North Carolina Literary Review Online Spring 2024

Page 1

An essay by heather liz n Poetry by Morrow Dowdle and Glenis Redmond n Reviews of Books by Ron Rash, Mary Ricketson, and Ina Cariño



Colorspace II (mixed media on wood panel, 30x40) by Donna Stubbs


Rewilding (mixed media on canvas, 24x36) by Donna Stubbs

Cover artist DONNA STUBBS grew up in Mount Airy, NC, and has been a practicing artist for over twenty-five years. She has lived and worked in Washington, DC, and Chapel Hill, NC, most of her life. She graduated from Guilford College in Greensboro, NC, and from the Corcoran College of Art & Design, part of Georgetown University, in Washington, DC. In 2020–21, she completed the ART2LIFE Creative Visionary Program with Nicholas Wilton. She is currently represented in North Carolina by FRANK Gallery in Chapel Hill and by 5 Points Gallery in Durham.


NCLR Art Director DANA EZZELL is a Professor at Meredith College in Raleigh. She has an MFA in Graphic Design from the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence. Her design work has been recognized by the CASE Awards and in such publications as Print Magazine ’s Regional Design Annual, the Applied Arts Awards Annual, American Corporate Identity, and the Big Book of Logos 4. She has been designing for NCLR since the fifth issue, and in 2009 created the current style and design. In 2010, the “new look” earned NCLR a second award for Best Journal Design from the Council of Editors of Learned Journals. In addition to the cover, she designed the essays by heather liz and Dawn Reno Langley in this issue.

Produced annually by East Carolina University and by the North Carolina Literary and Historical Association

© COPYRIGHT 2024 NC LR Colorspace (mixed media on canvas, 30x40) by Donna Stubbs


6 n North Carolina Disability Literature includes poetry, creative nonfiction, and book reviews

Hannah Dela Cruz Abrams

Ina Cariño

Morrow Dowdle

Julia Nunnally Duncan

heather liz

Ron Rash

Glenis Redmond

Mary Ricketson

Jimmy Dean Smith

24 n Flashbacks: Echoes of Past Issues includes poetry, creative nonfiction, and book reviews

“A.R. Ammons

Dale Bailey

Nathan Ballingrud

“Sam Barbee

Micki Bare

Joseph Bathanti

Ronald H. Bayes

Barbara Bennett

Joyce Compton Brown

Catherine Carter

James W. Clark, Jr.

Jim Clark

Jim Coby

Jessica Cory

Hannah Crafts

Julia Nunnally Duncan

Michael Gaspeny

Phillip Gerard

Rebecca Godwin

Jesse Graves

Gregg Hecimovich

George Hovis

John Kessel

Jon Kesler

Kathryn Kirkpatrick

Dawn Reno Langley

Michael Loderstedt

Jill McCorkle

Robert Morgan

Elaine Neil Orr

103 n North Carolina Miscellany includes poetry and book reviews

Heather Bell Adams

S.L. Cockerille

Christie Collins

Meagan Lucas

Kristine Langley Mahler

David E. Poston

n North Carolina Artists in this issue n

Susan C. Fecho

Sujal Manohar

E. Vincent Martinez

Kimberlee Maselli

Katy Mixon


Donna Stubbs

Wojtek Wojdynski

Melanie Tafejian

Jamie Tews

Ross White

David Payne

Bland Simpson

Nathan Snead

Abby Trzepacz

Robert M. West

Randall Wilhelm

Thomas Wolfe

n North Carolina Artists in this issue n

Susan C. Fecho

Sujal Manohar

E. Vincent Martinez

Kimberlee Maselli


North Carolina Literary Review is published annually in the summer by the University of North Carolina Press. The journal is sponsored by East Carolina University with additional funding from the North Carolina Literary and Historical Association. NCLR Online, published in the winter, spring, and fall, is an open access supplement to the print issue.

NCLR is a member of the Council of Editors of Learned Journals and the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses, and it is indexed in EBSCOhost, the Humanities International Complete, the MLA International Bibliography, Proquest, and the Society for the Study of Southern Literature Newsletter.

Address correspondence to Dr. Margaret D. Bauer, NCLR Editor

ECU Mailstop 555 English Greenville, NC 27858-4353

252.328.1537 Telephone

252.328.4889 Fax Email Website

NCLR has received 2023–2024 grant support from the North Carolina Arts Council, a division of the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources, and from North Carolina Humanities.

Subscriptions to the print issues of NCLR are, for individuals, $18 (US) for one year or $30 (US) for two years, or $27 (US) for one year, $30 for two for institutions and foreign subscribers. Libraries and other institutions may purchase subscriptions through subscription agencies. Individuals or institutions may also receive NCLR through membership in the North Carolina Literary and Historical Association. More information on our website

Individual copies of the annual print issue are available from retail outlets and from UNC Press. Back issues of our print issues are also available for purchase, while supplies last. See the NCLR website for prices and tables of contents of back issues.


NCLR invites proposals for articles or essays about North Carolina literature, history, and culture. Much of each issue is thematically focused, but a portion of each issue is open for developing interesting proposals, particularly interviews and literary analyses (without academic jargon). NCLR also publishes high-quality poetry, fiction, drama, and creative nonfiction by North Carolina writers or set in North Carolina. We define a North Carolina writer as anyone who currently lives in North Carolina, has lived in North Carolina, or has used North Carolina as subject matter.

See our website for submission guidelines for the various sections of each issue. Submissions to each issue’s special feature section are due August 31 of the preceding year, though proposals may be considered through early fall.

2025 issues will feature NC LGBTQ+ Literature guest edited by Dwight Tanner

Please email your suggestions for other special feature topics to the editor.

Book reviews are usually assigned, though suggestions will be considered as long as the book is by a North Carolina writer, is set in North Carolina, or deals with North Carolina subjects. NCLR prefers review essays that consider the new work in the context of the writer’s canon, other North Carolina literature, or the genre at large. Publishers and writers are invited to submit North Carolina–related books for review consideration. See the index of books that have been reviewed in NCLR on our website NCLR does not review self-/subsidy-published or vanity press books.

ISSN: 2165-1809


Hannah Dela Cruz Abrams

English, UNC Wilmington

Lisa Wenger Bro

English, Middle Georgia State University

Catherine Carter

English, Western Carolina University

Brent Walter Cline

English, Hillsdale College

Celestine Davis

English, East Carolina University

Meg Day

English, North Carolina State University

Kevin Dublin

Elder Writing Project, Litquake Foundation

Margaret D. Bauer

Art Director

Dana Ezzell

Guest Feature Editor

Casey Kayser

Digital Editor

Devra Thomas

Art Editor

Diane A. Rodman

Poetry Editor

Jeffrey Franklin

Founding Editor

Alex Albright

Original Art Director

Eva Roberts

Gabrielle Brant Freeman

English, East Carolina University

Rebecca Godwin

Emeritus, Barton College

Marame Gueye

English, East Carolina University

Kate Harrington

English, East Carolina University

James Tate Hill

Association of Writers & Writing Programs

George Hovis

English, SUNY-Oneonto

Amanda Klein

English, East Carolina University

Graphic Designer

Karen Baltimore

Senior Associate Editor

Christy Alexander Hallberg

Assistant Editors

Desiree Dighton

Anne Mallory

Randall Martoccia

Editorial Assistants

Onyx Bradley

Shelby Hans

Amber Knox

Daniel Moreno

Wendy Tilley


Nicole Broach

Christina Rose Brown

Abby Fletcher

Fabian Gomez

Cody Messer

Skyler Oty

Nicky Urban Editor

Kristi Southern

Abby Trzepacz

Celeste McMaster

North Carolina Writers’ Network

Tracy Morse

English, East Carolina University

Angela Raper

English, East Carolina University

Paula Rawlins

Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning, Yale University

Kirstin L. Squint

English, East Carolina University

Amber Flora Thomas

English, East Carolina University

Robert M. West

English, Mississippi State University


More Disability Experiences and Voices

I am delighted to present the special feature section of the North Carolina Literary Review’s 2024 spring online issue on North Carolina Disability Literature. We are thrilled that we have received so much content related to our special feature sections that we could spread it out to NCLR’s now four annual issues. It is wonderful to see that this theme has engaged so many writers and artists from North Carolina as well as those writing about their work.

