Sunday, December 23, 2012

A Sheaf of Christmas Poems

Going through old computer files yesterday, I found these Christmas poems, originally part of the manuscript that became BLACK SHAWL. I saw Mary in these pieces as being here in the NC mountains rather than being a young girl in Nazareth over 2000 years ago. The reader at LSU Press suggested they be dropped, that they functioned better as a small chapbook of poems to be published later. They've waited ever since. As well as I can remember, they were first printed years ago in a journal whose poetry editor was my friend Janice Townley Moore. The Georgia Journal, I believe was its name. Anyway, here they are again, two days before another Christmas. The photos come from sunsets in S. Georgia and holly bushes, as well as waxing and full moons, here in the mountains.


is her color
because it was always the last
thing she saw through

her window before losing
count of the heddle’s
beat. Blue hem

beyond reach, she
dreamed herself
wearing it, skirt flaring

out of the narrow glass
where she saw turning
and turning her own image

till in a swoon
she might gather up into the blue
lap of heaven

the stars and the moon
as if they were no more than
the first fruits of May,

the wild strawberries
she loved to eat as she carried
them home to her table.


This wind!
She cannot hold her bonnet
against it and lets go
the sashes. A kite of blue
calico sails away over
the fields while a child laughs
and points at the spectacle,
blustery March making light
of her modesty till not a hairpin’s
left clinging, her heavy braids
tumbling like bell-ropes
around her. So here she stands,
skirt swelling forth in its manifold
emptiness, as if she’s come
to the edge of a sea
and hears far out a voice
calling, gull maybe,
though she lives nowhere near
water and she knows her name
is not BEATA.


what have we made of you,
when you were happy enough to be nursing
your baby, ignoring the tumult of heaven,
the scuffle of shepherd’s feet.
Wise men on camels meant little to you,
their frankincense, myrrh.
You could take it or leave it.

What good would it do you
whose only concern was the milk you felt
slowly beginning to thicken your breasts?
Or the worry that Joseph had not eaten,
you should have brought along more
of your grandmother’s journey-cake,
more of her dried figs and almonds.

No seafarer's daughter, you grew up
to quail at the stories of drowning men
merchants brought back from the sea ports,
for you were no braver than most women.
You liked to think of yourself as a drop
in the Lord’s deep and, save for a scribe’s
error, you might have stayed "stilla maris"
forever. You had no desire to be star

to whom mariners cried out
for centuries, struggling to grab
hold your sleeve as they’re sinking.


looking out at the straggle
of sheepherders leading their flock
to the hovel where you are still groggy
from childbirth. You wish they would go away,
seek out some other to worship,
for you are too tired to look blessed.
But it is expected of you.
Now and for two thousand years you must
lift up your eyes from your infant
and hear us out, bearing
such words as could almost make you
believe you are beautiful.


And what of you, Joseph? Still lost in the barn
shadows, stroking your beard
while the curious goats crowd about her,
as if they have already guessed who she is,
not just any poor country girl born

to the tending of livestock. When she calls,
you do not go near.
Is the sight of such bringing forth
more than you fear you can bear?
Not to mention her blood
and the odor of animal everywhere.

All night you stand in the dark stall pretending
your name never crosses
her lips. How much longer before you will go
to her, man enough at last to look
upon God in His baffling dependency?

HERE, WHERE I AM: A Sheaf of Christmas poems

HERE, WHERE I AM: A Sheaf of Christmas poems

Saturday, June 9, 2012

The Quilts Left Behind....and Re-discovered

When I was home two weeks ago, I went poking around the attic in our old and now empty farmhouse.  Underneath the attic stairs was a cubby hole, what I'd call a hobbit hole, in which we found several old quilts no doubt sewn by my grandmother Marion Fry Stripling (Bailey).   They'd not seen the light of day in who knows how long, with portions of them frayed, eaten or rotted away.   My grandmother was a N. Georgia mountain woman, so quilting would have been part of her heritage.   I'm wondering what to do with these quilts.  Portions of them are too beautiful to be thrown away.  If anyone can help me find someone to restore these quilts, or parts of them, I'd be grateful.   I'm offering the photographs I made of these too long ignored beauties.

A large hole in the center of this quilt's universe!

Stains and frays....

Time consumes even the most beautiful edges of our creations.

So much like a fireworks exhibition!

Though more lasting, if we take care of what women's hands have created.

Sunday, June 3, 2012


The Appalachian range has been called "the vegetation cradle of North America."

Our mountains also cradle some of the most beautiful waterfalls and creeks on the planet.

Watching the water slide over these rocks, I thought of silk flowing around a dancer's lithe body.

And the sky, how the trees reach up to it, as if chanting Look up, Look up!   And so I do.   And then down again to the cradle of earth from which this glorious green grows.

