharine or forced, but this isn’t a book of literary critique, and reference books aren’t expected to wax poetic, so I can overlook it considering the monumental research from so many varied sources and the detail that went into this book. I’m looking forward to taking this book on a few adventures this summer for sure!

The Old Kentucky Home

In the process of reading the above-mentioned book, Literary Trails of the North Carolina Mountains, I found a particular author excerpt catching. Poet and Asheville native Michael McFee wrote an engaging account just for this guidebook on his experiences discovering Thomas Wolfe’s home, and I thought I would share it with the Wide-Web World:

“When I was growing up in the mountains, from the mid-1950s through the early 1970s, Asheville wasn’t such a groovy little city, Thomas Wolfe’s name wasn’t so ubiquitous, and his mother’s boardinghouse wasn’t yet an official historic site. “The Old Kentucky Home” was just 48 Spruce Street, where Tom’s brother Fred offered occasional tours of the twenty-nine rooms. He didn’t seem to like the house or his family very much: when my mother and I first visited, in 1968, I remember he pointed out, unapprovingly, where his famous younger sibling crept along the roof to sneak into a female guest’s room.
“A few years later, after I read Look Homeward, Angel (at sixteen: just the right age, just the right place), I went back solo, and the ramshackle place was much more interesting: it had become Wolfe’s “Dixieland,” and its drafty high-ceilinged rooms – some dim, some sunny – seemed haunted with ghosts of stories, the place itself a rambling gossipy character.
“I headed off to college in 1972 to study design, but soon transferred to Wolfe’s alma mater and decided to become a writer myself. When a dozen-storied hotel opened right across Spruce Street from his house in the mid-1970s, I heard that copies of Look Homeward, Angel had been placed in each bedside table drawer, beside the Gideon’s Bibles. Who could resist such a detail? I put it into a poem called “Asheville,” which was ironic, allusive, and dreadful.
“Graduate school, marriage, work, child, and parents’ deaths – it was decades before I got back to what had become the Thomas Wolfe Memorial. In fact, it was almost too late, after the devastating arson of 1998: I didn’t visit again until the fall of 2002, when a huge blue tarp still covered the partially collapsed roof, the north side of the rambling house was all plastic and tarpaper and 2 x 4 braces, and smoke damage haunted the windows. Four years into its restoration, the sun did not shine bright on “My Old Kentucky Home,” and it didn’t look like it ever would again.
“Memorial Day weekend, 2004. I stand where I rattled the chain-link construction fence only twenty months earlier, but can barely believe what rises before me: the Thomas Wolfe Memorial, gloriously intact, painstakingly and sympathetically resurrected. In fact, the old boardinghouse roof, the exterior yellow paint, the interior plaster, the furnishings – everything looks just like it did the year Tom left for college at Chapel Hill.
“But, appropriately for the nature of this particular place, it’s not overdone, a lifeless museum of early twentieth-century Americana. As I stroll through the house – around Julia’s kitchen, up the creaky central stairs, past the bed where W.O. unwillingly spent his last days – it’s easy to imagine that the family or boarders just stepped out and might be back shortly.
“Which is to say: The place feels exactly right. Like home, again.”

--- Michael McFee, quoted from Literary Trails of the North Carolina Mountains: A Guidebook, by Georgann Eubanks (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2007.)

On a last note, there are other great commentaries on Thomas Wolfe to be found in the Fall 2007 issue of Appalachian Heritage, including another Old Kentucky Home discovery account by Kentucky native Gurney Norman.

Monday, January 7, 2008


Durazno Dulce

It's January,
and I'm eating a ripe peach.
The cool flesh quenches me
like a South Carolina breeze
off the distant mountain ridges.
I can almost taste the sweet clover
growing between the orchard rows
when I close my eyes and chew slowly.

It's funny,
that this fuzzy, half-eaten fruit
is from the country of Chile
and not from Greer, or Cooley Springs.
Though I've been down Highway 25,
long before it turned four-lane,
I can't quite picture the towering Andes
or feel the wind from their snow-capped peaks.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

The New Year

My wife commented to me a few days ago how she didn’t see what the big deal was about celebrating the new year, except an excuse to close businesses early on December 31, (“so everyone can go out and get drunk and party”), then everything being closed on New Year’s Day (“so everyone can sleep in and recover from their hangover”). Though I at one time partook of New Year’s festivities and all its merry-making while in college, I now see it as on the same level of importance in my life as Groundhog Day. Still, my wife’s vexation of not being able to shop at Sam’s Club on New Year’s Eve got me considering its importance.

It’s a time I’ve always stopped and considered the future, of what may come for the following year. As a young man in high school and college, a year was a lifetime. It was full of possibilities and anticipated summer adventures, a year to meet new people. I anxiously awaited those adolescent milestones into adulthood: 13, high school graduation, 18, 21, college graduation. It was also a time for me to reflect back on previous years, to look back and see how far I had come. It was a time to recount the good times and bad times I had experienced. When I was younger, though, there was less to reflect back on.

Now the years I have been on this earth stack behind me like second-hand books, one on top of the other, and the ones on the bottom of the stack get harder and harder to pull out and read. I can look at my life in decades, layers of strata in ancient rock, buried under the fresh thin layer of silt that is 2008 (those of you over 40 are probably laughing at me right about now). In 1998 I graduated from Appalachian State, enrolled back into ASU in the graduate program because I didn’t know what I was going to do with my life, met my future wife, and worked as an editorial assistant for Jerry Williamson at the Appalachian Journal. In 1988 I was in eighth grade living in Hillsville, Virginia, wearing blue jean jackets with the patches, arm wrestling in math class, and wondering how I was going to get the courage to ask Rhonda on a date (or maybe it was Chandra – I had a thing for girls from Sylvatus). In 1978 I lived in Greensboro, North Carolina, my favorite television show was Sesame Street, I couldn’t tie my shoes, and I often loved to dance and make funny faces in front of my 1-year-old sister to get her to laugh. So much has happened in between that I couldn’t possibly begin to recount.

Now at 33, married with two children (and basically settled), an upcoming year is like chump change, not even enough to buy a can of soda at a convenience store. The only mileposts in my life now are looking forward to watching my children grow, that and my retirement in 23 years. I know it seems like I’m wishing my life away, but I assure you I am content with the predictable, methodic pace my life is taking because I share it with people I love, my wife and kids. Predictable is good, and there is always the possibility for the unexpected adventure. I just have to be more patient.