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NORTH CAROLINA L I T E R A R Y RE V I E W

PHOTOGRAPH BY LYNN ROBESON; COURTESY OF BARBARA PRESNELL

SACRED ANTHEMS: FAMILIAL RELATIONS AND MILITARY SERVICE a review by Hannah Crane Sykes Barbara Presnell. Blue Star. Winston-Salem, NC: Press 53, 2016.

HANNAH CRANE SYKES is a native of Western North Carolina but currently lives and teaches in the Piedmont region. She earned her BA from Western Carolina University and her MA from UNC Greensboro. She currently teaches courses in composition, American and British literature, and creative writing. BARBARA PRESNELL, from Asheboro, NC, is the author of several chapbooks of poetry and is published in many journals and anthologies, including Southern Review, Malahat Review, Cimarron Review, English Journal, and Listen Here: Women Writing in Appalachia, and NCLR 2005. Her collection of poems Piece Work (Cleveland State University, 2007; reviewed in NCLR 2008) won the Cleveland State University Poetry Center First Book Prize and was adapted for the stage by the Touring Theatre of North Carolina. Currently she teaches at UNC Charlotte and lives in Lexington, NC. ABOVE A sampling of photographs from the archives of First Sgt. William G. Presnell (who appears in the central photograph seated at his desk)

Barbara Presnell’s 2016 collection Blue Star deftly weaves the lives of her ancestors into verses that speak to conflict, loss, and tenderness. The collection takes its name from the tradition of hanging blue star banners in a home, signifying that a family member is away in service to the American Armed Forces. While the collection is based on the experiences of Presnell’s ancestors, she has imagined clear emotions and responses to their world in such a way that the reader sometimes forgets that each poem is not penned by the family member she is voicing. Many of the poems in the collection deal with Presnell’s grandparents, Josiah and Hannah Sharpe Presnell, and their children. The poems not only appear in traditional poetic forms, but also as letters. The catalysts for many of the poems in Blue Star are the wars of the twentieth century and their impact on this particular North Carolina family. The poems that deal directly with the war reveal the everyday moments that persist in the face of great conflict. In “Before All Three Brothers Leave for War,” we see the family shelling peas on the porch, a longstanding sign

of preservation and preparation. Presnell’s speakers will use the image of shells again, referencing instead the shells of bullets spent on foreign fields. In these moments before the brothers become soldiers, they engage in a battle as peas are shot, flung, and thrown across the porch; eventually they will face their mama’s ire, still her children, for being so careless. In addition to wars that called family members far from home, the poems in Blue Star deal with conflicts much closer to home. “Diptheria Outbreak, August 1989” explores terror and resilience during an epidemic. The speaker describes the heat in the house and the heat of the fever; two children have already died, and five-year-old Slim is fighting for his life. The fear felt by Josiah and Hannah lifts from the page. Josiah masks his anxiety, busying himself with removing his two deceased daughters and fetching water for Slim. Hannah, rocking Slim, knows that though her boy is weak and thin he will prevail. The fear and uncertainty of these parents mirrors that expressed by their sons in the war poems. A run-in with a snake described in “Copperhead” reminds readers of

North Carolina Literary Review Online 2018  

A literary review published online annually by East Carolina University and by the North Carolina Literary and Historical Association.

North Carolina Literary Review Online 2018  

A literary review published online annually by East Carolina University and by the North Carolina Literary and Historical Association.

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