Sunday, May 13, 2012



Happy Mother's Day to all of those honor and sustain the mother who sustains us, this blue-green planet with her wildflowers and wonders.   Her hungry mouths.  Her many creatures huddled under leaf and brush and creek bed on this rainy Mother's Day morning.

Saturday, May 12, 2012



The Great Smoky Mountains Wildflower Pilgrimage renewed body and spirit at the end of April, the one T.S. Eliot called the cruelist month.  Although the rain and hail Thursday morning sounded pretty cruel, the rest of the day was gorgeous, as was the day following.  We all need to get out on the trails here in our mountains and smell the leafmold, search for the fragile and not so fragile plant life that abounds.  Our mountains have been called the vegetation cradle of North America for good reason.   We should let it rock us into solace when we need it.  Or challenge us to action when we need to wake up.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012



Tuesday, April 17, 2012


My friend Charlie Hughes posted this on facebook back in November.  Charlie runs the  publishing house Wind, located in Kentucky.  He's also a fine poet and prose writer, one of our region's best. This piece expresses his outrage at what is happening to so many vulnerable people in this country today.  I will be featuring some of his poetry later.

Charlie G. Hughes is the co-editor of Groundwater: Contemporary Kentucky Fiction, editor of The Kentucky Literary Newsletter, a biweekly e-mail newsletter, and author of Body and Blood (2010) andShifting for Myself (2002), volumes of poems. He is also the owner of  Wind Publications, a small (somewhat literary) press with an emphasis on poetry, as well as Kentucky and regional writers.

Hughes grew up on a Kentucky farm. There he acquired an appreciation both for the natural world and tCharlie Hugheshings mechanical. Like many who came of age in the era of Sputnik, he became interested in science, both physical and natural. Always a voracious reader, often to the detriment of his assigned studies, he consumed endless volumes of science fiction, as well as sports biographies. He played on both his high school basketball and baseball teams, enthusiastically, if not very skillfully. Though, as a youth, he longed to escape what he perceived as the drudgery of the farm, he often revisits that locale in both his fiction and poetry.

Hughes holds degrees from Transylvania University and the University of Kentucky.  Though employed as an analytical chemist, he has an abiding interest in the literary arts. He is the former editor of Wind, Kentucky's oldest active literary magazine. His poems and fiction have appeared in prominent literary magazines, includingKansas Quarterly, Kentucky Poetry Review, Hollins Critic, International Poetry Review, ART/LIFE, Cumberland Poetry Review, Exquisite Corpse, Appalachian Heritage, Cincinnati Poetry Reviewand others.

It’s November. When I come out of the auto-parts store, I decide to take a look at the stuff in the Goodwill Store next door. I like to inspect the shelves where I sometimes find used items that I can adapt or repair for my own use – I like to tinker. 

When I’m ready to check out with a couple of items,  I notice a young black woman, small, about 30 years of age, with several items of clothes stacked by the register. The check-out lady says she’ll total these up in her head before entering the items in the register. It comes to about $26. The young woman, a few dollars in her fist, begins to fumble in her purse, pulls out a small snap-top change bag from which she digs several coins. After searching and fumbling with bills and coins, she says something to the clerk who begins to set aside a couple of items, consult with the customer, and set aside another. 

An older man in sweat shirt and blue jeans, next in line, a few dollar bills in his hand, shuffles a half-step nearer and says to the customer, How much do you need? Two dollars, she says. He drops the bills on the counter. She looks up at him and offers her thanks, then hangs her head slightly as she completes the transaction. Again, she offers her thanks before hurrying from the store. 

After I leave the store I sit in my car for several moments, listening to the rain on the roof, thinking about what I’ve just witnessed. And I wonder if Senator Mitch McConnell, with winter coming on, ever needed two dollars to buy clothes. That evening on the TV news I learn that Obama’s jobs bill which would have provided jobs for hundreds of thousands and has been rejected by the senate. I think about McConnell again. I think about a hammer. I think about kneecaps.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012


I've been a David Huddle admirer for years now, and no, that's not David in the photo above.  It's one he emailed me, in honor of the bird that has figured prominently in the  poems below.   I'm partial to his poetry, but he's also a highly regarded fiction writer, essayist,  and, I'd wager, a memorable teacher.  I was able to meet him five years ago at the anniversary Celebration of the Emory & Henry Appalachian Writers festival, at which time he was teaching in Vermont.  He's a mountain man, though, a Virginia mountain man, and for the past couple of years he's been teaching at Hollins College, his title being Distinguished Visiting Professor of Creative Writing.   

