James Pollock on “Dryer”:
“Dryer” is one of four dozen poems about everyday technology that make up my book Durable Goods (Véhicule Press, September 2022). I was inspired by Keats’s ideal of the chameleon poet who enters into things in imagination and takes part in their being. There is a great tradition of Dinggedichte that includes not only Keats but Eduard Mörike, Rilke, Ponge, Marianne Moore, D.H. Lawrence, Eric Ormsby, and others, but whereas the traditional thing poem is usually about a plant, or an animal, or a work of art, my poems are about tools and appliances and machines.
I think of them as combining Romantic imagination with neoclassical wit. Or perhaps not quite a Romantic imagination so much as a modernist one—I was reading Heidegger’s essay “The Question Concerning Technology” when I wrote these, about the danger of technology and the saving power of poetry. Then again, Heidegger is thinking of Hölderlin in that essay, so—Romantic after all. In the case of “Dryer” and several other poems in Durable Goods, the machine is sympathetic, although in others it’s terrifying, or at least uncanny.
I might add that it’s just as true to call these poems animistic—albeit wry.
Alice Friman on “The Dog Days of August”:
I can’t quite remember how and why this poem was conceived, except to say it was fun to write. First of all because writng it entailed doing some research which is always gratifying. Growing up in New York City before any kind of air conditioning, I remember many an August where we sat on the edge of the bathtub, our feet in cold water to cool off. My mother would say, “Well, it’s the dog days of August, what do you expect?” I don’t know if people even say that anymore. But I’ve been reminded of those words ever since we moved to Georgia. And not just because of the heat. Soon after we moved in, we got a new next-door neighbor who said she moved here because too many of her old neighbors complained about her dogs. Her barking dogs. So she and her many, many, many barking dogs moved in next to me. I am not amused!
Rebecca Lehmann on “The End”:
I wrote “The End” in the fall of 2019, when my son was four and a half. We had an old and beloved cat who was in the process of dying from kidney failure, and it had us all thinking about mortality and death–especially my son, who hadn’t experienced these things before. Obviously, that’s a major theme of the poem, which is held together with a series of little snippets of questions he asked during these months, and of facts he delivered to me. “The End” is the final poem in a manuscript I’m finishing that is mostly poems written during the pandemic. Though I wrote “The End” just before the pandemic, I think a lot of the fear and disorientation of the last three years shows up here, particularly as experienced by those parenting small children. How do we keep our children safe and informed? How do we protect them? And, ultimately, what answers can we give them to help with the things we can’t protect them from?
Martha Collins on “Movie” and “Two Little Miners“:
Two of the five sections of my forthcoming book Casualty Reports (Pittsburgh, 2022) comprise a sequence that focuses on the history of coal—first as my grandfather and great-grandfather mined it in southern Illinois, then from its geological origins to our ecologically-threatened present. The two poems in this issue of Plume are from the first of the two sections. Poems that follow “Movie” relate some of the history foreshadowed in that poem, including accounts of both the peaceful and integrated union in my parents’ hometown and the violent and racist strikes that occurred nearby. “Two Little Miners” takes its title from a Little Golden Book by Margaret Wise Brown (1949), which it describes, paraphrases, and quotes from. It’s the final poem in the first section of the coal sequence, all of which is titled “Legacy.”
Jessica Cuello on Tania Langlais:
Pendant que Perceval tombait occurs in a single day and encompasses both the day of Woolf’s suicide and the death of the character Percival from Woolf’s novel The Waves. The book exists as a single poem so I’ve gathered together a selection here. Like The Waves, the voices in these poems overlap. Lines recur; they move forward, they pull back like the sea. We are aware of two dramatic events, Woolf’s suicide and Percival’s death, yet we remain suspended in recurring image. We are held in image and then released, then held again. This distinctly feminine work possesses the narrative detail to move time forward, but it is not narrative that counts here, nor is it explanation; no, we are entranced by repetition as if by the sea.
