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“Gulch,” and: “Jacob’s Ladder,” and: “Salt of the Earth,” and: “Weathervane”
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She could not sleep. There
when evening mushroomed
through the porchwood, the spiderlegs
of light spread out across the hollow,
              poplar cups clutching each stray webstrand,

        she could not sleep
without thinking of the pine barn leaning
toward the valley, of the creekbed
filling with iron, lime, and mouse bones.
              And Eli, gone to the coal camp just one week.

That week roils forward heavy with storm,
each day whipped into a frothy pool of half-night:

        she hears the air chewing
through her sleep creaky with rocking
back and forth, forth and back, sees the green
              eyeshine of an owl blink from the birch.

     If it flies left of the house: withered crops, spoiled eggs.
If it flies right: healthy children, no corn mold, Eli in November.
And should she fly directly over: a loss, a cave thick with water,
              a slab of bedrock sunk beneath a lake.

     Her wingtips drag like rain over the roof edge
touching both eaves at once, and Ora knows
the shade as a sadness gloaming inside her
              home—a family of quail scuttling into the thicket.

Jacob’s Ladder

They say children born on the wrong side
of the river grow wild as fleabane
    and do not return
           until Spring,
their veins all grass stems and cricket legs,

and that wild scuttles straight from their eyes
over the creekbed and slips over the birdfoot violet
                      into the sandstone,

A mother cannot look at them directly—
their pupils might crumble like dry mud under a thumb.

But Ora could not get to the other bank
           for the flood washing the river’s cobble
                and the mussels loose from their shells
and her husband gone to the coal camp.

So her baby’s hands uncurled as bluet and phlox,
           her heart a hard walnut, shriveled and shut,
her bloody mouth a kiss on her mother’s thigh.

Salt of the Earth

I like my job
not the mine
I like how
the carbide lamp
spoils light
on the coal face
that goes down
down, down

Cool smell
of wet clay
grit of sand
stone under
my boot going
down, down

I like to be
a breath
in the rustle
of the mine’s
cave and feel
the give
my wedge
hear the chunks
rattle down,
down, down

The cough
I carry
in my lung the
thin way I
take my air
I don’t mind
much when I’m down
down, down

because each room
the dust of where
I’ve been
each column
silts my lips
my cough
slips out
on all fours
and crawls down
down, down

But to watch
a place you love
get gone.

To be the man
who does it.


When the cow dies, Ora touches her five children,
their mouths wide as magnolia blooms, holes
for which there were never enough rabbits to shoot and skin,
or river mussels from the sycamore shoals.

The hush becomes the weather rushing through that holler,
their empty stomachs the last leaves rimed with frost
becomes what the weather rushing through that holler tells her:
Find a hickory tree scabbed over with moss

among timber fires in their stumps that smolder on the hillside
like the burning oil of many lamps.
Even a foaming wild dog cannot drink the water it finds
in a winter dark as the blue flame of black damp.

It is part of my work as a folklorist and poet from Kentucky to engage with that challenge of discovering where I personally fit into a place between two worlds—one of academia and one of my family roots. I struggle with these concepts as both a folklorist studying and a poet writing about my family. I am less inclined to conduct extensive ethnographic research on my family (due to the obvious challenges that come with it, and that come with my family thinking the college-educated grandchild needs to get a job), though I have conducted some oral histories with them. My primary fieldwork related to Appalachia thus far has been on clogging and other vernacular percussive dance (clogging and square dancing run in my family). I wrote these poems as a way to...

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