The section begins with a poem by Morrow Dowdle, “The Trick to Losing Your Vision,” which was a finalist for our 2023 James Applewhite Poetry Prize. The speaker of this poem uses the concept of a magic trick as a metaphor for their visual impairment, interweaving vivid images like scarves pulled from a fist, white rabbits, and flying doves with the speaker’s experiences with their vision. The poem’s themes are enriched by Donna Stubbs’s mixed media piece Eigengrau, which is German for intrinsic grey, dark light, or brain grey, the color that many people report seeing in the absence of light, the color Stubbs perceives in the lower half of her right eye due to an optic nerve stroke she suffered several years ago, and this piece represents the absence of light and the perception of light and color in the mind’s eye. Stubbs’s art also appears on this issue’s cover.

Next, in “Fairy Dust and Knives,” a finalist for our 2023 Alex Albright Creative Nonfiction Prize, heather liz shares the process of watching her mother decline due to Alzheimer’s, transforming from a woman who had always smelled like sweet, rose-scented perfume to one who smelled like the “flesh, bland food, and cleaning chemicals” odor at the care facility. The author explores how objects

like pocket knives and perfume bottles and the scents associated with them and their owners connect us to loved ones even after their deaths. The piece is punctuated with art by Susan C. Fecho; her two pieces, Shadow in the Corner and Escape, have both appeared in exhibits focusing on mental health awareness.

Glenis Redmond’s poem “Against My Religion,” a semifinalist for the 2023 James Applewhite Poetry Prize, is dedicated to African American entertainer Clayton “Peg Leg” Bates (1907–1998), and it is his voice that narrates the poem. Bates loved to dance but lost his leg in a cotton mill accident at the age of twelve; the wooden prosthetic leg his uncle made for him allowed him to keep dancing. He made a remarkable career out of his passion –dancing on Broadway, appearing on The Ed Sullivan Show twenty times, and even performing for King George VI and Queen Elizabeth of England. The poem celebrates dancing as a religious experience and offering to God that he pursued despite his Baptist mother’s admonitions about dancing. Appearing alongside the poem is artist ransome’s Come Sunday, You Can’t Hide in acrylic and collage, echoing the spiritual themes in Redmond’s poem.

The books reviewed in this issue include, first, Jimmy Dean Smith’s review of Ron Rash’s 2023 novel The Caretaker, which he calls Rash’s “finest novel.” Several of the characters in the book live with injuries and trauma suffered in war and the disfiguring effects of childhood polio, a reminder of the thin line between life and death. Fragility also extends to place in the book, Smith notes, since Blowing Rock, the rural North Carolina setting of the novel, is in the midst of change in the middle of the twentieth century, and it is a complex place for


many of the characters: it is home but also a site of pain and ostracization.

Next, Julia Nunnally Duncan reviews Mary Ricketson’s collection of poetry, Stutters: A Book of Hope (2023). Duncan outlines each of the five sections of the book, which span the poet’s life from age eight to seventy-five, highlighting notable poems. As Duncan details, many of the poems focus on the author’s experiences living with and communicating with a stutter, both personally and professionally. While the dark shadows of past trauma and struggles lurk within many of the poems, the ultimate message is one of hope and affirmation, Duncan says.

To close out the section, Hannah Dela Cruz Abrams reviews Ina Cariño’s collection of poetry Feast (2023). Abrams highlights how Cariño draws on English and the languages of the Philippines to create meaningful, vivid connections between food and the senses. Cariño uses the language of food and the concepts of hunger and nourishment, Abrams explains, to explore themes related to pain and healing, home and family, and self-discovery.

I would like to thank NCLR Editor Margaret Bauer for her guidance throughout this two-year journey of collecting and preparing work for the 2024 special feature sections, and express my appreciation to the NCLR editorial staff for their efforts as well. It has been an honor to serve as Guest Editor for the 2024 special feature sections and to work with all of the staff and contributors who have helped shape them. We are so glad to have this opportunity to honor the voices and experiences of people with disabilities.

Next up: the print issue, due out this summer. Subscribe today to receive it. n


Disability Literature

8 The Trick to Losing Your Vision








by Morrow Dowdle art
Donna Stubbs
an essay by
art by Susan C.
Fairy Dust and Knives
heather liz
Religion a poem by Glenis Redmond art by ransome
And We
Right Here a review by Jimmy Dean Smith
Ron Rash, The Caretaker
Are Here,
Words Worth Hearing a review by Julia Nunnally Duncan
Mary Ricketson, Stutters
Sugar Burns Bitter a review by Hannah Dela Cruz Abrams
Ina Cariño, Feast
Echoes of Past Issues poetry, creative nonfiction, and book reviews
n North Carolina Miscellany poetry and book reviews


The Trick to Losing Your Vision

So, you want the rationale behind the magic, the big reveal –

First, place a drop of distortion in one eye like a warp in old glass. Colors fade, known only when you look at a tree, remember the hue of spring leaves, bright and unshakeable. Image births an orphanage of identical twins.

Then the last stage –

awaken to shadow, vestige of what has been pulled like scarves from a fist. Now, wait for it to come back, hold up your bewitched match. Abracadabra, it strikes –just enough light to unveil what lives around it. The audience applauds. You take the bow.

You want to conjure more but lose your knack. Business goes bust. Twenty-five years, and still no one can see what you can’t see, invisibility an alchemy you didn’t mean to mix, a tunnel from which you cannot emerge, every surface punctured with black, a night sky in negative.

MORROW DOWDLE has been published in numerous journals and anthologies and was a Pushcart Prize nominee in 2018 and 2020, as well as Best of the Net nominee in 2020. They edit and critique poetry for Sunspot Literary Review and run Weave & Spin, a performance series featuring marginalized voices. They work as a physician assistant in mental health and live in Hillsborough, NC. Their poem “Brow” was a semifinalist for the 2022 James Applewhite Poetry Prize and was published in NCLR Online Winter 2023


Your children love you when you fall over them, but other mothers do not feel the same. The cane you use in crowds will not sprout optics on its stalk. No spell book tells you when you can’t see straight, you can’t think straight either. Your mind fractures as it searches for something it will never find again. White rabbits scattered, doves flown out of grasp. You peer deep into that black hat. Feel the cold breath of its void.

DONNA STUBBS grew up in Mount Airy, NC, and has been a practicing artist for over twenty-five years. She has lived and worked in Washington, DC, and Chapel Hill, NC, most of her life. She graduated from Guilford College in Greensboro, NC, and from the Corcoran College of Art & Design, part of Georgetown University, in Washington, DC. In 2020–21, she completed the ART2LIFE Creative Visionary Program with Nicholas Wilton. She is currently represented in North Carolina by FRANK Gallery in Chapel Hill and by 5 Points Gallery in Durham.