He has published seventeen books of fiction, poetry, and essays. His novel The Story of a Million Years (Houghton Mifflin, 1999) was named a Distinguished Book of the Year by Esquire and a best Book of the Year by the Los Angeles Times Book Review. In 2012, LSU Press will publish his seventh poetry collection, Black Snake at the Family Reunion, from which the following poems are lifted.  ( I'm justifiably proud that the two of us will have our  books coming out at the same time-early fall-- from the same publisher! )

Weather Report

The vultures of this landscape came to call 
this morning--found a bare-limbed tree outside
my kitchen window, settled in & held
my gaze, big tar blobs against a milky sky:
We understand you, their presence informed me,
And I you, I told them in silence.
                                            Right now 
this day can’t make up its mind--sun’s half out
but rain’s in those clouds.  If it’s that cold wind-
driven stuff that swats your eyes like a drink 
full of crushed ice thrown in your face, I’ll stay
indoors, count my failures & petty crimes,
loathe my life, and completely understand 
why friends and loved ones keep their distance.
The barometer yo-yos my mental state--
one day I’m a happy old dude, kitchen 
dancer, car-driving harmonizer, hilltop 
walker delighted by the world.
                                              Next day 
it’s the big not, the mega-never.  And where
are you breeze-blown death birds now that I need you?
This mean rain’s rotting the starch right out of me.
Come down from your perch, my beauties, I’m 
opening doors and windows, I’m looking for snacks
in the back of the fridge.  Here--try roosting 
on this chair back.  Please just sit with me 
around my table.  I’ll hold up both ends 
of our conversation.  It’s like forever
I’ve wanted to talk to you.  Here--let me 
turn off these lights--I know you like the dark.  

(first published in The New Yorker)

Hilltop Sonnet

Who visits this high meadow, lawn of the dead,
 to see blue and bluer mountains that rise
  out of the west; to converse with the crows,
   great-winged turkey buzzards, black kites riding
    thermals in seamless silence; to greet deer
     here at twilight grazing near the wood’s edge;
      to scare the huge groundhog that lives inside
       the brick-walled graveyard: Who moves through this     space?

       A yellow dog leading a deaf old man 
      who likes to talk, a girl and her boyfriend
     who sit atop her car’s roof murmuring
    quietly, two off-leash labs ignoring
   their shouting owner, a policeman who 
  parks up here to feel lonely, guarding the wind.

Roanoke Pastorale

Cardinal, goldfinch, titmouse, turkey buzzard--
dear companions of my afternoons--
above this field, high clouds dream of blizzards

to snow me in till spring ends my solitude.
Sober’s my binge now, nature my saloon. 
Wren, mourning dove, house finch, turkey buzzard--

for your entertainment, I sing the words
of old fifties songs, use baby talk, croon
as I walk the field beneath great blizzard-

dreaming clouds.  You gaudy pretties, sweet birds
of my senior years--my later’s my soon.
Catbirds flit through cedars in the graveyard, 

turkey buzzards swirl their patterns overhead,
across the mountainside sunlight bows a tune 
rising to blue eternity but heard

by the heron fishing the creek, wizard
of stillness, creature designed by the moon.
Bluebird, jay, chipping sparrow, turkey buzzard,
clouds, and field--I dream this life, walk this world.

(first published in The New Yorker)

Photo by Anne Noble

Monday, April 2, 2012

National Poetry Month: Anne Clinard Barnhill

National Poetry Month 2012, Day 2

Anne Barnhill dropped by City Lights Bookstore in Sylva, NC a few weeks back to talk about her new novel, At the Mercy of the Queen.  Her poetry chapbook titled Coal, Baby had not been released yet.  It was waiting in the wings.  Now it has flown out into the world, or soon will be, and I can feature some of the poems on its pages to celebrate National Poetry Month.   
If you go to Anne's website, you'll find out more about her, but for starters, here's her short biography.

"Anne Clinard Barnhill has been writing or dreaming of writing for most of her life. For the past twenty years, she has published arti cles, book and theater reviews, poetry, and short stories. Her first book, AT HOME IN THE LAND OF OZ, recalls what it was like grow ing up with an autistic sister. Her work has won various awards and grants. Barnhill holds an M.F.A. in Cre ative Writing from the Uni ver sity of North Carolina at Wilming ton. Besides writ ing, she also enjoys teaching, conducting writing work shops and seminars to enhance creativity." 

The Angel of Appalachia Speaks

Awaken the trees.
Call the clouds to collect themselves
and march the mountains to the sea.

Gather starbuds.
Shepherd every skittering thing—
beetle, grub, spider, snake—
all the crawling ones of the earth.
Lead them to the water.

The birds of the air
and the creatures of the deeps—
starfish and kingfisher
catbird and calico
deer and panther—
bring them.

Deliver the children of dust,
the bare, two-legged ones.
Call all to the banks of oblivion--
the air itself and the sad, sad rivers,
boulders and shattered rocks,
fragmented fossils and live veins of coal--
direct them to the blistering waters.

There, they will weep together
for all that is lost.

