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