Tennessee Landscape with Blighted Pine
Texas Review Press, 2011
Perfect bound, 79 pgs
Reviewed by Catherine Pritchard Childress
In his first collection of poems, Tennessee Landscape with Blighted Pine, Jesse Graves takes the reader on a personal tour of the places that inform his memories, his character, and his poems. Graves skillfully guides his reader through cities as diverse as New Orleans, Ithaca, NY, and Wrightsville Beach, NC, managing to locate in them one common denominator—all their roads lead back to Sharps Chapel, Tennessee, the hardscrabble home place of the Graves family for centuries, people who are as much a part of the topography of Sharps Chapel and this book, as the native trees and rivers that course through the lines of Graves’ poems.
While the natural and spiritual landscapes of East Tennessee dominate this collection, as the title poem suggests, this is not to say that Tennessee Landscape…should be considered a regional book exclusively. In many ways these poems can be placed firmly in the tradition of Appalachian poets from Robert Morgan to Jeff Daniel Marion, both of whom Graves considers examples and mentors. In fact the lineage is quite clear in Graves’ “Facing West from Cumberland Gap,” a poem written after Robert Morgan, which draws some of its imagery from the same events Morgan chronicles in his biography of Daniel Boone. Similarities can also be seen between Morgan’s poem “Wild Peavines,” which traces the natural affects the changing landscape of the Western North Carolina Mountains has on its history, and Graves’ poem “The Road into the Lake,” which considers the history of his family that was lost to a landscape changed by the Tennessee Valley Authority. Graves’ speaker “cannot picture the walls as they stood” before his family’s land became Norris Lake, anymore than he can see
on the bank of Clinch River, where my
great-grandfather strung timber into log rafts,
somewhere now under the lake’s gravity.
This, like many of the poems in Tennessee Landscape is representative of Graves’ connection with his history, his family, and his home, as well his recurring wish to better understand those people and places that are part of him though they existed long before him. Although Morgan likely has the most direct influence on Graves’ work as his advisor, instructor, and mentor at Cornell University, Graves’ themes of familial relationships, connections with previous generations, and ties to the land are more reminiscent of Marion, particularly the poems of his own early collection, Out in the Country, Back Home. There can be no question that this similarity is the result of not only a close friendship between the two poets, but also the proximity of the home-places from which each of them draws inspiration.
Graves celebrates his Appalachian heritage in the lines of the collection’s title poem among others. He introduces the reader to the origins of his book, people and places that pre-date him by two hundred years, in the second of seven sections of “Tennessee Landscape with Blighted Pine,”
No one came here to build the perfect city,
They came out of Philadelphia and before that New York,
Before that Baden-Baden and the Palatinate.
A narrow river unspooled out of the mountain, Alamance County,
Western Carolina, and washed them up
Before what must have seemed God’s own promise:
Tall fescue and cleft hoofprints of deer on the muddy banks.
Here they would harvest what grew, tear life out of the ground.
More important, though, is the introduction he gives to his own relationship with this land,
Here once was a boy running with a black and white half-shepherd dog,
Hair summer blond, hands darkened to rust by wet clay
Rummaged for arrowheads.
No fear then but the darting tongues of timber snakes:
That certainty lost to whatever passes for time,
The ground skipped beneath his feet,
As well as to that of its people:
The dead move through us at their will, their voices chime
Just beyond our hearing.
How else do we feel our names when no one speaks them?
How else do we catch the echo of footprints two decades
After running through the grass?
Alone in the field, and never alone. Quiet and not quiet.
Home and away.
Perhaps more than any other poem in the collection, “Tennessee Landscape with Blighted Pine” embodies the spirit of this collection of poems, making it an appropriate choice for the title poem.
While Graves clearly has a place in the Appalachian poets’ family tree, his work certainly has broader appeal. Always true to his concern with the sense of place, Graves’ poems retrace his steps as a young man leaving home for the first time, allowing the reader to travel with him to Ithaca and New Orleans. The poems inspired by these places are no less vivid than his poems of home and the poet seems to examine his relationship to these places with as much scrutiny as his examines his relationship to Tennessee. In “The Night Café: North Rendon, New Orleans,” a café where “most of the tables leaned vacantly against their chairs / The walls exhaling a low shade of green, the kind of room / Van Gogh said a man could lose his mind in,” Graves’ introspective speaker questions
Always into further obscurities and personal abstractions,
Tenderness for the women we loved before our wives,
How those romances added up to lives someone chose against;
Entire books we conceived in dreams, but did not write…
and ever concerned with the story history will tell, concludes with “the hope of thereby preserving from decay the remembrance / Of what men have done.”Similarly, Graves constructs (and deconstructs) his personal history in places and poems like “Wrightsville Beach.” His description of the beach, with its
of low tide, its spool of dark thread
arriving like the wet shadows of clouds.
