By MARY POPHAM
Kentucky writers, natives and transplants produce work from contrasting locales, backgrounds and history. As George Ella Lyon explains, “a lot of forces intersect in Kentucky. East and west, north and south. We’ve been seen as Frontier and as Backwater, traditional and renegade. We’ve got mountains and rivers, flatlands and bluegrass; we’re landlocked yet water-bordered.” The poetry in What Comes Down to Us: 25 Contemporary Kentucky Poets differs mostly in voice and point of view. Similar themes are expressed often in poems about the land, nature, our history, and ties of family and friends.
Presented chronologically, Wendell Berry is first in the book. He speaks with reverence for generations of farmers, who feel “connection to place … and the interconnectedness of life;” the man who works the farm, “to him the soil is a divine drug.” Berry writes a sacred story in “Her First Calf,” with lines that evoke an aspect of human nature: “From the beginnings of the world/ his arrival and her welcome/ have been prepared. They have always/ known each other.”
A recent Kentucky poet laureate, of which there are several represented in this collection, Jane Gentry also chooses subjects demonstrating closeness to nature: the old man and woman who farm, rock on the porch, talk of seed catalogues and the weather; and the magic of “Hunting for a Christmas Tree after Dark.” We are there as “The shapes of old cedars come toward me/ familiar as loved bodies approaching.”
Out of Kentucky, a storytelling state, come narrative and lyrical poems of our histor. Frank X Walker slips into the voice of York: “Massa Clark didn’t ask me to go on no expedition./ He just say ‘pack’ an pointed to the door.” Maurice Manning captures the loneliness of Daniel Boone: “I took a Shawnee squaw in the winter of 1770./ I was cold and she was warm.”
Beloved James Baker Hall writes a tender and haunting poem, memories of a young boy who hides in the closet with a fox fur “to take the whole piece up to your face to smell it/ or more exactly smell mother …” Tony Crunk remembers the men in his family—hunting, “burning off a new tobacco bed” and “listening to the locusts in the orchard.”
Richard Taylor compares a throbbing finger hit with a roofing hammer that “cannot match/ even one forsythia/ whose swollen buds muscle just now/ their yellow liberation into bloom.” Sarah Gorham writes of the “Sickle Billed Hummingbird,” and wryly notes: “a kiss, however perfect,/ is held for only so long.” Joe Survant immortalizes the Waters family, tobacco farmers in the mid-1800s. They mourn losing children, living with grief and rejoice as young couples begin the cycle again. “At the Camp Meeting” contains a simple yet boldly seductive line: “When I took/ a piece of Susie’s/ buttermilk pie,/ I saw her looking,/ and when I ate/ I imagined/ her taste.”
Leatha Kendrick gets exquisitely honest in her poetry, often about family. She admits to the game of pretend between mother and daughter as a wedding photographer poses them. She describes how grown daughters wait with her in “radiology’s store-front lobby;” and in a stage of acceptance she almost shouts, “Excuse me while I grow bald and fat.”
Explaining to her children, “Why I Mother You Like I Do,” Kathleen Driskell’s poem remembers the death of two classmates “trying to cross the field to their home./ They both lay twisted in the road.” A Jeffrey Skinner poem recalls the death of a father, “And yet his eyes open on a new light/ pushing across the ceiling each morning …” similar to Jeff Worley’s poem, winner of The Atlanta Review’s 2002 Grand Prize, “His Funeral.” One emotion is relief: “My father was finally unconfused,/ the noose of Alzheimer’s snapped.”
In an expansive family, contemporary Kentucky poets refer to their writer friends. Frederick Smock visits Richard Taylor’s farm, where they spot a blue heron in “the topmost branches of a dead/ cypress beside a pond.” James Baker Hall writes of his wife, Mary Ann Taylor- Hall: “I’ll ring you up/ I’ll say dearest/ You’ll answer/ with that laugh.”
Jeff Worley, who edits this edition, focuses on poems that show a strong sense of place. He attempts to bring together the state’s “most accomplished and best-known writers.” The anthology is beautifully done and accompanied by a brief page about each poet. A delightful taste of Kentucky’s best.
Mary Popham is a writer who lives in Louisville. She earned a master of fine arts in writing from Spalding University.