Wednesday, February 17, 2010

A is for Appalachia and What Comes Down to Us

Two titles from University Press of Kentucky light the way toward better understanding of a culture and a craft. A is for Appalachia!,written by Linda Hager Pack and illustrated by Pat Banks, lifts a lamp to the history, geography, and culture of the collaborators’ beloved heritage. In What Comes Down to Us: 25 Contemporary Kentucky Poets, Jeff Worley spotlights the diversity and vitality of modern verse in the Commonwealth. Both books enlighten in their method of presentation and rich content.

I chose to pick up the children’s book first, of course. Drawn in by the marvelous cover art by master water colorist and Kentucky Arts Council Roster Artist, Pat Banks, I couldn’t wait to see why novelist Silas House declared this book “the perfect read.” Could it be because in his recent blog, A Country Boy Can Surmise, he had declared “Appalachia” to be the perfect word in that the letters seem to depict the rising and falling mountainscape with a little moon dotting the “i”?

Or could it be the perfect read because it is organized like an old-time children’s reader for teaching the alphabet by presenting a word and a picture for each new letter to aid the pupil’s comprehension?

My reading lesson on Appalachia began with the letter “A” which is for “Appalachia,” a region and culture defined by Pack in her text along side a breathtaking mountain vista created by Banks. The effect is stunning: here’s what the place encompasses, now witness it’s beauty and essence.

My lesson continued with some predictable forays into the letters “B” and “C” for “baskets” and “coal.” Since I was already well-schooled in some aspects of Appalachia, I expected these lessons. But I was completely surprised and delighted by the honest dichotomy between churchgoing ways and joy of living presented in the letter “D.” Pack handles that divide in her wry commentary on the dulcimer and fiddle as she advises the “youngin’s” not to view “the devil’s box” boldly explained and illustrated on the page before them.

Another interesting lesson is “J” is for “Jack Tale” which includes a text version of the tale superimposed on a beanstalk illustration that rivals the beauty of any fairy tale book I knew as a child. Well-presented also are “N” is for “Native Appalachians” supported by the clever inclusion of the Cherokee alphabet and “Y” is for “Yarb doctor” emphasizing the healing role herbs and plants play in the remote mountain regions.

Pack teaches children’s literature at Eastern Kentucky University, so it is easy to see how this book could be used by teachers to springboard a unit on Appalachia. But more importantly, Silas House was right. This is the perfect read to share with those you love.

Presenting poets chronologically is common in anthologies; however, Jeff Worley, a poet and professor himself, sheds light on the poetic process by following each set of poems in What Comes Down to Us with a brief biography and the poet’s commentary on the sometimes mystical matter of craft. The effect on me as a reader was surprising. Normally I would want to skim through a book like this reading the people I know about, saving the new folks for later. Instead, I found the format of first, writer’s face and birth date,then, selected poems, then, biography,and finally,reflections on craft and influences tantalizing enough not to “jump the order.” It was almost as if the title and format enforced a cosmic flow leading “down to us,” as the title suggests. By the end, I felt I had witnessed a stellar poetry reading with mini-workshop, all under my humble living room lamp.

The subjects for this over 100-poem collection include joy, death, family relations, and Kentucky history. It would be hard to pick favorites amid the exquisite verse, but I will share a few hard-to-shake glimpses.

I was smacked in the face by the imagery in Wendell Berry’s “The Man Born to Farming.”

Instructed in the mystery of all craft by Richard Taylor’s “Notes for a Manual on Form.”

Appreciated the importance of who’s telling the tale in Frank X Walker’s “Revisionist History.”

Experienced the power of a “made thing” -- like a poem that can distill emotions from disparate experiences-- with Leatha Kendrick in “Refusing a Spinal.”

Wondered with Frederick Smock about Cassius Clay’s gold medal at the bottom of the Ohio River.

Read the skies and predicted a moon landing with Nikky Finney’s “Black Orion.”

Laughed uneasily and inevitably at an outdoor wedding gone wrong with Kathleen Driskell.

This collection is a must-read for anyone interested in the scope and craft of contemporary poetry. What Comes Down to Us affirms Kentucky’s place in the literary landscape while shining a light on the poetic process itself.

This review first aired on WVXU's Around Cincinnati with award-winning host, Lee Hay. An audio link is included at the bottom of this blog.


kathleendriskell said...

Thanks for the shout out for Kentucky poets!

Prudence Hunt said...

Where do we acquire these lovely books?

Roberta Schultz said...

Here's a link to the original broadcast page with ordering info.