Appalachian Thursday – Fleeting Summer

I’ve loved Robert Frost’s poem Nothing Gold Can Stay since I first saw The Outsiders movie. I think that’s the hardest I’ve ever cried at a movie. The poem is so gorgeously bittersweet. To me, it’s always spoken of that moment in autumn when nature is at it’s most perfect. You just want to seize the instant and somehow preserve it. Well, Robert Frost did and every time I read his words my throat tightens and my eyes mist.

I love autumn in the mountains. The temperatures cool; the lush, summer green of the woods begins to thin; leaves change color; sunset comes earlier; and you wear sweaters even when it’s too warm for them.

And the flowers fade . . .

If you follow my author page on Facebook, you’ve likely seen my Wildflower Wednesday posts. I’m such a wildflower fanatic, I take pictures all summer. But there are fewer flowers as summer wanes. So, I thought I’d take a moment to look back at a summer’s worth of nature’s glory before we step fully into another Appalachian autumn.

NOTHING GOLD CAN STAY

Nature’s first green is gold, 
Her hardest hue to hold. 
Her early leaf’s a flower; 
But only so an hour. 
Then leaf subsides to leaf. 
So Eden sank to grief, 
So dawn goes down to day. 
Nothing gold can stay. 

-Robert Frost

Vinegar & Char

vinegarThis seems to be my year for collections. While I don’t have a full-length novel coming out in 2018, I do get to be part of two collections releasing on October 1st and 2nd.

I’ve already written about The Christmas Heirloom novella collection releasing 10.2.18, but Vinegar and Char is something else altogether.

When it comes to writing, my first love has always been poetry. I’ve published a few poems here and there–in magazines like Appalachian Heritage and Now & Then, but my very first poetry publication was in a 2004 book titled Cornbread Nation 2: The Best of Southern Food Writing compiled by the Southern Foodways Alliance. It was a proud moment.

That first poem about fried catfish, bourbon, and cotton gins in Mississippi still reads well to my ear. Cornbread Nation 5 (2010) included my all-time favorite poem about funeral food.

So I was absolutely delighted when I was contacted by Sandra Beasley about submitting a poem for the Southern Foodways Alliance’s new poetry anthology. While I don’t write poetry as regularly as I used to, I still enjoy stringing words together in that succinct way that makes a poem. So I submitted a piece called, “The Sacred and the Bread,” that was accepted for publication.

I’d love to share it with you now . . . but no. You’ll just have to wait for October.

Revisiting My First Love – Poetry

Sarah & Ann

I also got to hang out with one of my favorite authors–Ann Gabhart!

I had a wonderful time at the Southern Kentucky Book Fest this past weekend. I had a chance to teach a class, sit on a panel, and interact with readers (and writers!). Some of my favorite things to do!

On Friday I sat in on a poetry workshop with former Wisconsin poet laureate and Kentucky native Max Garland. It took me back to my first love–poetry. It’s such fun to sit with a group of other folks who are passionate about stringing words together in a meaningful way.

Which made me realize I’ve never shared my favorite poem (of mine) with you. So here you go–one of my earliest published poems that appeared in Appalachian Heritage way back in 2006.

SAD STREAKS AND WEEPY MERINGUES

Illness, death, disease and even divorce
bring out the mixing bowls, the spoons,
the flour, the sugar and the speckled brown eggs.
Good women converge in kitchens on far
sides of town, all for the expression
of love and sorrow, sadness and hope.
They consult stained cookbooks, faded cards
and memories sharpened with use to concoct
something that will stave off the hunger for
knowing what comes next—what comes
after we get through this . . .

And when the pound cake isn’t quite done,
with a soft, moist middle that invites us
to sink down and find an almost peace—
When the sugar in the meringue doesn’t
quite melt, and caramel drops bloom like
smoky topaz tears—That’s when love
and sadness meet the perfect measure,
filling our sorrowing hearts,
if only for a mouthful.

Appalachian Thursday – Southern States

growing chicksNo, not the states below the Mason Dixon Line. I’m talking about the cooperative store started by farmers in Virginia.

When I was a kid, we’d go to Southern States to buy things like cattle feed, bulk dog food, bag balm, seeds, medicine for cattle, and SPRING CHICKS. Mostly, going to Southern States wasn’t all that exciting. The store had a kind of chemical/sweet feed smell and there wasn’t a whole lot to interest an eight-year-old. Until the spring chicks arrived.

We’d walk in the store and hear them. A chorus of tiny cheeps. There they would be, moving balls of yellow fluff, walking around, pecking at feed, sipping water, and pooping (it wasn’t ALL adorable). We could hold them as long as we were G-E-N-T-L-E.

Back at the farm, the box of chicks would go out in the barn with a light to keep them warm and we’d visit and cuddle as often as allowed.

But here’s the problem with adorably, baby chicks — they grow into chickens.

And it happens much more quickly than you’d expect. One day some of the fluff has been replaced by rough feathers and soon the adolescent chickens are as awkward as any teenager. Then, next thing you know, they’re just plain old chickens waiting to peck the back of your hand when you gather their eggs.

