review by José Angel Araguz
In Stonelight, winner of the 2017 Airlie Prize, Sarah McCartt-Jackson adds to the tradition of lyric narrative collections that includes Margaret Atwood’s The Journals of Susanna Moodie and Rita Dove’s Thomas and Beulah, books that take on the materials of human life and through them evoke human presence. Informed by McCartt-Jackson’s background in folk studies, oral history, and naturalism, the poems of Stonelight move individually as statements of intimate experience, but also work together to tell the story of Ora and Eli and their family. One of the main engines behind this poetic storytelling is the use of nature as a lens to understand and feel human interactions.
The opening poem, “Kentucky Rose,” embodies what I mean in its opening lines:
This soil is a vein of stone the company calls blue heron
to indicate its grade—
a bituminous grease in the pleats of eyelines
and thumbnail quick,
in the corners of Eli’s mouth
until everything tastes like the long coal throat of Mine 18,
In these lines, the worlds of nature and human life are blurred in the physicality of Eli’s experience. The arduousness of coal-mining is evoked in the description of the soil working itself down into “eyelines” and “thumbnail quick.” Yet, the inclusion of the name of the soil “blue heron” frames this meeting of worlds. Bringing to mind a blue heron and its grace and flight, the following lines then sink down into Eli’s more grounded experience. This intense sensory experience continues to the poem’s end:
And when the earthhush of that shaft struggles to slip from the blue
shale stitched above the carbon, the sound becomes the rasp
of a carpenter bee’s mandibles boring tunnels
into the porchwood to remove its yellow poplar
grain by grain, gram by spittled gram.
Here, the intensity of Eli’s work is paralleled with a carpenter bee, an image whose focus and drive is as apt as it is startling. The implications here are double: not only is there the drone of the work, but also the feeling of necessity. Both are doing the work necessary for a living. From start to finish, this poem upends any idea that natural life and human life are at odds; rather, they exist as troubled neighbors leaving impressions on each other.
This use of nature as a lens for human understanding and feeling is found again in “Jacob’s Ladder,” which details Ora experiencing a miscarriage. The poem begins:
They say children born on the wrong side
of the river grow wild as fleabane
and do not return until Spring,
their veins all grass stems and cricket legs,
and that wild scuttles straight from their eyes
over the creekbed and slips over the birdfoot violet
into the sandstone,
Here, the world of superstition is brought in, framing what is at stake in childbirth for Ora. The narrative that begins here, that “children born on the wrong side / of the river grow wild,” is developed through nature metaphors of “fleabane” and veins gone “all grass stems and cricket legs.” This metaphoric language evokes directly what is meant by “wild” and what is to be feared. And yet, the narrative continues in the second stanza with the implication that this wildness will affect the land as well. As with “Kentucky Rose,” human intensity is paralleled with nature. Here, however, the parallel serves storytelling directly. Later in the poem, the reader finds out that Ora is unable to make it to the other side of the river:
So her baby’s hands uncurled as bluet and phlox,
her heart a hard walnut, shriveled and shut,
her bloody mouth a kiss on her mother’s thigh.
In these closing images, the experience of miscarriage is translated into nature metaphors. This reads like a natural progression from the opening stanza’s logic. Where what is feared for the child born on the wrong side of the river is expressed as a wildness whose mystery evokes troubled images of land and insects, the mystery that is death is approached through imagery that withholds further understanding. Here, nature represents what shuts out human life and renders it unknowable.
This reckoning with mortality is woven throughout the poems of Stonelight. As the narrative of Eli and Ora plays out in poems whose rich language is stitched with human heart, what remains compelling is how these characters survive and understand their survival. Even as disaster strikes, Ora’s perceptions of the world around her echoes and defies disaster. Seeing her lost children in nature, and through nature seeing herself, Ora is set down as one of poetry’s most compelling characters.
This presence is accomplished through McCartt-Jackson’s ability to braid together poetry, folklore, and research. In “O Death” (below), whose title is borrowed from an Appalachian dirge, McCartt-Jackson goes in the opposite direction of a majority of the poems in the manuscript. Where, as in the poems cited above, human characters are shown to interpret their experiences through the lens of nature, here we have an unnamed speaker evoking Death in a way that renders the experience human, intimate, and ever-present. Despite the contrast in approach, this poem continues the work of expressing the urgency of the world of Stonelight and its characters.
O Death – Sarah McCartt-Jackson
One by one the cicadas clutching the brittle bark turn their spiracles to the light to breathe her in. Their breath leaves ours on the sky-veined insect wings of the world fluttering in the edge of lampglow between umbra and fire. O candle whose light we love even as your wax taper wanes. She rattles but we do not even hear her, ears pressed to the cold cookstove, to the ragged beanvines, to the dog’s frothy tongue. O stone torn from the coalface, time-split and aching, receive her shaking tail of sound into each seam. Overturn each rock, unearth the roly polys and roll their husks between fingers so she will uncoil from the corngrass and lie on a rotting barn beam where moles scurry into her open mouth, and then turn one by one their bodies inside out. O twitching cicada hull hatched one by one with her rattle. O rattle. She sheds a snakeskin rustling on our front porch step, the silent rings in which she has traveled. Our yard, filled with each year of her scaly chaff, hisses like the white undersides of leaves blowing before the flood-rains. Each day we turn our faces to the woods, to the shade curled in a fern’s fiddlehead, to the shade clasped inside a hollow shell. O night, let their antennae burn.
Influence Question: How would you say this collection reflects your idea of what poetry is/can be?
Sarah McCartt-Jackson: What excites me most about Stonelight is that this collection combines elements of poetry and fiction. I wrote the book with a narrative arc so that the reader can experience the poems, and the lives inhabiting them, much like experiencing a novel. I was also able to incorporate my background in folk studies, oral history, and naturalism. Throughout the book, readers encounter folk beliefs, words of our ancestors, and a lush environment teeming with flora and fauna. I hope Stonelight guides the reader through the journey with Ora as she experiences her triumphs and tragedies.
Influence Question: What were the challenges in writing these poems and how did you work through them?
Sarah McCartt-Jackson: One of the challenges of writing these poems was creating the narrative arc. I had to outline the book much as an author would outline a novel. When I went to put the poems together, I had to identify plot points that might be missing, then write new poems to help fill these gaps. The narrative arc went through many iterations before settling in its current stream.
Another challenge was the sheer history of the poems. Writing about the turn of the previous century required a lot of research—both historical and personal. I spent a lot of time reading old geology books, government documents, oral histories, and naturalist collections. This research gave me some new, rich language that readers might not immediately recognize, but I insisted on using these terms as they are. Because of that, I tried to help readers along with metaphor and imagery, while also providing extensive notes at the end of the book. In this way, we learn something about history, belief systems, and the folk—the people—that I have created in Stonelight.
Also: Be sure to consider entering the Airlie Prize, open now through March!
Kentucky poet, folklorist, and naturalist Sarah McCartt-Jackson has received honors from and been published by Copper Nickel, Bellingham Review, Indiana Review, Journal of American Folklore, The Maine Review, Tidal Basin Review, and others. She is the recipient of an Al Smith Individual Artist Fellowship from the Kentucky Arts Council, and has served as artist-in-residence for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Shotpouch Cabin (Oregon State University). She is the author of Stonelight (Airlie Press), which won the 2017 Airlie Prize, and two chapbooks, Vein of Stone (Porkbelly Press) and Children Born on the Wrong Side of the River (Casey Shay Press), which won the 2015 Mary Ballard Poetry Prize. She works on a farm in Louisville.