Issue 1:2 | Points of View | Mark Roberts
MEMORY AND POETRY OF PRESERVATION
Mark A. Roberts
 
Many of the literary artists published in this issue of Nantahala use personal memory as a trigger to explore the self in connection to a fading mountain culture.  Other writers herein use memory to challenge national misconceptions of Appalachian life in the mid-twentieth century.  Still, some poets published here are, well, not poets— in the traditional sense— but are nonetheless poetic in their activism.  Regardless of the end-message, memory serves as the impetus to spawn their works of art.
 
The importance of memory to creative action— whether crafting a literary work or protecting a mountain— cannot be underestimated.  Memory motivates us in ways for which we cannot fully account.  Images of the past loom in our minds awaiting to exert themselves as soon as a particular smell or word releases it into our consciousness.  Inside our heads, the mysterious landscape of the past informs and influences how we think of ourselves; it, in part, shapes who we are.  Yet our memories are not untouched globes of factual experience.  We change them just as they change us.  The imagination, that mysterious spirit embedded in all human hearts, plugs into our past and supplies details that we simply cannot access.  It is the combination of the fact of our past and the fiction of it that approximates the truth of our lives.  It is the spirit, always.  Never the letter of the law that guides us, that makes us better than we ever remember ourselves being.  That is the grace of the imaginative memory.
 
D
 
Two months ago when I saw Michael McFee read at Emory and Henry College, he mentioned that his father read one of his poetry books and remarked off-handedly: "it's good but it didn't happen like that."  The audience laughed.  We laugh because we know that for all the things memories are very few of them are accurate.  Time and experience twist the facts around, not to mention that our skewed view of ourselves contort them in a million ways. But it's not the facts of any memory that end up in poetry or stories; it's the juxtaposition of that memory against the present time.  Memory fuels the creative spirit, but it is the continuous line of tension between the past, present, and future that moves the ideas forward.  
 
Much of Michael McFee's poetry derives from his personal memories of childhood, growing up near Asheville, North Carolina, but his past hardly ever stays personal.  Take a moment to read McFee's "The Nudists." 
 
In addition to working on a personal level of shock— a son wondering about his parents' private life— "The Nudists" also works at a cultural level: the personal turns counter-cultural; the counter-cultural, then, rises to defy the stereotypical.  The poem tells readers that not all individuals living in the southern mountains were culturally isolated.  All Appalachians are not poor and barefoot and eat at roadside tables. (Read "Roadside Table").    
 
Similar to McFee, both Michael Chitwood and Ron Rash devote most of their attention to the culture and people of the southern mountains.  Chitwood and Rash write, partly, to preserve the language of their larger communities and in the process reveal how language, culture, and land are knitted together.
 
In Ron Rash's work, we see again personal, childhood memories trigger an exploration of forgetfulness and a sensory memory of place.  "The Cure" illustrates the strong link between language, culture, land, and taste.  In "The Cure," Rash recalls for us the tradition of "curing" the hog after the slaughter.  The word "cure," today, describes the flavor of a piece of meat.  But originally it meant both the act of preserving the meat and the taste that the process of preservation produced.  Presently, the preservation part doesn't much come to the minds of people who utter it. (There's no need, really, when Heavenly Ham pre-orders, cures and secures the meat for you).  So two concerns arise in Rash's poem: preservation and taste. 
 
Accordingly, the first line of Rash's poem begins with a culinary question, asked no doubt by most people within the butcher's community: "What secret beyond right measure / of salt and brown sugar?"  As we read the poem, we try to guess the various or unique way this mountain butcher might've cured the meat: honeysuckle juice? Lemon or Mulberries?  Honey?  The reader anxiously waits to find out the secret, perhaps so he or she can try to locate a ham made in the same manner.  But when the answer arrives at the poem's end, it is a bittersweet reward as we come to realize that the "secret" taste is the bud from an indigenous tree— the American Chestnut— now vanished, extinct from the Appalachian landscape.   But the taste of the region is preserved with "Chestnut blossum, 1927."
 
Literally, the butcher's cure ensures that the meat is seasoned with a taste from the land, a flavor that, in this day and age, cannot be reproduced except, perhaps, in the richness of Rash's poem.
 
Chitwood's "Lament for the Lard Firkin" in particular jogs the linguistic memories of those who grew up in the rural areas of southern Appalachia.  Terms like "Lard Firkin" and "Thunder Mug" simply aren't used anymore.  More interestingly, though, "Lament for the Lard Firkin" grieves about the loss of folk language, but not without some driving tension.  Click here to read "Lament." 
 