Three red echoes of light in the harbor,
only sign on life beyond the smashed pier,
entrance roped off, further quarter lost,
splintered legposts jutting from waves.
Shells the size of baseballs pock-marked
The sand, their uneven curves preserved,
Concentric ridges crusted with salt-grit,
is spot on, as are the descriptions of the natural settings of most of his poems. However, what is most impressive about his nature poems is the interplay the speaker has with his surroundings—interplay that takes the poems beyond mere description, beyond celebration of earth, ultimately givingthe poems their highest meaning. Graves achieves that higher meaning as “Wrightsville Beach” turns on the moment his speaker steps on a shell, a moment Graves describes,
One found the soft skin above my heel,
pink-lobed conch shell—
crescent moon imprint, blood tattoo.
For the reader, the shell and its “blood tattoo” serve to represent the lasting impression that was left on the poet not only by the moon and tide, but also by the person with whom he is taking his early walk, even if she is only present in his thoughts. For the speaker, the shell serves as a physical reminder of her significance and perhaps as a remembrance of an earlier, easier time in their relationship. Bound to capture the moment, preserve the history Graves tell us,
I brought that shell home, and now it sits
Harmless on my desk beside a picture of you.
I wonder if I could find you name written
Between my hymns to Rilke and the Red Sox
In my misplaced journal of those seaside days.
When I sensed you a rising presence,
Tropical depression bearing in off the coast.
Though the bustling streets of New Orleans and the coast of North Carolina bear no resemblance to the mountains of East Tennessee, Graves relies on his affinity with nature to guide him through the lines of these poems which describe a landscape far different than the one of his youth. Graves embraces the gifts nature offers in a moment, realizing (like A.R. Ammons) that he can never take the exact same walk on Wrightsville Beach again.
Two of the central concerns in these poems are grief of losing a family member, and the sense of disturbance when a landscape or community is displaced, concerns Graves addresses in “The Road into the Lake” and “For Richard Wilbur,” a poem as much about Graves’ grandmother as it is about Wilbur himself. Graves describes his grandmother, who shared a birthday with Wilbur, as …”truly lost, the woman who named me, her breath, / her body, the stories she rarely told about herself, / the unknown, never-praised, backward girl of springtime.” Of course both of these concerns lend themselves to the elegiac form, and Tennessee Landscape…can certainly be considered a collection of elegies, given the contemporary definition of the genre. One function of the elegy is to situate an abstract sense of loss within a particular moment or image, or in the case of “Piano Key,” in a tangible object. Graves’ speaker mourns the loss of his grandmother, and perhaps a relationship he never had with her, while sitting at her “unpolished piano.” Although it is now little more than a “corner fixture in the attic, collector of light debris / Bookshelf for old home décor magazines,” that “no one mentions her playing, though the keys / Lost their gloss somehow,” this poem’s speaker realizes that something was lost with his “father’s mother” that will never be retrieved, and he wonders,
Little key, did she bring you to life with a touch
Same as she did my father?
Were you part of a night time song
She kneaded into dreams for her sleeping children?
Song I’ll never hear, white peg bent to silence.
Graves expresses a similar sense of longing and loss for people and events in his past in his poems, “Johnson’s Ground,” “Devil’s Snuff,” and “Digging the Pond.”
Jesse Graves says of his own work, “I think that whatever is most deeply ingrained in a poet is his or her truest subject matter.” Clearly the fields and rivers of Sharps Chapel, Tennessee and the people who made this place his home are most deeply ingrained in this poet and certainly in the pages of this book. Whether looking back to an idyllic childhood filled with “Cokes,” and “bags of peanuts” at “Big Ellum Point,” or questioning his role as an adult in the home on which he places so much importance, it is this connection to family and home, this sense of questioning one’s place in it, that draws me as a reader.
His poems deal almost exclusively with landscape and nature in some way, particularly those places associated with having grown-up in the country. Graves, as I do, represents the generation of Appalachians whose families clung to an Agrarian lifestyle, but didn’t depend on it for their livelihood, who broadened their horizons in Detroit factories or behind the wheel of north-bound semi-trucks, but were back home on Sunday for preaching and dinner. We are a generation who, in many ways, must dig deeper to discover our roots and determine where we fit in a place where values, morals, and traditions struggle to keep up with the changing attitudes of people. This sense of questioning in Graves poems appeals to me, makes me feel as though there is a place in the tradition of Appalachian people, of Appalachian poets for those of us who chose to construct our heritage differently than the generations before us.
Catherine Pritchard Childress lives in the Appalachian mountains of East Tennessee. She received her M.A. in English from East Tennessee State University, where she served as editor of The Mockingbird Literary/Arts journal. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in North American Review, The Connecticut Review, Louisiana Literature, Cape Rock, Still: The Journal and Town Creek Poetry among other journals and have been anthologized in Southern Poetry Anthology: Tennessee Poets.