one more from Sarah McCartt-Jackson

stonelight3In my recent microreview & interview of Stonelight (Airlie Press) by Sarah McCartt-Jackson, I noted how nature is often used as a lens in these poems to engage with human understanding and feeling. In detailing the narrative of Ora and her family, this lens feels natural, a kind of environmental intuition. Much like in poetry writing, the speakers across these poems scratch out meaning from what they have and are left with.

I say “left with” here specifically to imply loss. One of the things Ora has to reconcile to herself is a series of pregnancies which at times lead to miscarriages. In “Ora names her children (before they are born)” (below), one can see how the act of reconciliation plays out in linguistic and metaphorical richness. McCartt-Jackson’s rich facility with language and phrasing is in full display here as the natural and human world are braided in a way that invokes a soul to one and a wildness to the other.

“Naming” her children after elements of the natural world, Ora’s act of reconciliation is also one of reclaiming. She recovers what is not there – not there either through loss (as elsewhere in the book) or through not having arrived (as in this poem) – by bringing it into communion with what is there. The result is a speaker both haunted by and haunting the world around her. With every loss and possibility, Ora emphasizes her presence through this ability to name. The ending here, ultimately, troubles the certainty of this presence in a way that echoes throughout the whole of Stonelight.

Ora names her children (before they are born) – Sarah McCartt-Jackson

unafraid of the shadow that glides up the mountain
approaching the nest. She names them the too-close sound
of a child’s whisper inside her ear. She names them buds
on splintery sycamore limbs and the buds’ curled leaves.
She names them after river clay and lightning shapes,
after songs she hears from the bucket dropped into the well.
She names them turnip and buckeye and leather and bird-feather hat
and tulip and the yellow color of rooms lit by flame.
She names them loneliness that can be rocked to sleep,
rooms haunted by dust that crawls in between the floorboards,
a thunderstorm of starlings crowding out the light. She names
the fingernails, the knees, pale eyelashes, tiny shoes,
caterpillar inching along the branch hung over the roof.
And when her upturned hands pile up with names, she pours
them onto every pinecone fallen empty of seed split through
the staves, every fur tuft stuck to bark, every quill hollow
poked through the pillow. She plants them until they return
stitched to the ridgeline bones. They tell her not to name them.

*

Copies of Stonelight can be purchased from Airlie Press.

Be sure to consider entering a manuscript for the Airlie Prize.

To find out more about Sarah McCartt-Jackson’s work, check out her site.

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microreview & interview: Stonelight by Sarah McCartt-Jackson

review by José Angel Araguz

stonelight3

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.

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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.

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Special thanks to Sarah McCartt-Jackson for participating! To learn more about McCartt-Jackson’s work, check out her site. Copies of Stonelight can be purchased from Airlie Press.

Also: Be sure to consider entering the Airlie Prize, open now through March!

smj*

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.

testamenting with Carolyn M. Rodgers

Over the summer, I got a chance to add to my forthcoming poetry collection, An Empty Pot’s Darkness, which will be published in 2019 by Airlie Press. This book is an expansion of my chapbook Corpus Christi Octaves (Flutter Press) and its series of lyric sequences about two late friends from my hometown in Texas. This new collection builds on the theme of mortality, the latest addition being a “testament” poem.

testamentTestament poems tend to be a mix of a poet’s last will in verse (a la Francois Villon) and a catalogue of wishes and hopes (a la Pablo Neruda). This particular mode of lyric meditation, for me, ended up feeling expansive. I was surprised by how I ended up writing less about the life live and more about the act of writing as living and survival.

I see a similar emphasis on survival in the poem below by Carolyn M. Rodgers. The poem begins by immediately departing from the testament’s focus on the self and instead addressing the poem to another. By doing so, connection becomes part of the survival act. The poem moves in its declarations and images of hardship, creating a narrative that reaffirms life through active survival. Speaking of how “we can stand boldly in burdening places (like earth here),” Rodgers honors this survival as the undeniable fact of who we are. 

Testament – Carolyn M. Rodgers

child,
in the august of your life
you come barefoot to me
the blisters of events
having worn through to the
soles of your shoes.

it is not the time
this is not the time

there is no such time
to tell you
that some pains ease away
on the ebb & toll of
themselves.
there is no such dream that
can not fail, nor is hope our
only conquest.
we can stand boldly in burdening places (like earth here)
in our blunderings, our bloomings
our palms, flattened upward or pressed,
an unyielding down.

from The Heart as Ever Green (Anchor Press)

* new CR blog microreview & interview!

amolotkov1Just a quick post to announce that my latest microreview & interview for the Cincinnati Review blog is up!

This time around, I do a close reading of moments from A. Molotkov’s upcoming collection, The Catalog of Broken Things (Airlie Press).

A. Molotkov edits The Inflectionist Review along with John Sibley Williams.

Find out more about A. Molotkov’s work at his website.

See you Friday!

José

* update: the reading

Happy to report that the Windfall Reading last night was a great success!

The evening started off with Tim Volem introducing Eliot Treichel who read from his collection of short stories, Close Is Fine (Ooligan Press).  He read “The Golden Torch”, the last in the collection, a story about the trials and tribulations between father and son.

More about Eliot can be found here.

Anita Sullivan, poet and editor of Airlie Press, then gave me a generous and warm introduction, after which I proceeded to go through poems from The Wall with their own take on the trials and tribulations between father and son.

There was a theme.  Sort of.

Want to take a listen?  Go here.

Here’s me kicking the poetry jams:

*poeting*
*poeting*

All in all, the night went well.  Thank you to all who came.

A special thanks again to Anita Sullivan for a great introduction.  More about Anita’s work can be found here.

ALSO: please note the new tab above for Audio – there are links to both the KLCC radio interview from Monday (Thank you to Eric Alan and Michael Canning!) as well as to last night’s reading.

See you Friday!

Jose