This work of art’s title, Eigengrau, is German for intrinsic grey, dark light, or brain grey, the color many people report seeing in the absence of light. This is the color the artist perceives in the lower half of her right eye due to an optic nerve stroke she suffered several years ago. This piece represents the absence of light and the perception of light and color in the mind’s eye. See more of her work on and inside this issue’s cover.

9 N C L R ONLINE North Carolina Disability Literature
Eigengrau (mixed media [acrylic paint, collage, powdered graphite, pencil, and image transfer], 36x36) by Donna Stubbs


It is odd, but I am wearing perfume for the first time in decades.

The last time I purchased a smell was when I was a teenager, back when I wore Elizabeth Arden’s Sunflowers or a generic berry spritz from the local low-cost, sell-everything store. It didn’t take long to realize that it was never myself that I wanted to smell, it was others. I love walking down the sidewalk and smelling strangers on the wind. It feels as if I somehow now know something about them. I once came to an abrupt stop while walking in Washington, DC, because of a man who passed by wearing cologne. Standing there, I inhaled the air, taking deeper breaths than I can produce on command in yoga. The smell lingers, and I stopped to linger with the droplets until they faded away. Sometimes, when I do this, I even remark out loud to no one, “Delicious” or “My god!”

HEATHER LIZ , currently an MFA candidate in nonfiction at Randolph College, is the author of radical. (Purple Finch Press, 2020), a book of poetry. She has attended several writing residencies at Weymouth and is currently working on a booklength essay collection and memoir. She lives in the Greensboro area with her family.

with art by Susan C. Fecho
Shadow in the Corner (Intaglio printed and dyed textiles, lithography prints on found wood [sewing machine stand drawers/case], 42x48) by Susan C. Fecho

In another life, I should have been recruited to decide on the world’s cologne and perfume scents. Or, maybe, I should have been trained to take in smells of a crime scene so as to find the perpetrator. I use smell in my cooking. It tells me from rooms away whether something in the oven is ready to come out. It tells me whether the food needs more of one spice or another. I smell done, I smell burnt, I smell perfection, I smell rot and gone bad. I smell my father, and he smells sweet, even decades after his last pinch of tobacco stuffed in his mouth full of rotting teeth. He smells of the earth, not that he rolls in the dirt, but that he feels closer to its rhythms and ways than he does to

any living person. He smells like unwashed clothing and blood stains from dead animals, including beloved pets who were left too long in the wild and succumbed to it. He smells like his pocketknife, or maybe his metal folded up pocketknife smells like him. It is hard to tease apart after a lifetime.

I’d bring him an apple and command, “Peel it, Daddy, like you do, with the ring of skin. Don’t let it break!” The metal blade would click open and without looking away from the TV he would carefully, in a smooth motion, starting from

I smell burnt, I smell perfection, I smell rot and gone bad.

SUSAN C. FECHO is Dean of the School of Visual, Performing, and Communications Arts at Barton College. She earned BFA and MFA degrees at ECU. In addition, she has pursued postgraduate studies at various institutions, including Jan van Eyck Academie, Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design, Northern Illinois University, and Penland School of Craft. She has exhibited regionally, nationally, and internationally and has received numerous awards, grants, and residencies. Her work is held in several major collections, including the Smithsonian Institution’s American Art Museum/National Portrait Gallery Library, Washington,

the top near the stem, peel in a circular motion, the skin hanging down like an outstretched snake. I would play with it, then devour it, just as he taught me. But the reason I brought him the apple was not because I didn’t have my own knife or my own ability to create the long bouncy skin of apple. I wanted to taste my father, and his knife would transfer him onto the white flesh of the apple. As I walked away, I would suck its juices, tasting the rust of the metal, the dried blood, the remnants of the nightly under the nail cleanings, and digs into the skin for chiggers, and scales from the latest fish gutting. The knife that was never washed, only wiped on his pants, his pants that were rarely laundered. He was a living breathing archive, and I loved how he tasted like home.

I think this is the reason my father cannot move away from his land, a small corner of southwest Missouri where the wild animals and limestone are

DC; the Word and Image Department, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, England; and the Museum of Women Artists, Washington, DC.

Shadow in the Corner was included in a 2019 exhibition titled Empathy Through Art, sponsored in part by the Dementia Alliance of North Carolina, whose goal is to build “inclusive communities for those with Dementia, Alzheimer’s, and other mental health challenges.” Escape was included in the Greenville [NC] Museum of Art 2020–21 exhibit “Healing Through Art: Mental Health Awareness Exhibition.”

11 N C L R ONLINE North Carolina Disability Literature

as plentiful as the streams and ticks. It smells like home. I’ve seen it before: a man and his land and the way smell and taste intermingle. During a college study abroad in Jerusalem, our group hired a local Palestinian who knew the entire geographical area. We snuck him into Israel as we traversed the area, irrespective of political boundaries. Once, he yelled for the driver to pull over. We filed out of the bus unsure of why we stopped. Our guide bent down, grabbed a wad of dirt, stood up and slipped the dirt in-between his bottom lip and lower teeth. Then he motioned for us to do the same, mumbling, “Yes, yes,” while pointing to the ground. None of us wanted to eat dirt, but with hesitation, even I bent down and picked some up. He removed the now wet dirt from his mouth and proclaimed, “Dolomite!” Beaming, he told us how this was the dirt and rock of his childhood. It had been so long since he smelled and tasted it. And look! It had special properties and reacted differently when it came in contact with moisture and this is why the area was such a prolific producer of olive trees.

I held onto my dirt, not tasting it, but I did draw it to my nose, close my eyes, and take in a deep smell. It smelled heavy. I don’t know how to describe what heavy smells like, but it is the kind of dirt that, when wet, turns into a clay-like substance, except it is not the color of my North Carolina red clay. It wants to hold moisture. It waits for it, like all things must do in the desert. As for our guide, I saw his childlike joy in coming home through his senses. This was the first time he had stood in this part of Israel since he was a little boy, back when the country was whole, back before the British promised it away.

My mother, on the other hand, always wore perfume. I am ashamed to say that I don’t know which kind, but I could pick it out if I ever smelled it again. It was a mixture of faint rose, with a sweetness like bourbon and something else solid that settles in the nose. Almost like the way ancient might smell, a bit tangy, a bit musky. But in a world full of smells, it feels impossible to find. I wouldn’t like the smell on me, but it worked for her.

I understood that the purpose of perfume to her was to signify that she was ready. After she was washed and dressed and proper and every

There are some smells that cannot be gotten rid of. They don’t leave, not even the mind. Not even when the mind leaves.

accessory and shoe and stocking was in place, only then was it time for perfume. It meant she was ready to start the day, to enter life. And because I understood that, I loved her smell. I loved having someone who was in charge of caring for me, who was ready, who was entering the world I lived in, who smelled ready to live.

I never smelled my mother dirty even if she was pruning her roses or gardening her tomatoes, even if she was tending to the horse she finally got as a gift for the child inside of her who had always dreamed of owning her very own horse. Everything she touched smelled like her perfume. One of my favorite ways to pass the time as a child was to spend unknown hours in my mother’s clothes closet, stepping into the hanging clothes, walking straight into them and letting each garment wash over my face like a carwash. I would close my eyes, and the fabrics – the silks and polyesters, and linen cottons – would take their turns gracing my skin. Every garment smelled like her, no matter how long it had been since she wore it, no matter how


many times it had been washed since the last perfume spritz. There are some smells that cannot be gotten rid of. They don’t leave, not even the mind. Not even when the mind leaves.

