This past March at the ASA conference, I was introduced to the poetry of Jesse Graves when I attended a reading where he was paired with a novelist and another poet. I was struck by the lyrical softness of his language, even though his poetry covered all the hard edges of Appalachia: the landscape, the fading architecture of farms, the people. I wanted to buy his book that day, but alas, there was more to do and buy at the ASA conference than I had imagined, so I was broke the day I attended his reading. Thus, I didn’t get a hold of his book until recently.
But, Tennessee Landscape with Blighted Pine was worth the wait. From its title, the book instantly suggests that Graves collection is going to be a work of Appalachian literature, and yes, many of the poems do evoke a strong sense of place. The opening poem, “For the Frozen Wood” is a poem written in pantoum form, and with its repeating line scheme, the reader is drawn into a world that changes but somehow comes full circle.
Graves poems are littered with farms and backroads, ponds and forests. Many of his works contain a persona grappling with his place in a world where relationships are evolving and places are changing. My favorite poem in the whole collection is “Digging the Pond” where a young boy watches his father: “He can name every species of tree, wild root/the compounds of the soil in every field/and knows that I stood off to the side too often/to learn what he was born knowing.”
In many ways, this is a collection of journeys. Several poems contain the metaphor of travel through roadtrips. For instance, one poem “St. Paul” tells the story of a young boy traveling with a favorite uncle who spoke to his young nephew “like I might actually know something/which none of the other grown-ups did.” Another poem, the almost bittersweet “Detroit Muscle” tells a narrative of a young man who works diligently on a car and then takes it for a spin: “I lost it-the front tire slipped the road and I went/spinning, one ditch swallowed me up and spit me straight/into the other and I landed upside down in a tobacco field/wondering where the road went and why I wasn’t on it.” While many of these poems stick close to the narrator’s home, others wander elsewhere, sometimes traveling to the Finger Lakes region in New York state, sometimes traveling to Louisiana.
All in all, Graves’ book is collections of human histories steeped in landscape. In his world you can read about young boys who kick up “devil’s snuff” in the back woods of their homes and a fisherman who hopes for a bite from a fish who “wouldn’t take a red worm/if it swam into their suction-cup mouths.” In his world, you venture into the past through both tangible photographs and abstract memories. With other poems, you venture into a fast fading rural landscape that has scars of both family loss and strength.
You can read more about Jesse Graves and his work at his website here.