Marianne Boruch on “The Book of Before All This”:
We live on the safe silent side of our screens these weeks and months and years now. But this poem came abruptly out of the predawn blue, in that bruise of opening to the world again. It came at me staccato, unbearable, a monotone, in fragments. The stillness between lines, an intake beyond breath. And for what exactly? It’s not what we say anymore. It’s what we can’t say.
Bruce Beasley on “Called to Lapse”:
I have an obsessive fascination with words that fight a war against themselves over their simultaneous but opposite meanings, words known as “auto-antonyms,” “antagonyms,” “Janus words.” Lapse is one of my favorites. It means at once “to come to an end, stop” (as in a lapsed subscription) and to continue forward— “an interval or passage or time”; to lapse is to elapse, to pass through time. To lapse is also “to fall spiritually,” as in a lapsed Catholic. I wrote this poem as the second of my contributions to a five-poem round called “A Spiritual Thread” in which Dayna Patterson, Susan Alexander, Jennifer Bullis, Luther Allen, and I wrote poems in conversation with each other’s contributions. Dayna’s line about her Mormon upbringing (“latter-day stains”) in an earlier poem got me thinking about my Southern Presbyterian religious childhood; Jennifer’s line about being a “lapsed part-time Episcopalian” had me thinking about what it means to lapse from a faith (as in fall away from it, and as in to continue in the stream of it). The poem takes its structure from Roget’s Thesaurus, turning to its numbered sections of words for unbelief (dubiety, undeludeable, lapsible) the way a preacher might turn to a scriptural text. That faith in language and the unknown becomes a dogma of its own the poem wrestles against. The ending alludes to the moment in the gospels where a woman who’d suffered a hemorrhage for twelve years secretly touches the hem of Christ’s garment in a crowd and is instantly healed.
You can hear a reading of this and the others in the second round of poems from the Spiritual Thread here:
Scott Withiam on “Shifts” and “Song for Sally”:
Both “Shifts” and “Song for Sally” owe facets of their development to the early discovery of, then attention to, what some might consider popular American songs.
Early drafts of “Shifts” yielded The B-52’s “Love Shack,” that first decade/21st century DJ go-to song guaranteed, in my experience, to flood a club or wedding reception dance floor with dancers. I was immediately attracted to how the song’s loosely used theme of a getaway (love) fed or countered the poem’s speaker’s sense of trapped in and feeding a bad system, and I also liked how dancing mimicked the speaker’s figurative dances with his scarred twin/ problem student and his eventual cafeteria duty partner, Artie. At some point, I grew interested in incorporating that moment when “Love Shack,” after building from “the whole shack shimmies” to “bang, bang, bang, on the door baby,” abruptly stops dead. At that point, the female voice calls, “Tin Roof Rusted,” as if a discovered flaw, sexually exhausted or plain finished with the relationship, and the male voice responds, “You’re what?” At that stop, everyone on the dance floor usually stopped dancing and screamed “Tin roof rusted” in unison. I considered ending the poem at that same halted moment, because, aided by Artie’s dance-like golfing antics, the speaker, at that moment, seemed to end his guilty dance with the bad boy twin, along with other students’ failures. “Tin roof rusted,” though, eventually yielded a more literal meaning to Artie’s own reason to stop dancing and chant, his leaking house, which moved the poem away from what seemed too easy of an ending and hinted at the final results of the system portrayed— no getaway shack, but the whole house lived in eventually leaking.
“Song for Sally” began with an elderly neighbor, whose life and history I know well. One day she shared her thrill of buying her first car, an older used model with a CD player. She was excited because she bought the car on her own, without the help of a husband or son, who, in her past, had not been, shall we say, reciprocal, kind, or helpful. She was also excited to have the outdated CD player, which I thought as useless as the men in her life, but which allowed her to play Glenn Campbell, who, as she says in the poem, she loved, loved, loved. Initially, I was stuck by her renewed vigor, her emancipation (unlike, I see now, the speaker in “Shifts”), and her grit. I loved how often she climbed into that car to listen to who she chose to love, and who, maybe, loved back, all of which I sought to portray. Then, too, came some of the other supporting information I know about my neighbor, influenced by and imbued with, I like to think, the sound and songlike concern for phrasing of Campbell’s song, “Wichita Lineman.” That song’s lines, “I know I need a small vacation, but it don’t look like rain,” played a part in springing the end of this poem, as “Love Shack” did with “Shifts.”