At the end of her life, when I was asked to come to the facility and sort her things into donate, throw away, and keep piles, nothing smelled like her. She didn’t even smell like her. How could she be my mother? This dying woman, who didn’t have the same clothes and wore no accessories and had on shoes she would never dare purchase, much less wear. There is no difference between the facility smell and the people who live in it. Crammed together as they are, all I smell is flesh,

bland food, and cleaning chemicals. After five years in this facility, her skin smelled like the stale cafeteria food.

Most everything went into the throw away pile. All of the clothes and generic white tennis shoes. The remnants of old hobbies, like knitting needles and yarn, quickly abandoned as she forgot how to do the things she loved, replaced with kids’ coloring books and boxes of crayons. Her wellused robe that had been washed so many times over the last five years that the fabric was pulling itself into small fiber balls. I wanted nothing to do with this smell, none of it was hers. It was mostly things she wore after she lost her mind.

That’s how I want to talk about Alzheimer’s. In that first appointment with the neurologist, he asked my mother to play Rock, Paper, Scissors. She laughed as she struggled to play the kid game. She laughed when he said he had heard enough, that she had dementia leading to Alzheimer’s. I looked over at her, grateful for a diagnosis, hating that this would be her end, after everything, after all she had given of her life to others with this disease, that it would still be in her life, that it would be her life. And, it would be mine.

“The mother I know would not be okay with this diagnosis. She certainly wouldn’t be laughing right now.”

I said this in front of my mother. It was the first time I spoke something within earshot that was about her. It was uncomfortable to speak of her as if she wasn’t there. I hated doing it. It felt disrespectful and rude to my mother, who had cared for me as a child, the one I turned to for advice. The one who reminded me how to make her favorite food dishes. The one who secretly loved that I swiped things from her kitchen – favorite wooden spoons and mixing bowls and kitchen gadgets – because it was my way of telling her I loved her taste in things and her way of giving me things without directly forcing them on me. A gentle way to parent me at a time, when as a young adult, I was still very much antagonistic to accepting parental advice or of wanting in any way to appear to have any similarities with them.

The only things I kept were the few photos of family. I told the nurses that the other inhabitants could have her small CD player. The rest could

13 N C L R ONLINE North Carolina Disability Literature
Escape (Collagraph on paper,16x 24) by
Susan C. Fecho


be discarded or donated, whatever was easiest for them. I paused at the heavy locked metal doors that kept her here, had kept her locked up in a place where she was forced to smell like the furniture, like the walls, like the wheelchairs, like the white floors, like the Depends, like the scratchy bed linens, like the food she had come to refuse to eat, like the Styrofoam water cups she refused to drink out of in protest. I looked back over my shoulder into her open door where I saw her staring in my direction, not because she knew who I was, or my name, but because she knew she knew me, from somewhere, somehow. Then I leaned my body into the heavy doors, heard them swoosh with air as they opened, and then heard the alarm chirp as the doors bolted back in place.

In a few days, it will have been ten years since I sorted my mother’s things into piles. She used to make me shop with her anytime her feelings were too big. Because she rarely had outbursts, she needed to push a cart in a circle around a store as a way to work out her stress and sadness. For some reason, she made me accompany her on these shopping trips. It was torture as we had little money and these frequent trips amounted to nothing more than salivating window shopping where I was perpetually left in a state of want. I would have thought it’d be easier for her to not have a child with her who couldn’t stop asking for

things, couldn’t stop touching breakable things and pouting when once again I was told no. No, we couldn’t get the clothes that looked like what the popular kids wore. No, we couldn’t get them even if they were on sale; they were still too much. No, we couldn’t get a small bag of gummy bears; there wasn’t enough money. No, there is no money for cool shoes or fruit snacks or the fresh nectarines. No. No. No. No. No. No.

“No, I don’t want to go shopping with you,” I told her one day when I was twelve.

I was done with walking around the mall and leaving with nothing. I couldn’t do it anymore. I’d rather stay home and be bored. But she asked again nicely, almost begging; then when I didn’t budge, forcefully. I got into the car and slammed the heavy Monte Carlo door. This time, though, she bought me something. It wasn’t much and mostly things I needed anyway, like underwear or ChapStick. But that night I heard my father yell about money and as I stepped into the living room to see what was happening, I witnessed my mother throwing her eyeglasses across the room in frustration. Something I had never seen and would never see again. I retreated, suddenly feeling guilty for begging too hard for things at the store. For wanting more than I had.


It smelled clean, delicious, and somehow, grown-up.

I turned the bottle over in my hands, enjoying the shape and feel. And then I saw its name, Fairy Dust.

While I was home from college for a break, the country decided estrogen was too dangerous for women and stopped nearly all prescriptions, including my mother’s. But I didn’t know she had stopped taking the hormone she had been on for over a decade. My father only told me that my mother had lost her mind.

“Keep an eye on her. Something’s wrong.”

I walked in on her using house cleaners to wash the dog in the tub and rescued our poor elderly dog from her grasp. She only laughed at my frustration. Later that night, I awoke to my mother sprinkling powdered laundry detergent all over me. Shushing me, she said, “It’s okay. Go back to sleep.”

“What are you doing?! Is this Tide? Mom, stop!”

“It’s only fairy dust. It’s meant to protect you.”

I went to the department store for nothing in particular. Two and a half hours later I would exit in a daze, holding a bottle of perfume. It was a glass square, a smaller version of an alcoholic bottle, with a white screw top, and pink perfume. When I stopped my cart in front of the perfume section, I hesitated. What was I doing? I didn’t

wear perfume. It was something I enjoyed about other people but I would never spend money on a smell. Instead, I relied upon my expensive shampoos – the kinds only salons sold, the kind I was desperate for as a pre-teen – and body lotions that mix together and create a smell that smelled like me. But here I was, looking at these bottles, smelling a few. And then this pink liquid caught my eye. I removed the cap, lifted it to my nose, closing my eyes, I took it in. Unbelievably, I loved it. I smelled it several times, wondering if I would get tired of it, if it would eventually bother me, but no, it was perfect. It smelled clean, delicious, and somehow, grown-up. I turned the bottle over in my hands, enjoying the shape and feel. And then I saw its name, Fairy Dust.

I knew then that it would be mine.

I wasn’t thinking of my mother when I drove to the store on a beautiful day that I was desperate to enjoy. I wasn’t thinking of her when I entered and found a cart to push, or when I walked around, circling for hours, looking for I don’t know what. I wasn’t thinking of her when I searched the perfume section. Not when I carried it out and brought it home. Not when I placed the bottle on my shelf where I would see it each day. Not when I first sprayed it into the air, letting it settle some before stepping into the scent, walking into the smell that lingers, and letting it fall upon my skin and clothes, clothes that will one day only smell like Fairy Dust. No laundry detergent will be able to wash it out. It will stick. It will stay.

The last time I saw my father he casually asked if there was anything of his I would want when he died. Before I could answer, he suggested several items, mostly guns or various family pictures. But I already knew my answer.

“I want your knife. You know the one.”

He didn’t say a word, only smiled while nodding his head, knowingly. n


15 N C L R ONLINE North Carolina Disability Literature


Against My Religion

For Clayton “Peg Leg” Bates

Each tap I tap goes against the grain of my Baptist upbringing, Mama made it clear thou does not dance but unto the Lord. The holy ghost sway the only groove allowed, but God speaks to me everywhere I go. The world thrums like a drum through the rainfall the railroad hum the bird song the hurried wind the horse hoof the hog call the lake lap the fire crack the hand clap the door slam the thunder smack.