Poets who work primarily by examining memory run the risk of over-sentimentalizing the past or of letting all the meaning of the poem rest on the given good of preserving cultural or personal past time.  If Chitwood's "Lard Firkin" worked only as a personal memory or only as linguistic salvation, it wouldn't be as successful; it'd be thin and occasional. Instead the poet fashions his poem by cleverly revealing something about himself while speaking about something else: the speaker laments the death of common terms and phrases, but apparently does not utter those terms or phrases himself— at least not anymore.  Note that the speaker does know about abstract expressionism and he does say cathedral and fa´┐Żade to describe the old Zenith.  The poet is firmly in the present not the past.
 
The voice in "Lard Firkin" is haunted, haunted by the past, and this causes his tone to sound distant yet strangely close— close to home.  I even hear a hint of shame when I read it aloud.  The tension created between the educated native son and his more humble beginnings gives this poem its emotional drive.
 
Robert Pinsky suggests in "Poetry and American Memory" that "often, strength of memory is what gives works of art and political discourse alike the virtues of depth and reality."  I agree, but I would like to add one important footnote: memory needs a tension to give art and discourse "depth and reality." 
 
To pursue "depth and reality," the poet must be courageous— courageous enough to send out the spirit of truth that memory serves up.         
 
Seized by personal, vivid memories, we move to creative action, and creative action renders preservation of language, culture, and in some cases, the physical landscape, as in, for example, the case of Mrs. Betty Ballew.  Mrs. Ballew is not a poet, at least not in any academic sense, but her life, I'd say, is poetic.
 
A native of Western North Carolina, Betty Ballew, along with a group of concerned citizens, stopped the clear-cutting of a forest that rises above North Fork, the place where Mrs. Ballew grew up.  The struggle to preserve the Appalachian wilderness is ongoing, but most of us are completely unaware of the extraordinary efforts of non-profit organizations and individuals working to protect the places that are physical memories for thousands of native mountain people.  Moreover, seldom do we consider how many families were displaced in the early part of the twentieth century so that fertile valleys used as farmlands by mountaineers could be flooded and dammed to provide Appalachian cities and towns with in-house electricity and potable water. 
 
Mrs. Ballew decided to remember; she and her family were one of thousands "removed" from their homeland.  While Mrs. Ballew understood why her home-place was destroyed, she couldn't understand why the mountainside that rose from the valley needed clear-cutting— especially after fifty years of being left to the wild.  This woman's story tells of how individuals alter the often blindly progressive intentions of capital-driven cities and companies.  What was the impetus that propelled Mrs. Ballew into a progressive, political activism?  Her memory. 
 
Her act involved the creative process. 
 
Osip Mandelstam once said that the entire idea for a creative work comes in a moment and then vanishes; the writer spends the next years of his life trying to remember it. Mrs. Ballew's actions to stop the timber company (and the city of Asheville who allowed the clear-cutting) followed something like Mandelstam's sense of the creative process.  From her own words, we see that over the years of being exiled from her home-place, she never forgot the people and the land the nurtured her early childhood.  Instead of forgetting, Mrs. Ballew's memory became more detailed and vivid, her mind reconstructing the storied landscape of her youth.  In the late 1980s, Mrs. Ballew looked toward her flooded home to find another destructive force taking away the only part of her homestead that still survived; she could no longer allow it. In her own words (and the words of many mountain folk), she was "fit to be tied."  She took her rightful role as protector of North Fork Mountain.
 
The act of recollection— when strained through the web of tranquility—creates poetry— either on the page or in a human life, as in the case of Mrs. Betty Ballew.
 
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McFee, Rash, Chitwood, and Ballew work up through the ground of personal memory and peer into the personal past with the eye of the present.  Their poems tell the story of Appalachia in the middle to late twentieth century from four distinct and present points of view.  Collectively, their work reconstructs and preserves languages, traditions, lands, and perceptions held by those who lived in the various communities of the southern mountains.  Because these poets proceed with a long view of history, their creative acts possess, in Pinsky's words, "depth and reality."  Indeed, the best of their creativity will survive the test of critics not because of memory alone but because they peer into the past with one foot in the present and another stretched toward the outskirts of time.
 
 
Bristol, VA
October 2002