Appalachia always seemed like a foreign land to me. That’s surprising, I think, because by the reckoning of several maps I was born and bred there. North Alabama makes various NGO and governmental maps of the Appalachian region, though I doubt anyone who inhabits the place would claim the moniker. But now, living in East Tennessee, I see the similarities. Reading Ryan Walsh’s new collection of poetry, Reckonings, tapped into the long-forgotten yet familiar feeling of sharing a place that’s hurting.

Walsh’s poetry is spare and blunt. There are few moments of diving into those romantic, abstract images or obscure, avant-garde moments of prose. Instead, his poetry is rooted in the place that bred it and is enveloped in a deep concern for the health and safety of that land’s inhabitants. His writing isn’t overly hopeful, loving, or adorned—he’s here with a message and a call to action.

This semester, I’m studying Appalachian literature. Despite the graduate-level seminar undertaken with a brilliant scholar’s guidance, I still have absolutely no fucking clue what characterizes Appalachia. Mountains, maybe? I can’t quite reify what makes Appalachia different from the South, particularly because I come away from that list with stereotypes. If it’s poverty that makes Appalachia, the Deep South can match that in spades. If it’s white mountaineers, the immense body of work coming from queer and Black Appalachians begs to differ. If it’s violent mountain justice or the “cold” personality ascribed to the characters of Appalachia, I’d argue that those stereotypes can’t account for an entire group of people. It ain’t music—my people use banjos and mandolins. My grandmother thrived on chicken livers and souse, so it ain’t the food, either. What makes Appalachia different? Is it different? Or is the same fried chicken with slightly different seasonings than the rest of the Southeast?

I can only land on the landscape and its extractions. Large scale farming hasn’t existed in Appalachia in the same way it has in the rest of the South, and entire counties and states haven’t sacrificed their resources as big business bankrolled their ruin. That, I think, is exclusive to Appalachia. It’s the devastating thread that binds the region as much as the beauty of the mountains. Walsh’s poetry delicately confronts the split existence of living in beauty, knowing the land has and will be abused:

“Gloaming smolders to night
and the lines of moose are lost to shadows.
I walk away, speaking the names

that let me wend again through that land
of slantwise tobacco barns, silviculture,
endless extractions.”

“Monongahela”

 

For the past thirteen months, I’ve lived in East Tennessee and done my damnedest to listen to the place and the people who analyze the place. I’ve noted pickups with “Coal keeps the lights on” bumper stickers, paid attention to the laborers protesting the demonic practices of coal barons refusing to pay for their work, watched documentaries about extractive industry and read histories of capitalism’s environmental devastation in the mountains. I even did the thing I hate and traveled to talk to a few Appalachian locals about pills and payday loans. This isn’t a curriculum vitae for my Appalachian credentials—this is me trying to understand the place I’m living and how we can collectively stop the hurt. Walsh’s poetry comes away from this conversation with a tenuous optimism, believing that after ruin the land will have something to reclaim:

 

“The pines were born of fire
Some of them were crucified
in creosote, strung up
for long-distance utility lines

Even with all night forever
all is never lost”

“The Pines”

I don’t know that I have the same hope as Walsh. We both left our places—I’m a rural Alabaman in Knoxville by way of Nashville and New Orleans, he’s from West Virginia, now in Pittsburgh by way of Vermont and Michigan. Our places are both hurting, being abused, exploited, extracted, and riddled with pills, yet we’re still here, obsessed with the prospect that there is something left to save. But salvation requires reckoning with the past, our wrongs, and their abuses—Ryan Walsh is taking stock for the day that reckoning finally comes.

“Before we became data
each of us a garden

The inch of dirt that keeps us human
Brothers, are you ready?

Ready to go home?”

“The Pines”

Buy your copy of Reckonings here from Union Avenue Books in Knoxville, Tennessee. 

Posted by:Rachel

4 replies on “Review of Reckonings by Ryan Walsh

  1. Rachael,
    Happy to have Snake and Tree back in my inbox. Having had several more decades than you under my belt to contemplate what makes our hometown what it is, I’ve come to the conclusion that the influence of Appalachia can’t be discounted. Muscle Shoals is as much Knoxville or Bristol as it is Memphis.

    Start with music. For all the Influence Handy and the descendants of slaves brought to Muscle Shoals, there was an equal and opposite influence from the poor white Scots-Irish who followed the Appalachian chain south from VA and NC looking for cheap land and a place to put down roots. While the antebellum economy of the Tennessee River Valley was based on enslaved African labor, you didn’t need to travel far from the River to find the hill country folk who made their living substance farming, cutting timber, mining, tanning, and making whiskey. When the Civil War broke out, many of them said screw the wealthy planters and slave holders and like their brethren in East TN who had no stake in the slave economy, made a stand with the Union.

    Fast forward a century or so when my generation was coming of age. For all the Memphis and Muscle Shoals sweet soul music we heard on the radio, we also were exposed to bluegrass and white gospel music even though we were hundreds of miles from the epicenter of Appalachian music in East TN, Southern VA, and NC. Our grandmothers played sacred hymns on the pump organ and our parents played summer nights with guitar and banjo singing traditional tunes from the Appalachian songbook. They didn’t learn this by visiting Dollywood.

    Culture is a hard thing to define or decipher. It’s even harder to dissect or do forensics on. I don’t pretend to understand the place I grew up in because I have been gone longer than I lived there. All I know is that when I am in Appalachia, which is very accessible from the city I live in now, I find everything to be strangely familiar. It’s as if I grew up there but not quite. When you figure this out and can explain how
    Appalachian culture influenced Muscle Shoals in a more eloquent and literary way than I, please write about it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Troy, I definitely feel the same way! It’s interesting to me that the Appalachian region seems so defined and concrete, yet it becomes an abstraction when we try to tease out what it is. I think the history of the TVA could provide a kind of backstory to why my hometown feels so much like the place I’m living now… yet different. Obviously, the TVA is hated “upriver,” yet my grandparents talked about it like it was the saving grace of Alabama. I think the differences between a place like Alabama and a place like East TN can be traced through that ecological history. I’ll be thinking on it!

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  2. A musical suggestion: “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow”, as sung by Roscoe Holcomb from Kentucky. It is as pure and heartbreaking expression of the hardships and despair of the people of Appalachia as I have ever heard. The uptempo version of this song that everyone’s familiar with, from the “O, Brother” movie, is nothing but a soggy travesty in comparison.

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