GLENIS REDMOND , a long-time resident of Asheville, NC, is a performance poet, a Kennedy Center Teaching Artist, a Cave Canem alumnus, and Poet Laureate of Greenville, SC. Since 2014, she has served as the mentor poet for the National Student Poets Program through Scholastic Art and Writing Awards. In this capacity, in 2014–16 she prepared youth poets to read at the Library of Congress, the Department of Education, and for First Lady Michelle Obama at The White House. She is the author of several poetry collections, and her poetry has been showcased on NPR and PBS and has been recently published in Orion Magazine, storySouth, and The New York Times. In 2020, she received the highest arts award in her home state of South Carolina, the Governor’s Award, and in 2022 was inducted into the South Carolina Academy of Authors. Her poetry has appeared numerous times in NCLR. Read an interview with her in NCLR 2019.


Even with my left leg gone, I don’t despair, I dance and delight people on the streets and in the barbershops of Fountain Inn to the circus to minstrel shows to the chitlin circuit to Vaudeville to Broadway to the first black man on The Ed Sullivan Show twenty times, (but who’s counting? Me) to the silver screen for the King and Queen finally to land of my own, a Country Club in Kerhonkson. I got one leg, but a whole story and I dance against all odds. God knows not in spite of, but because of him.

I don’t hide my light I magnify my gifts with riffs.

RANSOME was born in Rich Square, NC, and moved to New Jersey as a teenager. He lives and works in New York. He earned a BFA from Pratt Institute and an MFA in Studio Arts from Lesley University. He was a tenured professor in the School of Visual Performing Arts at Syracuse University before retiring to pursue his dream of being a studio artist. He is the recipient of many awards, including most recently, a 2022 Pollock-Krasner Foundation Grant. He has participated in numerous solo and group exhibitions across the US.

17 N C L R ONLINE North Carolina Disability Literature
Come Sunday, You Can’t Hide, 2020 (acrylic and collage, 36x48) by ransome

a review by Jimmy Dean Smith

Ron Rash. The Caretaker: A Novel. Doubleday, 2023.

JIMMY DEAN SMITH teaches in the English Department at Union College in Barbourville, KY. In addition to reviewing for NCLR, he has published critical essays in NCLR on Ron Rash (in 2011) and Tony Earley (in 2020).

RON RASH is the Parris Distinguished Professor of Appalachian Cultural Studies at Western Carolina University. He has been featured often in NCLR , including interviews in the 2004 and 2014 issues and essays about his work in 2004, 2011, and forthcoming in the 2024 print issue. His numerous honors include the 2020 Thomas Robinson Prize for Southern Literature, given to him by Mercer University’s Spencer B. King, Jr. Center for Southern Studies, the North Carolina Award for Literature, and, in 2024, induction into the North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame in 2024.

The title character of Ron Rash’s eighth novel, The Caretaker, watches over both a country graveyard and the wife of his best friend, a soldier fighting in Korea. Polio has left Blackburn with a “drooping eye . . . the right side of his mouth pulled upward as if snagged by a fishhook” (89), and the desire to “be around fewer people” (14). With only a slight limp signifying physical impairment, Blackburn digs graves in frozen ground and paints the church steeple. One of Blackburn’s significant character traits is his “steadfastness” (90), perhaps partly developed from his experiences with polio and the ostracization he has suffered in his community due to his facial disfigurement.

When Jacob Hampton, the scion of smalltown gentry, is drafted, he first asks his parents to watch over his pregnant wife until he returns. Convinced that

Naomi, a chambermaid when she and Jacob met, is out for their money, the Hamptons (who own a store and a sawmill) refuse. A poor farm girl from Tennessee, Naomi falls beneath their social standards. Jacob next turns to his best friend, Blackburn, who accepts the charge. While Jacob is away, the caretaker and Naomi, both outsiders, grow close. The relationship lasts after she returns temporarily to her Tennessee home. But the Hamptons’ hatred of Naomi grows; her very existence threatens the life they had planned for their son. When Jacob nearly dies in hand-tohand combat, the Hamptons get the opportunity to end their son’s marriage by convincing both Jacob and Naomi that the other has died.

The earlier Rash novel that most resembles The Caretaker, The Cove (2012),* also


Read Zackary Vernon’s interview with Rash about The Cove in NCLR 2014 ABOVE Ron Rash at the Chapel Hill Baptist Church Cemetery on the Western Carolina University campus PHOTOGRAPH BY THOMAS CALDER, MOUNTAIN XPRESS

uses the tools of melodrama to examine loneliness, love, and the meanness of a small town. But The Cove does not consistently resist the tropes of that genre. The Caretaker, however, employs and contests them, as if Rash is examining his own often remarked upon tendency to grimness. Early in the novel, as if the author speaks to himself, one character tells another, “[Y]ou ought to dwell on happy notions” (30). In fact, auguring tragedy perhaps to come, The Caretaker does deal in multiple troublings. That now almost-forgotten scourge of the 1950s, polio, “the word even the grownups feared to speak” (145), renders parents helpless, murders children, traps them in iron lungs, or, as with Blackburn, makes them easy targets for smalltown bullies and selfdoubt. Before Jacob Hampton was born, his sisters died in the Spanish flu pandemic. (The Hamptons’ mania for protecting their last remaining child is understandable.) The presence of disabled young veterans – in 1951, even Great War soldiers are middle-aged – is a reminder that, in a war-racked half-century, personal and family disaster are a draft notice away. The fragility of existence extends to place. The Caretaker is set in the landscape Rash often calls his spiritual home, a sentiment with which many of the novel’s characters would concur. Laid up in a Korean hospital and haunted by thoughts of the North Korean soldier he killed, for example, Jacob Hampton takes comfort in thinking of Watauga County as “the true world” (110). But it is 1951, and even rural North Car-

olina changes. Flowers placed on the graves might have been handpicked on old farmsteads – the flowers had “long survived the hands that planted them” (140) – but could as well have been store-bought in Blowing Rock. Customers have their choice of traditional wares in the Hamptons’ store, but Sunbeam also makes regular deliveries. Nehis and Cheerwines “swayed like fishing bobbers” in the “gray slush” of an icy drink box (105). So, too, does the dialogue establish a “true world” of language – “You a godly man?” (153); “I can’t misdoubt she had to say good-bye” (239) – to expertly sketch out an agrarian reality giving way to a smalltown world that, seventy years later, is also fading from memory.

In The Caretaker, a man gathers quilts and makes his bed next to a grave. Men clasp slashed palms and declare blood brotherhood; voices overheard in darkness signify another world; a trout (Rash signature alert) signifies purity of a place well known and loved. But the gestures that eventually count most in The Caretaker are not so mythical. Rash, long concerned with the metaphorical snakes in his Watauga County Eden, finds room for simple goodness. Countering the tropes of smalltown bullies are the book’s quiet heroes: a disabled World War II veteran who helps a war-shattered Jacob along; two smalltown buddies who have grown old together while reading Shakespeare and Keats; a “godly man” who does not doubt the sincerity of Blackburn’s wishes. One remarkable instance of mundane decency appears in a three-page chapter

that hardly moves the narrative along. In it, Dr. Egan and Catherine, elderly widowed people, meet every other Sunday for lunch and gin rummy. Those afternoons they also “leave her parlor for her bedroom [and] drape their clothes neatly on the divan.” The adjectives Rash employs for their lovemaking – “[p]redictable, even staid, but pleasing” (121–22) – are funny and precise and gentle. Catherine’s wedding picture remains on the mantle; the doctor recollects forty years of marriage and telling his adult children at their mother’s funeral that “he had been blessed” (122). It is the most romantic, sexiest thing Rash has ever written.

