REVIEW: Wild Sweet Notes Fifty Years of West Virginia Poetry 1950-1999, 418 pages Publisher's Place, Inc., Huntington, W. Va. [...]
Today, for many people, home is a state of mind. Home of the past and the home of the future. "Wild Sweet Notes," Fifty Years of West Virginia Poetry l950-1999, edited by Barbara Smith and Kirk Judd is a literary treasure for not only West Virginians and others of the Appalachian region, but for readers of poetry and prose of any geographic locale. This collection contains a rich texture where universal themes are rendered with evocative voices.
The editors are to be complimented on their artful selections and placement of this diverse range of poetry and bringing together a cohesive book of superb quality. Certainly, the pride of West Virginia comes through; and as a West Virginian, I feel there is much to celebrate with this publication. The writers represented cry out on issues that are all about humanity.
The word "confluence" comes to mind--a word that the late Willie Norris used to describe his world of the South. Yes, there is a confluence in this collection where the personal becomes public and the public becomes personal because of the intense commitment to the landscape, family, and friends. A strong appreciation exists for what money can't buy--the feeling that a person is a part of something larger than the self.
Several of these writers have a national reputation as poets and as writers of fiction and nonfiction. However, every writer represented in this book is equally worthy and deserves the highest praise and recognition. Reading this book you say to yourself, "One is as outstanding as the other." When I studied creative writing with Lester Goran (Isaac Singer's translator) at the University of Miami, Goran repeatedly said, "The arts are not about a democratic process." It took a few years of experience writing and submitting my work to appreciate his words. Thus, I believe in giving equal tribute and praise when deserved, and I particularly feel this way in regard to this anthology.
Striking images appear in the late David Jarvis' poems that breathe with keen observation and emotion. I have a bias for what he created having read his chapbook, The Born Again Tourist. Jarvis' work leaves much for the reader to complete in his or her own mind. It is the same kind of feeling that I have when I view a Walker Evans photograph. Following is an excerpt:
Sometimes I hear them call my name at night.
Why do they make me wear these chains
And stake me to this land,
Land stained with their sweat and blood
And rich with their bones
This faceless choir that's chanting now from mountaintops
An ageless aria that penetrates the rock
And writes through hollows
Where streams rush like their ancient bloodlines. ***
Joseph W. Caldwell's, "BELLS ON PARCHMENT CREEK" resonates with an immediacy of the kind that lasts for decades, and you sense it will be handed down to the next generation as an historical document. Excerpts of the first and last stanzas are as follows. (Stanzas two and three are extraordinary in lending to the development of this poem but are omitted here because I believe it is unfair to reveal too much in a review).
ON THAT FEBRUARY MORNING
DINNER BELLS SURGED AND SWELLED ALONG THE CREEK
CARRYING SHARPLY IN THIN AIR,
SENDING THE WORD SOMETHING
HAD HAPPENED AT THE HANNING FARM.
EIGHTY-NINE YEARS LATER
SHE RETELLS THIS STORY
ABOUT A MOTHER SHE HARDLY KNEW,
AND THE BELLS STILL TOLLING.
Barbara Smith's Apple Pie Dying has a personal quality, the kind of a reflective conversation where, as the reader, you feel she is conversing with you and sharing intimate thoughts. She causes you to pause and think about your own life. An excerpt of the first stanza is as follows:
How I wish I had been with her
As she measured the flour and the salt,
Cut in the shortening
And sprinkled on water,
Baling the dough,
Rolling it out, lifting it--
Peeling the applies, slicing them
Spicing them and crimping the crust,
Listening to Paul Harvey or Cokie Roberts
Or Oprah in the background,
Mopping the floor and changing the beds,
Filling the birdfeeder while the pastries were baking,
Then cooling, then being basketed and backseated
And on to the church.
In Wilma Stanley Acree `s "At Honanki," she takes you on a journey with her where you examine the vastness of space and time--understanding that which flees and what still remains. An excerpt from the first stanza is as follows:
At Honanki (the Badger House)
Arizona Hopi face
framed by gray braids,
leans against the red cliffs,
points at the pictograph, and recites, "This is
the Sinagua symbol
fertility of soil,
of action and thought.
See the raindrops he scatters."
One of the most compelling pieces I have ever run across on the importance and the beauty of the written words comes in Grace Cavalieri's poem entitled Letter. This will be a piece that I will read at my writing workshops at The New School, in New York City where I teach. Excerpts are as follows:
If you ask what brings us here,
starting out of our lives
like animals in high grass,
I'd say it was what we had in common
with the others--the hum of a song we
believe in which can't be heard,
the sound of our own
luminous bodies rising just behind the hill,
the dream of a light which won't go out,
and a story we're never finished with.
We talk of things we cannot comprehend
so that you'll know about
the inner and the outer world which are the same.
Someone has to be with us in this,
and if you are, then,
you know us best. And I mean all of us
the deer who leaves his marks behind him
in the snow, the red fox moving through the woods.
The poetry and prose that is here is accessible and creative in form. This book can serve many purposes--the main one for the pure and simple joy found in reading. It also makes a lovely gift, which is how I came to know this book. It was given to me as a birthday gift from my brother, Sam Kessell, and Larry Halsted. They also happen to be friends with the late David Jarvis' brother. A West Virginia heritage is like that--we find one another, one way or the other, sooner or later. On another level,"Wild Sweet Notes," has tremendous academic and historical value, which can make a strong contribution in an academic setting. The voices are authentic, direct, and powerful. They serve as excellent examples of fine writing in terms of language and form.
--Reviewed by Mary Sue Kessell Rosen
Bio: I teach writing workshops The New School in New York City (An Essay Writing Workshop and The Bloodroot of Our Voices Workshop, a multi genre course).