“Alone in the world”: hill country women

I wrote the following poem back in 1992. My mother included it on the dedication page of her book Appalachian Autumn (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1994), a synoptic nature book that included a description of the clearcut logging of a 100-acre portion of Plummer’s Hollow that had once belonged to the McHugh family.

PLUMMER’S HOLLOW ELEGY
in memoriam Margaret McHugh

When her mind went they took her away
from the house in the hollow where she’d lived
forty years in combat readiness
with her dog & her shotgun, a color TV
& her dead brother’s artificial legs standing
guard at the top of the stairs.

Her ancestors’ land had been sold out from under her
& clear-cut by the absentee owner
who couldn’t be bothered with a mother’s deathbed
commandment half a century old:
Don’t let anyone lumber the mountain again.
She’ll never survive a third cutting
& neither will you.

*

From the other end of Appalachia, in northern Georgia, here’s an excerpt from an interview with Anna Howard, 93 at the time (1973, or a few years before: this was included in Foxfire 2, edited by Eliot Wigginton and published by Anchor/Doubleday). For all you city people, “locust” refers to a very hard wood, black or yellow locust, often used for fence posts because of its resistance to rot. The oldest portion of my house, built right after the Civil War, rests on a sill of locust instead of a rock foundation. The bark is still intact.

“A STAKE THAT WON’T BUDGE”: Anna Howard

God can put it on your heart or mine anything he wants you t’do, and I know he can. He has mine. Pray about things you don’t know what t’do about. It’ll come to you just as plain.

And I try t’be all th’same alike. I don’t talk about people. I don’t say no harm about nobody and all they do. It says in th’Bible t’do unto others as we wish t’be done by, and I feel that way about that. And I feel like if you’re in earnest and got faith in th’Lord and ask him for anything, he’ll put it right in your mind. . . .

Kindness and love is th’main thing. Now that’s my advice. It’s good to know you got a friend. It’s love. Just like I made [a friend] out of you. I see people that their looks and their ways just a’gives t’you, and you love ’em. And th’next time you see’em, you love’em better.

I’ve not had too much of a happy time since my old man died. And after my children left, I just felt alone in th’world. And when all my people died – everyone that passes on out, I just feel like I’m further and further away. Yes, sir.

So now I knit socks a lot. I just love t’do that. If I ain’t got anybody t’talk to me, now I’m bound t’have somethin’ in my fingers. If I’m able t’hold my head up, I’m bound t’have somethin’ in my fingers t’employ my mind. . . .

I’ve been made fun of for bein’ old-fashioned, but it don’t matter t’me a bit in th’world. If anyone tries to run over me, they’ll find they’ve run up against a stake that won’t budge ’cause it’s made out a’locust! I’ve always done th’work of a man. God’s been good t’me. He’s given me strength.

*

My grandmother was a far less god-fearing woman. She grew up in northeastern Pennsylvania: still very much in the Appalachians, but culturally closer to New England than Appalachia. This portion of the state was largely settled by pioneers from Connecticut in the 18th century; my grandmother’s people were among those settlers.

Although Grandma was a very reticent person, she was always kind toward us kids, teaching us how to draw and helping with other craft projects. She was fairly intellectual, and much more adventuresome and open-minded than her husband, my grandpa. A four-month sojourn in Peru with my parents a few years before her death may have been the high point of her life. I wrote the following poem in her voice shortly after her death; it may or may not accurately represent her view of life. I felt justified in taking the liberty because, of all my immediate relatives, she is the one I most take after – with a little bit of my other grandmother’s more acerbic personality thrown in.

DREAMER
in memoriam Margaret Ide Bonta

I spent my tomboy girlhood on horses
rambling through orchards & the molehills
we fancied mountains, just south
of the glacier’s plow line. My brothers
taught me all the arcana of knots & hitches
I call to mind now, tied to an oxygen tank,
the transparent umbilicus bridled to my nostrils.

The man I married grew up in town
& loved the country for its range of practical puzzles.
But for my part, I preferred the ocean’s
implausible clues: polished stones & glass & wood
on a beach asymptotic to the hyperbole of waves,
tidepool anemones like stars collapsing, turning inward,
conch & clamshell pressing their ears to the sand.

All the men of my family were hardheaded Methodists
for whom speech was more vital than prayer.
But I always found piety jarring–the minister’s
baited candy. Like the scent of a bear in the barn
one day as I rode my favorite Clydesdale in,
standing barefoot on his back like a circus performer,
reins in one hand. When that massive
draft horse shied he sent me flying, really flying,
ponytailed hair & calico skirts ballooning.

My sister & I were like that: we smoked,
we drank a little, we rode along behind
on our brothers’ motorcycles. But when
it came time to marry, we did. Hank & I settled
in calm suburban waters, had three sons–
if I’d had a daughter, I wouldn’t have known
what to do! And when he retired, we bought
a small house on the ocean, ‘way down south–
a house built on sand, true,
but protected by seawalls from the storm surge

until these last couple years when everything
got me at once, & the songs my mother
sang to me in the crib
suddenly after all this time pop into my head.
It’s as if you were to find a bottle, say,
on the high tide’s windrow–& the message inside
were written in your own hand,
in childish shaky letters.
I just lie here humming & wondering where I’ve been.