But isn’t that the way with so many things? Nothing stays the same. Nothing lasts. Seems like Robert Frost had something to say about that when he wrote Nothing Gold Can Stay.

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

Yep. Baby chicks don’t stay adorable very long. But the memory of them . . . oh, that lasts and lasts. I haven’t gone with my dad to pick up spring chicks in nearly forty years. But I can close my eyes and hear their cheeps, feel the softness of their down, and smell the must and dust of their warming box.

I think Robert Frost was a little bit sneaky. When he captured a bit of gold on paper, he made it stay. Here’s hoping I can do a bit of that myself.

A Poem for Remembering

Aunt BessWe all have special people in our lives. Folks who have an impact on us–whether fleeting or long term. I’ve been thinking lately about how many of those people in my life are gone now–Grandma Burla, Aunt Bess, Dusan & Marsha, Aunt Dorothy & Uncle Willis, Smutt & Anna, Grandma Ginny . . . the list goes on.

But maybe, since I carry a little bit of each one of those folks with me, they’re still here in a way. As long as I remember . . .

So here’s a poem for Aunt Bess who shaped my life and the person I am in ways I’m still discovering.

TRUE LOVE

Sometimes love has no motive.
Sometimes love sprouts wild
between the rows of corn,
string beans, and tomatoes.

At 95, Aunt Bess took her cane
and walked me round—
down to the mailbox,
over to the swimmin’ hole,
past the garden where she
remembered her only son
shooting a groundhog the day
he died of scarlet fever.

At 98, she sat me down
on the porch and held my hand.
She talked about Uncle Celly who
appeared like a ghost for dinner
and drew pictures of the Devil.

At 101, she laughed with joy
to see me through the screen door.
She sat in a patch of morning sun,
pulled a kitchen chair close,
asked about people whose deaths
slipped her mind. We resurrected
them there, in that old house,
and they were as good as alive to us.

Always, she cupped my face in soft,
bent hands and said, “You are
so dear to me. So dear.”

At 102 I gave her eulogy, told how
she loved me for no good reason
and how I loved her just the same.

Appalachian Thursday–False Spring

While folks living further to the north have no illusions about winter being over and folks further to the south rarely get the full-on winter experience, we here in the middle–the Appalachians–are suffering that in-between season.

We just had a major hit of snow and while we KNOW spring is a long ways off today is . . . warm. It’s downright mild. The sun’s been shining, the snow is mostly gone, and those fool robins keep dancing around in our yards.

It’s enough to give a person hope. At least for a minute.

FALSE SPRING

The yard is full of robins.
Fat and quick they flutter
like snowflakes falling before
the storm really arrives.

Just enough to draw my
attention—to make me look.

A frog is awake in the pond
below the house—he sounds
like a chicken clucking, like
children squabbling, like spring.

Just enough to turn my head—
to make me listen.

A neighbor works in his yard,
moving rocks and dirt and sticks.
He stirs the soil like plowing, like
planting the first promise of the year.

Just enough to tickle my nose—
to make me breathe . . . again.

But the calendar doesn’t lie the way
a day in February can. Those tips of green
will soon send their regrets and bow down
under the weight of stillborn hope.

And the robins will scatter to the wind.

Happy WV Day (two days late)

WV flagSaturday was West Virginia Day. Don’t worry, gifts aren’t expected. (Although one of those little black bears carved out of coal is always nice.)

We had friends over for dinner and served food seasoned with WV sea salt (no, it’s not a joke–check out JG Dickinson Salt Works.). There was a bouquet of rhododendron (the state flower) on the table and we listened to a Kathy Mattea CD (she’s a native). The shortbread peach cobbler was baked in a cast-iron skillet and, yes, I did sing, “Oh Those WV Hills,” much to my husband’s mortification.

But we West Virginians are nothing if not loyal to our home state. I’m astonished to realize that I’ve now lived in the Carolinas longer than I lived in West Virginia, but once a hillbilly, always a hillbilly. And proud of it.

I’ve shared this poem before, but in honor of my home state’s birthday, here it is again. An ode to the Mountain State, previously published in Now & Then: The Appalachian Magazine.

MOUNTAIN MAMA

There is truth in the trailer park
and honesty in the car on blocks.

Starvin’ Marvin and “as seen on TV”
live cheek by jowl with the likes
of handmade quilts and apple butter;
old-time music and the oral tradition.
Some folks say it isn’t True,
isn’t the way things used to be.
But lose a grandfather to the mines,
an uncle to the war, your mother
to a cancer that gnaws at her soul—
lose a child for no reason you can see.
Then you’ll find the fragile beauty
in the never-ending yard sale.
You’ll learn to love the tourists
who buy corncob pipes, coonskin caps,
and lumps of coal carved like bears.

When the giant timber companies
run the local sawmill out of money
and Aunt Eunice can’t remember your name—
when your best friend moves to California
and minimum wage is doing alright, man.
Then you’ll find the potent wisdom
in workers’ compensation, food stamps
and tonight’s lotto number—
dear God let me win.
A one in a billion chance is better
than watching the land your ancestors
cleared wash away . .  . no wish away
on the promises of strip mines
and a future you can’t afford to wait.

At night, the lights from Wal-Mart glow
like the promise of a better tomorrow.