After  they have re-salted the earth with their tears, 
after they can no longer stand,
they will sink until their cheeks press against the pebbled bank
and their bones feel the pull of naked earth.

Snow Angel

The first snow made us light-hearted,
hopeful the inches would pile up.
When they did, you bundled me, yourself, too.
Up King’s Hill we tramped,
our sleds trailing us, slow as mules.

Atop, we warmed stiff mittens
over the garbage-can fire.
I lay my heart against the wooden slats—
the thudding, a quick comfort—
You pushed me off, down

Cold wind in my nose, ice pricks on my cheeks—
Houses, legs, bushes, dogs—
My belly skirting snow piles—
Finally, the slow glide to safety,
you close behind.

Old Bob Gaul

I saw him often on our one-horse Main,
smelling of dirty socks, sour wine, urine.
Beneath his unzipped fly
it hung, one eye staring, a dead fish.
Sweet snow danced on his matted hair,
that hatless head a roost for pigeons.

Schoolboys taunted him while he gathered 
his harvest of coke bottles.
Grown-ups gave him a wide berth
and matched his averted stare.
In winter, he came to church,
his back pew in ready reserve.
He hunkered into it
like a scolded dog.

Rumor swore he’s been a pianist,
some young Mozart gone awry.
Hard to believe there’d been that kind of light
in his red, dead-panned eyes.

Once, at midnight, on a back-road haunt,
far from any place I’d been,
in the clearing, a one-room shack--
his shadow bent low to the concert grand,
the air rippled mountain arpeggios,
thrilled wild with thundering chords
crashed against granite peaks.

Thursday, March 29, 2012


What Kind of Times Are These

There's a place between two stands of trees where the grass grows uphill
and the old revolutionary road breaks off into shadows
near a meeting-house abandoned by the persecuted
who disappeared into those shadows.

I've walked there picking mushrooms at the edge of dread, but don't be fooled
this isn't a Russian poem, this is not somewhere else but here,
our country moving closer to its own truth and dread,
its own ways of making people disappear.

I won't tell you where the place is, the dark mesh of the woods
meeting the unmarked strip of light—
ghost-ridden crossroads, leafmold paradise:
I know already who wants to buy it, sell it, make it disappear.

And I won't tell you where it is, so why do I tell you
anything? Because you still listen, because in times like these
to have you listen at all, it's necessary
to talk about trees.
“What Kind of Times Are These”. © 2002, 1995 by Adrienne Rich, from The Fact of a Doorframe: Selected Poems 1950-2001 by Adrienne Rich. Used by permission of the author and W.W. Norton, Inc.



Relections on Place was the title of the event Monday night at the Sylva Public Library, celebrating the installation of Western Carolina University's new chancellor, David Belcher.  Jerry Wolfe, Ron Rash, and I presented our stories and poems for an appreciative audience, one containing several good friends I've not seen in a long while, including Gayle Woody, Nancy DeSain, Joyce and Allen Moore--and a few facebook friends I'd not met in the flesh!  I closed my reading with this poem, first published in Warren Wilson College's Heartstone.   The quote from Adrienne Rich I have carried with me for years seems even more appropriate now, as we face the prospect of forgetting so much of our history, including our connection to the land.  Adrienne Rich died two days ago, leaving behind a poetic and feminist legacy that has nourished many of our lives.

                            Last Light      

The tests I need to pass are prescribed by the spirits
of place    who understand travel but not amnesia.
      from “This Is My Third and Last Address to You” --Adrienne Rich

Almost the age when memory falters,
I fear being made to count backward
by seven’s, to answer to date, year, and
Presidents, as if  those numbers and names
matter more in the end  than this place
where I stand at the same kitchen window,
observing the same pines set swaying by wind,
reaching upward as I’ll reach, come morning,
my arms to the ceiling, breathing the dark out
of  body and spirit, exhaling that  old dream 
of nothingness: laying my head down to sleep.

Now Rocky Face Ridge catches fire
in the last light and, though I can’t hear it
from where I stand, Cullowhee Creek tumbles into
the Tuckaseegee, always unscrolling beneath me
the names I already know.  Snowbird.
Buzzards Roost.  Weyahutta.  Oconaluftee.

.                        3.

I don’t know how long names can last 
if there’s no one to care where they live. 
What I saw on the hairpin curve down from
the Chimney Tops, white as snow, I’ve not forgotten.
Phacelia.  And how, on the trail leading
up to the summit of Suncota Ridge,
I saw sauntering toward me a young woman
I could have sworn was the reincarnation of
every spring wildflower ever named anywhere.  


Closer she comes to me each April,
as if she means more than I have a lifetime
to know.  Roundabout her, her white Easter dress 
whispers every thing I want  to keep living
here in this valley that cups the last swallow of light,
every name I must reach to remember or else
lose them, hillside by hillside, to darkness.