Books and Beyond

Last month I wrote about Kentucky writer James Still. Ted Olson, Appalachian studies professor at East Tennesee State University, tells us that his writing “has gained the respect of scholars for its keen insight into pre-industrial Appalachian life.” I went in this direction originally because some of my father’s family came to Iowa from Kentucky, not too far from where James Still lived in his log cabin. (James Still was born in 1906 and so was my father.)

I wanted to focus this time on Still’s poems that I enjoy reading more than once in “From the Mountain From the Valley: New and Collected Poems,” The University Press of Kentucky, c 2001. My favorite so far is “Dove.” In this poem of 11 lines, a mourning dove comes and plucks a seed from the poet’s fingers. The lines go from this physical description to a feeling — how nature brings the poet into a “oneness” with his surroundings. For Still, it is “An invitation to the eternal, The great meadow of the hereafter. Peace. Forever,” page 143. As you know, many spiritual beliefs include a dove that brings hope and peace into our world.

When I was about halfway through From the Mountain From the Valley, I went to the back of the book to the listing of titles of the 123 poems in the book and decided to choose poems to read by this method. First, I went to “Winter Tree” on page 117. The poet is outdoors after a snowfall, looking at the three-inch icicles on the eaves. This reminds him of what happens in nature all around him, and sometimes he misses it. Once he “saw a walnut shed her leaves All in haste, within a half hour’s time.” She became a winter tree, “bare of foliage and her body free.”

It’s still winter-like here in Minnesota as I’m writing this, and Still’s poems help me be observant in a positive way of what’s going on outdoors.

Next I went to “The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Trees,” and I found the pages for the Walnut Family of Trees. This family (Juglandaceae) includes hickories, pecan, butternut, and walnut. From what I read here, I think it may have been a black walnut tree the poet is describing. My grandma (dad’s side) had a black walnut tree in her yard in central Iowa where I grew up.

The Still poem “Of the Wild Man,” page 119, fits here. The wild man may be lying underneath a hawthorne tree and may be eating berries. He doesn’t have to go home if he’s hungry. Still tells us we won’t see the wild man unless we go looking for him. Is Still here writing about another man or himself? He lived by himself for many years.

Another poem about a person is “Child in the Hills,” page 50. Although in reality the child has grown up and is no longer physically in the hills, he is still a presence everywhere. Still writes:

I cannot see you, child, but I can hear your voice …

Now you have fled with the geese, with the hoofs at midnight …

But the child did not go…

Many poem titles reflect music in Kentucky: “When the Dulcimers Are Gone,” “Fiddlers’ Convention on Troublesome Creek,” “Banjo Bill Cornet,” “Dance on Pushback.” You may recall that Still’s title of his autobiography is “A Man Singing to Himself.”

“Coal Town,” page 61, is a poem that paints a colorful picture of the land where coal mines are:

The ragged slopes and interstices of the barren rock

Are havens for miners in an upper world.

You read about Troublesome Creek in my column last month. It’s in Kentucky close by where James Still lived. A fun surprise for me was finding his book “Way Down Yonder on Troublesome Creek: Appalachian Riddles & Rusties,” G.P. Putnam’s Sons, New York, c 1974, available through the Plum Creek Library System. The title page has this stamp: Milroy Public School Library, Milroy, Minnesota.

Here’s a sentence about Troublesome Creek from Still’s introduction:

The 67-mile stream flows across the counties of

Knott, Perry, and Breathitt into the headwaters

of the Kentucky River, fed from coves and hollows

and valleys bearing such names as Tadpole,

Pushback, Possum Trot, Dismal, and Gritty …

Rusties were “tricks of words, or common pranks.” (no page numbers in the book.)

An example:

Fireflies can’t figure,

Mites can’t write,

Or gnats indite,

Still I know right well

A bug that can spell. (Ans: Spelling bee, upside down in the book)

The pictures in the book are drawn by Janet McCaffery, who lived in Iowa along the Mississippi River. Marshall-Lyon County Library has more children’s books that she illustrated.

The first page of this book has a quote from Sarah Orne Jewett: “Bring your gift and graces and tell your secrets to this lonely country child.” Her writing about people and places in Maine (Books & Beyond, August 2018) does remind me of his writing about Kentucky. She passed away in 1909, so he didn’t meet her, but he wanted her thoughts to help introduce “Way Down Yonder in Troublesome Creek.”

Still’s poems will be good to read on Earth Day, April 22.

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