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Poetry and Place in Appalachian Elegy

Poetry and Place in Appalachian Elegy

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February 21, 2020

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

In her book, Appalachian Elegy, bell hooks links poetry and place. At the book’s outset, in Elegy #1, the narrator invokes spirits in order to speak to all of us. The narrator asks the dead to “speak to us/ from beyond the grave/ guide us/ that we may learn.” This narrator promises that in time, positive change will occur. In time, the earth will shed darkness and display a bold, rejuvenating green. Though the promise of rejuvenation lingers throughout the poems, so much of the work is dark and hopeless, so much is about struggle. I wonder if the struggle, and the ever-present now that hooks describes can be redeemed?

Elegy #6 uniquely weaves people into place. The narrator invites “little sister” and repeats the refrain, “I will guide you,” which invokes an epic tradition. It is a regendering of Dante’s journey, or Odysseus’s travels. As the narrator guides us into the hills, the narrator states that “we have earth to bind us.” This demonstrates the powerful presence that a place can share among communities. hooks realizes that the relationship between earth and animal (humans being a sort of animal) is foundational. The Elegy does not glamorize or idealize the hills, but rather invokes them as a sort of physical presence, a spiritual presence upon which humans must depend. But what does it mean to belong to a place? How does one find a home? For hooks, the voice that calls, though is not her own. Rather it is nature, or the spirit of wilderness itself. Elegy #7 clarifies: “again and again/ she calls me/ this wilderness within…be here… this earth I stand on/ belongs to the many dead/ treasure I find here/ is all gift.” This continues the strong connections between people and place, but more than that, hooks’s narrator invokes a mystical muse made up of people, place, earth, and heavens.

Elegy #7 ends with the mention of a “sacred portal” which brings the reader into the “always present.” This demonstrates one of my favorite features of hooks’s poetry: the way that place is a timeless space, made possible only through the reader’s sense of now. The reader questions how health, love, and peace exist in a place so riddled with darkness, as they simultaneously reflect back onto the reader’s present reality. The book incorporates a variety of images such as family heirlooms, textiles, religious symbols, animals, farming, and the hills themselves. For example, in Elegy #28, she mentions a herd of horses, paused at the top of a hill. Suddenly, the narrator explains that “all at once/ they race/ to reach the beyond.” This word, beyond, intrigues me. I think she wants to invoke a spiritual otherness, a place that the herd can go untouched by humans, or untouched by devastation. Not pristine, not spiritual even, but wild. This idea of “beyond” is something that she returns to in Elegy #38 where birds fly freely. Unlike the horses, which run to “reach the beyond,” these birds fly “to enter beyond.”

Seasons also ground her poems. The language celebrates each season as a vital or necessary piece of nature. However, Elegy #42 combines this natural appeal with ideas of racism. It also reinforces the questions of “beyond” and what might exist outside the pale of human experience thus far. She writes about the small buds just able to navigate winter’s chill, just able to break free from the bonds of ice and snow. The poem ends with, “from seeds/ planted long ago/ draw from this/ winter death/ courage to go on/ in the face of white cold/ see past this/ all-surrounding/ whiteness/ that beyond/ there is hope….” White is not an accident here, but rather a necessary detail in the description of pressures which have shaped the seeds of the future. Elegy #43 even mentions an “unveiling” as if in concert with Du Bois and other African American writers before.

I think that all of these metaphors; horses, birds, seeds, and hills, accumulate to frame her idea of the beyond. She not only asks that we seek it, but she persistently expresses love for the future (which is also, ironically, ever-present). Elegy #59 continues to clarify that we must follow the “guided prophecy/ hidden among growing things” to a path “beyond all manmade limitations.” The beyond, then, is all-space, such as the places that we walk daily. The beyond is a mindset of freedom outside of and opposed to labels, destruction, hate, and fear.

The images of beyond also liberate the reader. Yet, I cannot help but notice how colors evoke emotional responses and invoke historical presence, such as her description of the way that white snow blankets, covers, disguises, and suffocates the land. She also speaks of black greed in Elegy #63. She writes, “all is black/ coal black greed/ no way to choose life/ when greed/ brings the constant/ sound of death.” Human dependence upon material items restricts them from making healthy choices. The narrator returns again and again to the idea that humans have lost the wilderness within themselves, have replaced it with greed for more, other, new and flashy distractions.

The end of Appalachian Elegy troubles me. It does not feel as if the promised spring has arrived. If anything, it feels farther from our grasp. Elegy #62 speaks of the winter wind, the “inescapable now” which buries all promise of resurrection. In contrast, Elegy #65, the second to last in the collection, claims that the world is green which sounds reassuring, until the arrival of Elegy #66, which ends with a (re)turn to fire. Fire can be seen as cleansing and necessary, but its perpetual existence and resurgence further separates the now from the promised green. The narrator calls this fire a part of the “inescapable now” and it does feel inescapable, urgent, and terrifying.

I so appreciate bell hooks’s Appalachian Elegy which poses many difficult questions that society must address. I love her focus on nature and the way that nature participates in health and redemption. If you are interested in studying this book in terms of beauty, join us at Great Books Chicago in May!

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