A little more than halfway through the novel, believing that his wife is dead and needlessly suspicious of Blackburn’s friendship with Naomi, Jacob flashes back to the night he nearly died next to a frozen river in Korea. To overcome this traumatic episode, he practices an exercise his elementary school teacher used, surveying the objects in the Hamptons’ store until the familiar world reemerges: “Jujubes, Mary Janes, Bit-OHoney” (164). While the catalog of candies might trigger a sugar rush of nostalgia in some readers, here they are items that situate Jacob in a world he loved and wants to love again. The teacher, writes Rash, “would point out continents and countries [on the classroom globe] but always let her finger return to the anvil shape of North Carolina. And here we are, she’d said, right here” (164). With this novel of grand emotions and quiet blessings set here, Rash has written his finest novel. n

19 N C L R ONLINE North Carolina Disability Literature



a review by

Mary Ricketson. Stutters: A Book of Hope. Redhawk Publications, 2023.

JULIA NUNNALLY DUNCAN is an awardwinning author of twelve books of prose and poetry, including a new poetry collection When Time Was Suspended (Redhawk Publications, 2024) and a new essay collection All We Have Loved (Finishing Line Press, 2023; reviewed in this issue). Her upbringing in a Western North Carolina textile town plays predominantly in her work. An alumnus of Warren Wilson College, she taught English and Humanities at McDowell Technical Community College for nearly forty years before retiring. She lives in Marion, NC..

MARY RICKETSON has published several poetry collections: I Hear the River Call My Name (Finishing Line Press, 2007), Hanging Dog Creek (Future Cycle Press, 2014), Shade and Shelter (Kelsay Books, 2018), Mississippi: The Story of Luke and Marian (Kelsay Books, 2019), Keeping in Place (Finishing Line Press, 2021), Lira: Poems of a Woodland Woman (Redhawk Publications, 2021), and Precious the Mule (Redhawk Publications, 2022). In 2011, she placed first in the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest 75 th anniversary national poetry contest. Ricketson is a mental health therapist in a private practice in Murphy, NC.

Mary Ricketson’s Stutters: A Book of Hope is a poetry collection about struggle. It is a book about people’s cruelty to someone who is different. And yet it is ultimately a celebration of endurance, growth, and the ability to look beyond oneself to help others. As the subtitle asserts, it is indeed a book about hope. Still, in these poems, beneath the surface of light, shadows lurk.

In David A. Shapiro’s foreword, he calls Ricketson’s stuttering her “lifelong companion” and defines stuttering for the readers as “a universal disorder of speech fluency.” He also notes the striking statistic that “In the United States alone, there are over three million people who stutter.” So, while stuttering is not a rare disorder,

for many readers, this book provides a keen insight into the life of a stutterer and expresses vividly the repercussions, personally and professionally, of existing with this disorder. Communication, a human ability that many take for granted, is at the heart of Stutters. Of course, the poems in this volume explore much more than altered communication, including familial relationships, peer pressure, and professional aspirations. Yet the aspect of disrupted communication is what compels me most. Perhaps my response is tied to my forty years as a college instructor of communication skills and as a public speaker myself. I am aware of how important clear, precise communication is, especially for a critical audience.

COURTESY OF PATTY THOMPSON ABOVE , Mary Ricketson reading Stutters: A Book of Hope at Taste Full Beans, Hickory, NC, 11 Apr. 2023

So, as I read Ricketson’s poetical account of her lifelong struggle to understand and overcome stuttering, I vicariously experienced this struggle with her.

Stutters is organized in five sections, chronicling the poet’s life from age eight to seventyfive, with flashbacks throughout. Section I begins with the poem “Trouble,” noting “I’m eight years old. Other people talk for me.” This first line draws the reader into the conflict that will be fully realized throughout the course of the book. The final line of this first poem, “I believe in miracles,” also gives us insight into the personality of the speaker and the hope that permeates the poems.

Another poem in section I, “Where I Belong,” finds the poet, from the perspective of her child-self, observing a spring crocus:

This small purple crocus pops up in my yard every year a surprise . . .

Might last a week or just a day, take it as it is, useful for unique beauty, however its display.

And in the final stanza, she says, “I hope my life is like that crocus, one of a kind, / to hear and accept, however I speak and bloom, / purpose and function profound, far from perfection.” She attempts to see her uniqueness, like that of the crocus, as valuable. Such an inclination to validate herself in the face of opposition reveals much about her strength and optimism.

A section II poem, “Never Give Up,” finds the poet in college, learning “to never leave myself, never give up,” and in the final line she concludes, “finally I believe / I’m worth the wait.”

The poem that follows, “Turning Strong,” suggests a passage of time: “I’m twenty-one, soon to finish college . . . / . . . Stutters still dominate my speech.” In this poem, the speaker asserts, “Even if embarrassed, I connect. I can help.” She has determined to enter social work to help others, despite the impediment that her problematic speaking might cause in this career.

This desire to help others, regardless of her hesitation about herself and her speech dis-

order, is a common thread in the poems. She exhibits this perseverance in “Career Path,” in which she notes, “Insults and cruel words pierce like arrows, sudden sting, / cut to bleed. Learn to bend, breathe, stand again / Speak again.” And in “Trauma and Telephone,” she questions, “How have I grown, acorn to oak? Branches broken, twisted, / gnarled and knotted, still hold strong, bear fruit, rise to beauty / of their own. Now those treetop crows speak magic to me, / seem not to care what sound I create.” Nature clearly remains a comfort and enduring friend to the poet – a nonjudgmental companion. After reading Stutters, I wasn’t surprised to learn in the book’s biographical note that Ricketson, a western North Carolina resident, likes “hiking mountain trails, and her garden of vegetables, flowers, and blueberries.” Reminiscent of nineteenth-century Romantic poets, Ricketson seems to turn to nature for inspiration and solace.

In section III, the poem “Baby” finds the poet “thirty-eight years old, seven months pregnant.” Understandably, she is concerned that her child might inherit her stuttering: “Will I pass the gene, the shame / fights and struggles of a too-hard life?” But optimistically, she makes a vow “to find the way to make life good for my child, / Count on wild woods to inspire, heal scars of forest / fires, bloom pretty mountain laurel and rhododendron / like magic when times are right.” As she will discover, her son does indeed inherit her stuttering, but in “Turtle Talk” she notes, “Harsh winds still blow, and storms have their way. Seasons / change and change again. Hope becomes a sound to believe.” Again, hope is at the forefront. And in the final poem of section III, “Totem,” the poet turns to nature, in the form of a metaphor. She sees herself as a lion that will protect the wounded child inside of her, a child who was injured “from a red arrow / that pierced me young.”

Some of the poems in Stutters capture the rhythms of stuttering, such as spelling out of words with repeated letters (B–b-b-bu-bubut) or structuring the lines in clipped phrasing

21 N C L R ONLINE North Carolina Disability Literature

(“Children tease, mock, mimic”). However, the first poem in section IV, “Stutter into Spring,” surprises me with its elongated and relaxed first lines: “When redbuds bloom soft purple along Joe Brown Highway / and forsythia sports wild spires of yellow bells, days grow / longer.” No stops and starts here, as before, suggesting perhaps a moment of reprieve from stuttering.

