Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Appalachian Elegy

"Poetry is a useful place for lamentation," says author, activist, teacher, and artist, bell hooks in the introduction to her latest work, Appalachian Elegy: Poetry and Place. Published in late September of 2012 by University Press of Kentucky, this volume of meditative poetry is a departure for hooks who has written more than 30 books in her career, mostly provocative and political writings on gender, social justice, sustainability, and literary criticism. Why then these sixty-six poems of mourning and celebration for the land of her birth?

Born Gloria Jean Watkins in Hopkinsville, Kentucky in 1952, hooks took her lower case pen name from her grandmother, Bell Blair Hooks, a strong-willed African American woman who urged Gloria to take a stand against the repressive forces of the dominant society. After the adversities she faced transitioning to a predominately white high school during the turbulent 1960s, bell hooks pursued her degrees in English, education and literature at Stanford, University of Wisconsin-Madison, and the University of California, Santa Cruz, writing her doctoral dissertation on author, Toni Morrison.

In 2004, hooks accepted a position in the department of Appalachian Studies at Berea College, bringing her back to her Kentucky roots. Since her return, the concept of community and its ability to overcome race, class, and gender inequalities has become more prevalent in her writings. As hooks says in the introduction to her poems, "living in the Kentucky hills was where I first learned the importance of being wild."  She goes on to say that this wildness led her to believe in the power of the individual to be self-determining. hooks sums up the influence of her Kentucky childhood on her radical critical consciousness in the following passage,  "Folks from the backwoods were certain about two things:  that every human soul needed to be free and that the responsibility for being free required one to be a person of integrity, a person who lived in such a way that there would always be congruency between what one thinks, says and does."

The poems of this collection are largely about reconnecting with place, sometimes causing the poet to alternately mourn and celebrate the beauty of the land, animals and people who have formed her. The lines are short, lyrical and unpunctuated, giving the reader a frozen snapshot of a natural world partially destroyed that will not be conquered. There are no titles, but numbers for each piece, and each poem seems to be organized around a single evocative image.  The second poem addresses the loss of a beautiful landscape in the following excerpt:

such then is beauty
against all hope
you are here again
turning slowly
nature as chameleon
all life change
and changing again
awakening hearts
steady moving from
unnamed loss
into fierce deep grief…

And then poem 7 discusses hooks' ancestral ties to the land and her inner wildness  in these lines:

again and again
she calls me
this wilderness within
urging me onward
be here
make a path
where the sound
of ancestors speak
a language heard beyond the grave…

Poem 21 speaks of turtles and a land without environmental devastation:

turtle islands everywhere
heads poking out
bodies embraced in the world
before the coming of the white man…

hooks conjures a time before horse racing and farms in these final lines from poem 26

horses grazing quietly
four-legged Buddhas
standing in grace

There are poems about drought, mudslides, fires, fallen trees, soaring birds, mammoth caves, native peoples, storms, a strutting turkey, and ravaged mountain landscapes--all infused with deep sadness and hope.

bell hooks had never really identified as an Appalachian, but acknowledges in this beautiful collection her claim of " a solidarity, a sense of belonging that makes me one with the Appalachian past of my ancestors: black, Native American, white, all 'people of one blood' who made homeplace in isolated landscapes where they could invent themselves, where they could savor a taste of freedom."

In poem 55 hooks seems to embrace that sense of belonging:

take the
make do
no culture of poverty
claiming lives here
we a people of plenty
back then
work hard
know no hunger
grow food
sew clothing
build shelter
moonshine still
wine from grape
we a marooned
mountain people
backwoods souls
we know how to live on little
to make a simple life
away from manmade
laws and boundaries
spirit guides teach us
offer always 
the promise
of an eternal now

Contemplating the woodland palette of bell hooks' Appalachian Elegy,  with its short meditative lines, plain language, and stark imagery,  allows the reader to consider the grief and healing of these lamentations mindfully, in the "eternal now" of the heart.

This review aired on WVXU's Around Cincinnati program in December 2012.

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