In his answer to the first question in this interview, poet and editor Justin Evans advances the idea that it is a sense of place which makes American poetry distinctly American–a notion given at least anecdotal support by poets from Bradstreet and Whitman to Stevens and Bly, and perhaps most obviously by Frost.
If Evans et al. are correct, then the poetry of Ron Rash is exceedingly American. Let’s get right to the good stuff.
He who once walked water knelt
to first cleanse feet, then souls of men,
so we have gathered once again
on the bank where spring’s warm light
falls like grace through willow leaves,
golds the river where we bend,
to fill our washpans so we might
follow in His footsteps on our knees.
You can read more about Rash here, but many of his bios note that his family has lived in the Appalachians since the 1700s; this is not an insignificant fact, as we shall see. As for his literary c.v., suffice it to say he is an accomplished author of four short story collections, four Novels, and four books of poetry (again, this is detailed at the previous link).
His first tome of poems, Eureka Mill (Hub City Writer’s Project, 1998), is based on his family’s Carolina Mill heritage and vividly rendered in a subtle formalism, including lots of blank verse, slant end rhymes, unrhymed tetrameter sonnetforms, and etc. The result is largely satisfying, especially if one has not read Rash’s later books. But in retrospect one can see Rash working towards a peculiar diction not quite realized in Eureka.
Rash’s next book of poetry, Among the Believers (Iris 2000), deals more generally with Appalachian tradition. Poems about esoteric religious traditions such as snake handling and glossolalia, reticent animals including spring salamanders and cougars, together with locale and family lore establish an unmistakable location. But in this volume Rash introduces a simple yet unique syllabic form intended to mimic the diction of the rustics which people the landscape of his history. His seven syllable line of varied accents is rather like a three legged stool–functional, sturdy, and possessing an unexpected beauty. Here’s an example from his third book, Raising the Dead (Iris, 2002)
Though once plentiful enough
to pulse and acre field, green
a blue sky, they were soon gone,
whole flocks slaughtered in a day,
though before forever lost
found last here, in these mountains
so sparsely settled a man
late as 1860 might
look up from new broken land
and glimpse that bright vanishing.
Free verse on its face yet following the strict syllable count while incorporating plenty of slant rhyme and consonance to keep it musical, Rash’s Appalachian form goes beyond merely reflecting the subject of its inspiration; rather, it gives his Appalachia its own recognizable voice–a sort of a pentatonic tune in 3/4 time for speech.
Raising the Dead is probably Rash’s most satisfying book of poems (I should interject that I have yet to read his fourth volume), and engages three spheres of loss– personal, community, and regional. In 1974, the Jocassee Reservoir finished filling a valley in which its displaced inhabitants had roots going back a century or more. That same year Rash also lost his cousin to an untimely death. Poems about both these tragedies are interspersed with others about exctinct animals, vanishing traditions, and assimilated indigenous people groups.
The book’s title refers directly to the final poem of the collection, which recounts the literal raising of dead bodies from their graves in order to relocate a cemetery that faces imminent inundation. But the title refers to more than one particular (and rather macabre) event; it is almost a statement of faith in the power of the author’s own words. For by creating a voice for this lost place, its people, their traditions, he gives them vitality. He grants them another life.
At Reid Hartley’s Junkyard*
To enter we find the gap
between barbed wire and briars,
pass the German Shepherd chained
to an axle, cross the ditch
of oil black as a tar pit,
my aunt compelled to come here
on a Sunday after church,
asking me when her husband
refused to search this island
reefed with past catastrophees.
We make our way to the heart
of the junkyard, cling of rust
and beggarlice on our clothes,
bumpers hot as a skillet
as we squeeze between car husks
to find in this forever
stilled traffic one Ford pickup,
tires stripped, radio yanked out,
driver’s door open. My aunt
gets in, stares through glass her son
looked through the last time he knew
the world, as though believing
like others who come here she
might see something to carry
from this wreckage, as I will
when I look past my aunt’s ruined
Sunday dress, torn stockings, find
her right foot pressed to the brake.
*Poems ©2000 and 2002, Ron Rash. Used by permission of the author; all rights reserved.