The danger in all of this, I suppose, is that the poet gets too enjoyably attached to the discovered song, its meanings and its potential influences on the poem, or he assumes the audience has shared knowledge of, or experience with, songs used. Either could convolute rather than augment feeling or understanding.
R. T. Smith on “Snake Church” and “Patience, with Bees”:
Invitation to Another World
The fundamentalist Christians who handle poisonous snakes during their church services as they chant and dance and speak to their Lord have been accused of defanging rattlers, milking copperheads, hypnotizing cottonmouths with music and theatrical fakery, anything to discredit them, but Weston Le Barre, anthropologist Tom Burton and others have now studied these (usually) Pentecostal congregations, independent men and women who live by faith, fellowship and zeal, mostly along the Southern Appalachian chain, long enough to find that only through the lens of faith and by approaching the territory of miracle can we come to learn what the Holy Ghost Believers’ words and actions reveal.
I first began to explore these “communities” through La Barre’s history and analysis of these practices and beliefs in They Shall Take Up Serpents when I was in grad school at Appalachian State. I’ll admit that the drama of the services lured me, but I was not just another adrenalin tourist, because the often-modest church houses where the believers meet often resemble places I worshiped as a child. Our larger culture often dismissed as crackers those who praised Jesus’ name and put their lives on the line, but my forebears’ farms in north Georgia and Alabama were not so far away as one might guess, and we learned a bit here and there, even a little from newspapers. Since serpent handling has long been illegal in most of the country, law officers like my father, a lawman, had an interest. My grad school years in Boone were before National Geographic specials brought us living witness, so the preachers and apostles were often taken to be less than they are, more specimens than teachers.
A passing familiarity with this group of devoted folk still keeps some wondering, “What makes those crazy hillbillies want to choose such an eccentric and dangerous path? Followers get bitten. They usually decline medical attention, and many die. Why?”
To touch the heart of the matter, as Glen Summerford might have said, “It’s Bible.” Several passages of the holy book seem to address such risky behavior. Mark 15: 26-27 is the most explicit. In it, Jesus said, “Go ye into all the world and preach the gospel to every living creature. He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned. And these signs shall follow them that believe: in my name shall they cast out devils; They shall speak with new tongues; They shall take up serpents, and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; They shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.” If you are a true believer, there’s power in those words, promise and relevance, as Appalachians share the ridges and gullies, creeks and laurel hells with every breed of poisonous snakes in the US. And if you live by farming and other outdoor activities, that command (or prophecy or invitation) might have some allure. Danger and healing. And the drama is there, the challenge, the test of faith. The chance to “act out your vision before the tribe,” as Black Elk recommended.
With my hybrid fictional preacher, Brody Coots, I wanted to invite readers into a moment of complexity and surprise. Brody is no dullard or one-dimensional outlier. He’s translating the belief that grew up in the Appalachian coves and valleys, and he’s a man with a sharp eye, a deft wit and a sense of wholeness. We outsiders are now almost used to tv footage of extreme believers in their raptures and jubilations, but I wanted to show the larger man displaying an awareness of the danger and the communal appeal of his church, not a grotesque or a trickster, but a seeker.
I didn’t, however, want to suggest that he fully understands or is fully understood. In that respect, he’s like the rest of us, who might profit from listening to the words of Barry Lopez: “the proper response to mystery is not analysis but awe.” [For those who wish to drink from a deeper well that I can provide, I recommend the works of Tom Burton (various books), Lee Smith Saving Grace and Dennis Covington (Salvation on Sand Mountain).] And I recommend Brody, who I believe is mountain generosity, seriousness and play at work. Although I am not called to handle, I am called to listen to those who do and admire their path through the valley of the shadow of death. I hope there’s room for Brody.
R. T. Smith/ Timber Ridge, Lee County, Virginia