(Kingston, WA: Two Sylvias Press, 2018)
Appalachia has for decades served as a kind of internal American other, an amorphously defined place peopled by poorly drawn caricatures of whatever downtrodden stereotype happens to be en vogue. The popular imagination as it concerns Appalachia has been extremely unkind, which has allowed pundits like J.D. Vance to come along every so often and line their pockets by affirming in the eyes of outsiders the worst conceptions of their fellow provincials.
On the other hand, in Appalachians Run Amok, Adrian Blevins proudly throws on a red flannel and hops in her big brown truck just to come say “fuck you! fuck you! adieu!/ to the haughty and shallow and scheming and affected” who’d just as well treat Appalachia as the coal barons have all these years. Though she now resides in Maine, Blevins loves her native Appalachia with, if not exactly the love of an exile, at least the defensive love of someone who has lived a critical distance from their place of origin and can record its flaws with understanding while recognizing its charms in an air cleared of sepia-inflected haze.
Blevins writes in “Little Elegy” that “back in VA the Jeffersonian troposphere / was always rusty & nostalgic,” while in “First Elegy for the Appalachians,” she asks readers “forgive me for being nostalgic.” And it’s true that memories and sentimental ephemera characterize the collection’s opening sections and dot its latter portions. Yet these recountings of youth never feel cloying or saccharine, thanks to the way Blevins unsparingly lays out the reality of that world: “O don’t get me started on my beloved mountains / & the fracking, the cancer in the waterwells, the little / Appalachian babes making a happy racket in creeks / of coal soot.” Another wonderful example appears in “American Gothic,” where she writes,
Their love for Jesus & their doilies
on tables & their starburst quilts
& the bourbon in the cabs
of their trucks. The parkway
they liked to speed on & me high
some days on Emerson. Me high
on Woolf. Their Mamas & Daddies
& sisters & brothers. Their cousins,
their Cousins. Their downy rabbits
wheezing out back. Their frothing dogs
The relentlessness of the above passage is characteristic of Blevins’s delivery throughout, which can be traced to both an affinity for lists and expansive descriptions, as well as a love for the sentence, rather than simply the line. In the opener, “Swimming Hole,” Blevins lays out what’s to come for her readers: “one might even get addicted to / the bodily aspects of certain sentences / and even somewhat drown in them / as though they were a bonafide / cascade.” Not long after, in “Brimstone,” she adds that “The sentence is long / because the sentence means time without end.” This reaching through the sentence for a sort of infinity also gets expressed in the winding nature of her storytelling mode, which is full of digressions and tangents. It’s perhaps a deeply rooted impulse: “we were / the free children of Appalachia / and disliked wearing shoes / and thus would take them always off / and toss them here and there / to wander shaggy nowhere together/ down that twisted stream.”
That freewheeling streak recurs as Blevins takes on self-righteous religiosity of locals, that of the “bulbous men in Evangelical hair unbuckling their belts / not knowing a vagina from a fig & what a clit even is,” as well as of “the lady Baptists / fluttering up Main Street like a gang of fat ghouls” trying to stamp out pleasure-seeking amid the unabashed horniness of “rural America on drugs in the ‘70s.” Maybe this (mis)behavior was just “a country way of being urban when all we really had / was just a rope and a goat and a feral but ramshackle old heart.”
But maybe troublemaking also ran in the family: “poor me having to be the wildling child of wanton rowdies.” Those two rowdies who’ll briefly leave Appalachia for big cities, only to return – mom, “with her grin-&-bear-it / & gird-your-loins philosophies of suck it the fuck up,” and dad, “who worked so hard/ to assimilate & become a mutt.” That is, give up some of the cultural trappings of Appalachia to become some sort of respectable American. The tension of needing to trade out Appalachian-ness for respectability is evident everywhere in the book, but particularly felt in “Poem for My Mother with Frank O’Hara in It, ” where Blevins writes, “In Appalachia the horses never met a cop / they didn’t want to humiliate, whereas in Appalachia the horses stop whatever they’re doing / to amble down the creek bed looking for watercress since hunting for honeyed things // is a great way to live, as all the Appalachian horses seem to know.”
Motherhood arrives for the speaker in her early 20s: “I had, as the saying goes, my whole life to look forward to.” There amid the scents and sensations of babies are the frustrations of nurturing them and the struggle to care, “always doing this song of them / all doleful and doting / and pining and fraught.” An “Ars Poetica” appears among these poems of young motherhood, recording a reticence, an inability to delineate the contours of one’s own desires when desire becomes fundamentally entwined with a child in your care. “She was not blissful in that garden. Not / blissful harvesting it. Not blissful not,” the poem begins.
As families mature, there seems no end to new problems. “The trouble with life sometimes is how Daddy said not to be an idiot. / And up and died the winter my son fell off the roof,” Blevins writes in “Plotline.” Suddenly, life’s cruelties intrude in an unfamiliar way, marking a shift in sense of responsibility and the manner in which one feels; a seriousness overtakes any remaining flippancy, though the humor never wanes. Blevins cleverly turns the tables on herself in a poem where she first breaks the fourth wall and then adopts the persona of her teenage daughter, who takes mom to task over her inability to keep up with 21st-century cultural shifts: “I love you, Mom, but I am what’s unknowable and if you don’t know that by now, what do you know, I want to know.”
It seems that we should all know better than to presume we know what’s inside the people we pass daily, these places that occasionally appear on our mental maps. These poems remind that most of us can barely sort out our own desires as we try to make our way through our brief existences. There’s a cottage industry of pundits devoted to showcasing Appalachia as a racist backwater full of knuckledraggers who just need to grab hold of their bootstraps to make things better. That there are all manner of reactionaries across Appalachia is undoubtedly true, but the portrait that Blevins frames is far more complex. Indeed, similarly sensible people recognize that the region has long been a hotbed of militant underdogs – particularly labor radicals – whose land and livelihoods have continually been threatened by the powerful. Though Blevins doesn’t address all these histories explicitly (Muriel Rukeyser’s Book of the Dead and Elizabeth Catte’s What You’re Getting Wrong About Appalachia are both worth reading on this account), she knows “shady late capitalist wrongdoing” when she sees it: “we were born to fight moneyed reprobates / with just our lingo.”
“How tied to the earth love is,” Blevins writes in “Apologia,” which, indeed, sounds quite like “Appalachia.” That love is evident in the way she holds tight to a mountaineer spirit and makes a great argument for wandering shaggy nowhere together down the twisted stream, humiliating the would-be cops in your life along the way.
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Alex Crowley is a reviews editor at Publishers Weekly. Winner of the New School’s 2011 Paul Violi Memorial Prize, his poems and reviews have appeared in Phantom Limb, Forklift Ohio, DIAGRAM, Handsome, Inter