Sacred Tales of Appalachia

Review: Ron Rash, ‘Poems: New and Selected’

Blackwater canyon in Thomas, W.V. / Flickr user Jon Dawson
May 29, 2016

In the middle of the eighteenth century, residents of Ulster, the northeast region of Ireland, set sail across the Atlantic. Many were actually from Scotland, having originally immigrated across the Irish Sea to Ireland at the insistence of Britain’s King James I, who wanted to plant a contingent of loyal Protestant followers in the traditionally Catholic country. These migrants were known as "Scotch-Irish" when they reached the shores of America.

Traveling south from the New England port cities, the Scotch-Irish found a landscape in the southern United States that was not too different from their old home. The southern Appalachian Mountains and Piedmont regions, located in western North and South Carolina, contained a soil and climate conducive to farming and livestock—just like in Ireland. (The mountains of the Carolinas and Ireland and Scotland were once part of the same chain before the continents drifted apart.) There was plenty of farmland available, and they no longer faced discrimination for their Protestantism. Small, isolated Scotch-Irish communities sprang up in the mountains, bringing an oral tradition of tales rooted in the Irish and Celtic cultures. The people in these folk tales were inseparable from the land, which provided them with their livelihoods. The land was sacred.

It is this sense of place that permeates the poems and novels of Ron Rash. Rash’s ancestors were some of the first immigrants to western North Carolina in the mid-eighteenth century, and he returned there as a child after his parents had worked in a South Carolina textile mill. The Western Carolina University professor’s new collection of poems—a selection from four previously published works, along with a handful of new verses—centers on the importance of faith, family, and tradition for the people of southern Appalachia, a region that he imbues with a sort of intrinsic sanctity.

The people certainly shaped the land, like the bride who planted dogwoods near the "Dismal Gorge": "branches flared with white blossoms, / waking an orchard of light / against that bleak narrative." But they were also shaped by it. The farms of some residents were flooded by artificial lakes and dams such as Lake Jocassee in South Carolina. Farmers struggled to preserve a culture deeply connected to the land, their traditional way of life clashing with modernity. In "Last Service," Rash depicts families meeting at a now-abandoned church near the lake.

They still congregated there,
wading then crossing in boats
those last Sunday nights, their farms
already lost in the lake,
nothing but that brief island
left of their world as they lit
the church with candles and sang
from memory deep as water
old hymns of resurrection
before leaving that high ground
where the dead had once risen.

There are several fine poems in this collection about the Appalachian landscape and the flora and fauna that inhabit it: The speckled trout in "faraway creeks" that appeared as "bright shadows of another world"; the "Oconee Bell" flowers near streams that "promised coming water"; the now-extinct Carolina Parakeet that could "pulse an acre field" and "green a blue sky." But Rash is at his best when he roots his verse in a historical narrative, often involving his own family. In the early nineteenth century his grandfather left the North Carolina mountains for the mills of South Carolina, the inspiration for his poem collection Eureka Mill. There Rash’s grandfather joined other farmers who were struggling to feed their families during drought conditions—working men and women who "left crop rows for rows of steel." It was hard to adjust at first. Compared to expanses of farmland and curvy mountains, mill workers lived in homes so close that "a man could piss off his own front porch, / hit four houses if he had the wind." Yet they eventually "got used to living with a crowd."

Working on the farms or in the mills of southern Appalachia was a hardscrabble life. Those who lived there were the unprotected; they had no choice but to work through debilitating injuries or conditions to survive. Rash writes of one mill worker who contracted brown lung disease from breathing in too much cotton dust. A doctor suggested he "find a different line of work as if / a man who had no land or education / could find himself another way to live." An animal doctor who helps farmers with their livestock puts it this way: "poor too long / turns the smartest man stupid, / makes him see nothing beyond / a short-term gain."

Indeed, Rash suggests that his family and other characters were hampered by short-term thinking. They struggled to look beyond the mountains, and death came all too soon. Sometimes they lost faith. Rash’s use of a short tetrameter, caesuras, and enjambments invokes this short-termism and fatalism in verse like "White Wings." The poem is about a man who refuses to return to church after losing those he cares about the most.

Wife and son died in childbirth,
that long ago Christmas when
three days of snow made the road
to Blowing Rock disappear,
the doctor brought on horseback
arriving too late. Decades
Jason Storey would remain
true to his word, yet was there
in that field come rain or cold,
but came no closer, between
church and field two marble stones,
angel-winged, impassible.

The way of life described by Rash is vanishing, and in the case of the grueling textile mills, probably for the better. Today’s residents of Appalachia are still struggling to survive, however, this time grappling with an epidemic of unemployment, social and cultural isolation, drug and alcohol abuse, early deaths, and suicide. As more people find it difficult to hang on, the once vibrant Irish and Appalachian culture dies with them.

Still, Rash insists, there is something sacred about this place, something that compels one to look heavenward. His ancestors "all were hardshell Baptists, farmers / who believed the soul is another seed / that endures when flesh and blood are shed, / that all things planted rise toward the sun."

Like the mountains and distant horizon, Appalachian culture will endure as long as there are writers like Rash to limn it so eloquently.

Published under: Book reviews