I’m in pain, of course, but it’s not so bad
that they have to take me out back & shoot me
just yet! The main thing is, my mind’s still clear,
neither too fast nor too slow. Makes me think
of my favorite Robert Burns song, do you know it?
“Flow Gently Sweet Afton.”

Well, we don’t need to sing the whole thing now.
There’ll be plenty of time later, when I’m gone.

*

The folklorist James York Glimm has written two books on central and north-central Pennsylvania; the following selection is from his second, Snakebite: Lives and Legends of Central Pennsylvania (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1991). Glimm writes, “Storytelling has sometimes been assumed to be a man’s province, but I have found that women informants have at least as much to say and can tell stories just as well. . . . As a younger man I was more interested in the frontier hunting and fishing stories that men like to tell. Women don’t tell many hunting yarns, but they tell other kinds of stories that give a detailed and personal picture of the world they lived in years ago.” One of the exceptions to this rule was 82-year-old Catherine Voce, who reminisced happily about living in a cabin ‘way up on a mountainside in the 30s, growing most of their own food and hunting deer with her husband. This is the conclusion of her interview with Glimm.

SHOOTING THE NEIGHBORS: Catherine Voce

If I were young again and had wings to fly, I’d fly back up on the mountain above Rock Run and live in our cabin. When you’re young and in love, it makes all the difference. All I heard were the birds, a distant cowbell, and sometimes the S. and N.Y. whistle when the wind was right. I was in love and I was happy.

That’s enough talk. Let’s go outside and stretch a bit. I’ll show you my garden. Maybe I can get that other woodchuck that’s been eating me out of house and home. Hand me that four-ten over there, and watch out, ’cause it’s loaded.

Now, here’s where Mr. Coon comes for his cat food every night. I ought to shoot him, but I can’t. He’s so big. Sits here outside the screen door and licks his paws and goes, “Mmm yum, yum, yum.” Lately he gets here early, or Mr. Possum will beat him out. Quarter to nine. Now this is my sweet apple tree. The porcupines love sweet apples. Two years ago I killed so many I stopped counting. Maybe seventeen. They come off the mountain and wake me up at night with their weird sounds. Did you ever hear them? It’s a “Wee-wee-yum-yum-yee-yee-mum-mum” noise, like that, and I don’t like it. So I get up in the night with my .410 and my flashlight and shoot them. One night I got six. I buried them behind the barn in the soft soil. No, I don’t like porcupines. Come on. Keep low and quiet and maybe we can get a shot at Mr. Woodchuck.

It’s so overgrown around my garden, I can’t keep up. There are currants, asparagus, potatoes, garlic, and tomatoes. Now, look inside that pen. Just look at that lettuce. Oh! He’s eating me out of house and home. I put boards up and he goes right under – look at that. Watch out – I’ve got a muskrat trap over there. One way or another, I’ll get him. That? Oh, that’s just a black snake. Leave him. He’s OK. Here, take some garlic home with you.

*

Finally, a selection of Appalachian women’s voices wouldn’t be complete without the West Virginia poet Louise McNeill (1911-1993). In the last years of her life she and editor Maggie Anderson collaborated on a volume of new and selected poems, Hill Daughter, published by (who else?) the University of Pittsburgh Press in 1991.

Anderson notes in her introduction that “The work of many writers from the southern Appalachian Mountains is a record of painful journeyings, away from what Kentucky poet James Still has called ‘the earth loved more than any other earth,’ off to the bright promise and the brighter economies of the cities. Louise McNeill’s life and work reflect those journeyings. The ‘paradox,’ as she has named it, is, in part, that the very opportunities that call mountain writers away from home also cut them off from the deepest sources of the writing itself, from its original impulses in a beloved place and people.”

McNeill’s poems are, in a word, devastating.

POET
by Louise McNeill

I am the trajectory and flight –
The archer, arrow, and the bow –
The swift parabola of light –
And I the rising and the flow,
The falling feather of the cock,
The point, propulsion, and the flood
Of blackbirds twanging from the nock,
And I the target and the blood.

*

WARNING
by Louise McNeill

Walk through the fern but do not tear the root.
Rest on the stump but count no ring of age.
In rotting wood see neither hint nor sign,
Nor translate from the oak leaf’s fallen page
One mystic line.

Look at the wheat field, see it blade and straw,
But neither bread nor sealed-in germ nor shadowy reaper –
Leave the close ground its anonymity,
Such knowledge to the blind mole and the worm –
The gray night-creeper.

Leave the enigma to the close-lipped dark;
Beyond your fenced-in land do not inquire –
For things there be best hidden:
Light that only the blind should see –
And over the hills in that far country
Truth bare, forbidden.

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