Section V, like the earlier sections, has the expected glimmers of hope, despite flashbacks of dark memories. “Phoenix Rising,” the first poem in this section declares, “Wait for sprouts / of hope. Watch sunflowers rise after rain.” Still, the old fear and torments of the past continue to appear in flashback, as in “Like an Extrovert in the Rain.” In this poem, in striking italics, the poet confesses, “Always scared when I wait my turn to tell my name, fear / the shock or laughter when I M-M-M-a-ry my name.” But in “Uneven Rains,” the final poem in this section and the concluding poem in the book, the poet declares (again in italics): “Make my talk worth the listen, / my sounds worth the patience, / and let my love of life ring past / falters, stutters, and uneven rains.” Here, in the face of past trauma and after a lifetime of struggle and hope, is a resolve to be heard, not judged, and to say words that are worth hearing.

I think Ricketson has accomplished her goal in Stutters. It is A Book of Hope, a stirring and enlightening hopeful book. n


a review by

Ina Cariño delivers in Feast an incantatory collection that calls its readers forth into the complicated poetics of the devoured world. The work here aches and swells with the memory of home and family, throbs with the discovery of self, reaches for the sharpest edges of reckoning, flinches, and heals.

HANNAH DELA CRUZ ABRAMS is a recipient of the 2013 Whiting Writers Award for her novella The Man Who Danced with Dolls (Madras Press, 2012) and her memoir-in-progress, The Following Sea. She has also received a Rona Jaffe Literary Award, a North Carolina Arts Council Fellowship, a Hartshook Fellowship, and a Byington Award. Her work has appeared in Orion , Oxford American , Southern Humanities Review , StoryQuarterly , Carolina Quarterly , and elsewhere. She teaches in the Department of English at UNC Wilmington and is a member of the North Carolina Humanities Board of Trustees and the NCLR Editorial Board.

Throughout the volume, Cariño moves fluidly from English to the languages of the Philippines and back again. Since islands often compass what Gloria Anzaldua once termed “living language,” the shifts, which are not italicized, read at once as a true evocation of place and as a quiet refutation of Western exceptionalism. In this collection’s pages, the beauty of a lingua franca emerges. Translations are subtle but come often in repeat or semantic clues. As is most often the case with language, however, it’s better when considered. “Piyesta” ends with these lines: “as if waiting for the pain that makes me / whole again, alive: nabiag ak.” Depending on who you’re talking to, that closing phrase might mean “I’m broken” or perhaps “I’m diced up, cut small, as with fruit.”

INA CARIÑO is a queer Filipinx American poet originally from Baguio City, Philippines. They hold an MFA in creative writing from NC State University. They are a Kundiman fellow and the winner of the 2021 Alice James Award for Feast, a 2022 Whiting Award winner for poetry, and a winner of the 2021 92Y Discovery Poetry Contest. Their work has been featured in a poetry series called “Beyond Resilience,” which showcases poets dealing with disabilities/chronic pain, and they were a featured poet at the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival. They have published in The American Poetry Review, The Margins, Guernica, Poetry Northwest, Poetry Magazine, The Paris Review Daily, Diode, Waxwing, New England Review, The Oxford Review of Books, and Tupelo Quarterly, among other journals. In 2019, they founded a poetry reading series, Indigena Collective, a platform that aims to center othered and underrepresented creatives in the community, including but not limited to BIPOC, QTPOC, and people with disabilities. During their undergraduate program at ECU, they served as an NCLR intern.


The opening poem, “Bitter Melon,” is an instruction in balance and contrast. The fruit begins spiky in the mouth: “you’ll wince. you’ll think of the taste / of your own green body.”

But, in a theme that reprises and refracts throughout the book, we encounter the flavors that are hardest to swallow only to find that they can travel from an initial abdication of experience to the craving of experience – and further still, to the craving of being experienced. The speaker, via a memory that is theirs alone, collapses psychic distance entirely in the final lines: “huwag mo akong kalimutan, / you’ll plead – / taste me. / taste me.”

Researchers may tell us that lexical-gustatory synesthesia is the rarest classification of the condition, but the alchemy at work in Feast conflates, again and again, one sensation with another type of awareness. In “Piyesta,” we taste learning another tongue: language cut on sweetened rim –chipped teeth whitened.

but sugar burns bitter. I watch my sentences crack candy glass shattering on foreign floors.

Nowhere is the dimensional encounter between senses, and its inherent symbolism, more poignant than in the title poem: “& he slips cooked muscle / into my mouth, as if talking / were the means to something // only adults know. for dessert.”

As the speaker bears witness to the killing of an unweaned pig, the writer behind the speaker locates something of the unlo-

catable: the fleeting moment of metamorphosis between childhood confusion and actualized pain. Cariño writes: “I can’t tell sweet from bitter, can’t // remember how to swallow salt / the way a suckling in slaughter / must swallow its own briny tears.”

The artistry, the ouroboros of Feast, lies in its ability to freight reincarnation with memory. We relearn the self with wonder, but something of us has been here before. We have felt these hungers; they are heavy and familiar. n

23 N C L R ONLINE North Carolina Disability Literature
NCLR 34 (2025) CALL FOR SUBMISSIONS NORTH CAROLINA LGBTQ+ LITERATURE Guest Editor: Dwight Tanner interview and literary criticism deadline: August 31, 2024 Submission guidelines here Submit creative writing through appropriate NCLR contests.
ABOVE Ina Carino reading at So & So Books in Raleigh, NC, 25 Mar. 2019

When Submissions Runneth Over

It is largely the content of this section that convinced me it was time to become a quarterly. I was waiting on the layouts of James W. Clark’s essay on Thomas Wolfe and A.R. Ammons and Joseph Bathanti’s on Ronald H. Bayes when I noticed I already had a hundred pages of content for the winter issue. While the Art Director polished up that issue for release, I could turn my attention to the work with the new spring semester student staff to prepare the reviews that would bring the spring issue to, as it turns out, over a hundred pages, including many by writers whose work has been previously featured in NCLR, which you’ll read in these pages. And we still had to push some to the fall issue!

I appreciate the patience of writers like Dawn Reno Langley, whose essay was also held for this issue, as we divided up several finalists from our 2023 Alex Albright Creative Nonfiction Prize contest between the Winter and Spring issues. This is Dawn’s debut in NCLR, but her essay echoes our 2022 theme: Writers Who Teach, Teachers Who Write. Also new to NCLR is Nathan Snead; his poem echoes our 2005 issue’s focus on writing inspired by the North Carolina coast.

And speaking of that 2005 issue, which included a critical analysis of David Payne’s novel Gravesend Light, included here is Elaine Neil Orr’s review essay of new editions of Payne’s Outer Banks trilogy. This essay was selected by editorial board member Rebecca Godwin for NCLR’s 2024 John Ehle Prize, an honor awarded to content that introduces or reintroduces a North Carolina writer whose work has not received the critical attention it deserves. Godwin wrote in explanation of her selection of Orr's essay on Payne's fiction for the honor this year: “This essay makes us want to read David Payne’s

memoir and novels. It establishes the complexity and deep humanity of Payne’s work, his philosophical wrestling with life’s big questions, including the past’s impact on our lives, as it also explores his relationship to major American writers.” Congratulations to Elaine Neil Orr on this honor, as well as to David Payne for well deserved critical attention to his work. Allow me to take this opportunity to remind you that all appropriate essays and interviews from each year’s issues are sent to a member of the editorial board, who selects one for the $250 honorarium, given by Press 53 of Winston-Salem, NC, in remembrance of John Ehle. Please consider what North Carolina writer’s work you would like to explore in furtherance of NCLR’s mission to “preserve and promote the state’s rich literary history.” And subscribe to read more essays giving important critical attention to other North Carolina writers in the print issue.

Finally, I’m pleased that we are publishing more reviews of speculative fiction, featured in 2001, and children’s literature, featured in 2006. Thank you to the reviewers of these books and so many others in these pages and the other sections of the issue. As we are releasing new book reviews on our website and in social media every Saturday, as well as collecting them in these issues, I repeat our call for reviewers. I’m particularly grateful to reviewers like Michael Gaspeny, George Hovis, John Kessel, and Heather Bell Adams (see her review in the next section), who volunteered to review after being reviewed in previous issues. But I am not surprised. Such generosity is a defining characteristic of the North Carolina writing community. For other reviewed authors who wish to return the favor to another writer, please find information about reviewing for NCLR here n

70 Adventurers, Entrepreneurs, and Scoundrels a review by Jim Coby n Nathan Ballingrud, The Strange 72 Amethyst Eyes a review by Abby Trzepacz n Micki Bare, Blind Fairy 74 Teaching Mrs. Dalloway an essay by Dawn Reno Langley art by E. Vincent Martinez 82 Reflections on Self and Family a review by Jon Kesler n Julia Nunnally Duncan, All We Have Loved 84 Philip Gerard, American Anthem a review by Bland Simpson n Philip Gerard, Words & Music 86 Hear Thunder, Seek to Include: A Remembrance of Ronald H. Bayes by Joseph Bathanti 94 Help from Unexpected Quarters a review by Catherine Carter n Kathryn Kirkpatrick, The Fisher Queen 98 Chinaberry Tree a poem by Joyce Compton Brown art by Kimberlee Maselli 100 About Their Business, Two Contrasting Poets a review by Jim Clark n Sam Barbee, Apertures of Voluptuous Force n Michael Loderstedt, Why We Fished 26 Uncovering North Carolina’s Early Literary History a review by Jessica Cory n Gregg Hecimovich, The Life and Times of Hannah Crafts 28 Wolfe and Ammons: Their Brothers’ Seekers an essay by James W. Clark, Jr. 35 Appalachian Journeys a review by George Hovis n Rebecca Godwin, Community Across Time n Robert Morgan, In the Snowbird Mountains 41 Fearsome Accomplishment a review by Randall Wilhelm n Robert M. West and Jesse Graves, eds., Robert Morgan 44 Coastal Town a poem by Nathan Snead art by Wojtek Wojdynski 45 Reflection Against the Darkness a review by Barbara Bennett n Jill McCorkle, Old Crimes 48 A Song from the Cumbustible Heart of Pittsburgh a review by Michael Gaspeny n Joseph Bathanti, The Act of Contrition 50 Diving into the Wreck: A Review Essay on David Payne’s Trilogy John Ehle Prize essay by Elaine Neil Orr 68 Fright Night a review by John Kessel Dale Bailey, This Island Earth
IN THIS ISSUE 6 n North Carolina Disability Literature poetry, creative nonfiction, and book reviews 103 n North Carolina Miscellany poetry and book reviews
Echoes of Past Issues FLASHBACKS:


a review by Jessica Cory

Gregg Hecimovich. The Life and Times of Hannah Crafts: The True Story of The Bondwoman’s Narrative. Ecco, 2023.

Originally from southeastern Ohio, JESSICA CORY teaches in the English Department at Appalachian State University and is a PhD candidate specializing in Native American, African American, and environmental literatures at UNC Greensboro. She is the editor of Mountains Piled upon Mountains: Appalachian Nature Writing in the Anthropocene (West Virginia University Press, 2019) and a co-editor (with Laura Wright) of Appalachian Ecocriticism and the Paradox of Place (University of Georgia Press, 2023). Her creative and scholarly writings have been published in NCLR, North Dakota Quarterly, Northern Appalachia Review, and other publications.

GREGG HECIMOVICH received his PhD in English from Vanderbilt University and is a Professor of English at Furman University in Greenville, SC. He has also served as a Hutchins Family Fellow at Harvard University and has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities. He is the author and editor of five other scholarly books. Read his early essay on the beginning of his journey to identify Hannah Crafts in NCLR 2007.

Hannah Crafts’s The Bondwoman’s Narrative has been considered by scholars to be the first novel written by an African American woman, likely penned in 1856–1857, closely followed chronologically by Harriet Wilson’s Our Nig (1859) and Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861). Following Dorothy Porter Wesley’s safekeeping of the manuscript, Henry Louis Gates Jr. purchased the original document at auction and later edited and crafted an introduction to the novel, which became a New York Times best seller. In his introduction to Crafts’s work, Gates describes the steps he took to authenticate the manuscript and properly date it, as well as research he conducted in his attempt to identify the pseudonymous author, including some of his evidence in three appendices. Gates and other scholars over the last two decades managed to narrow down the pool of potential authors to a handful of women enslaved by the Wheeler family, slaveholders with plantations in North Carolina and many connections to state and federal government officials. In his biography of the novel’s author, The Life and Times of Hannah Crafts: The True Story of The Bondwoman’s Narrative, Gregg Hecimovich identifies the woman writing under the likely pseudonym, “Hannah Crafts.” Hecimovich’s thorough research argues, in addition to Crafts’s identity, that she is also a forerunner in the lengthy history of North Carolina literature, setting forth a precedent for not only North Carolina’s African American writers but for all of the talented writers

of the state, especially since she captures so much Southern history in her novel. North Carolina features front and center in many of the chapters, as the settings for much of Crafts’s novel occur in eastern and central North Carolina plantations. While there are scenes which take place in Washington, DC, and other areas, the bulk of the text is set in and around Murfreesboro, NC, in Hertford County, not far from the Virginia state line. Hecimovich engages other scholars, such as Hollis Robbins, who have noted that Crafts utilizes Southern Gothic tropes in her novel, as well as bases some passages on Charles Dickens’s Bleak House (1852), which Crafts scholars allege she would have heard female boarders from Chowan Baptist Female Institute reciting, as well as having access to the text through her captors’ ample library.

While Crafts’s text is certainly not the only early freedom narrative, sometimes called slave narrative, to heavily feature North Carolina (Harriet Jacobs’s work, for instance, takes place largely in Edenton, NC), it is unique in that, because it was not published during her lifetime, the text avoided the sometimes heavy-handed editorial practices of white editors and publishers. This lack of white intervention in her text and Gates’s limited editing for the novel’s 2002 release allow Hecimovich the hints required to delve more into the people, places, and events Crafts depicts throughout the novel.

Had the volume been published in the author’s lifetime (a speculation Hecimovich addresses near the end of his book), perhaps the real Hannah Crafts would still be a mystery.


As in other freedom narratives, Crafts chose to fictionalize particular aspects of her story to protect both herself and her abettors, yet Hecimovich reveals that much of the plot is based on either her real-life experiences or the experiences of other enslaved women with whom Crafts was acquainted, including her own family members. Moreover, the environmental details Crafts includes not only match her lived experience serving on North Carolina plantations, but actually helped Hecimovich accurately pinpoint particular locales mentioned in the novel. Hecimovich notes that many of Crafts’s descriptions, such as her mentions of orange trees, fig trees, and rice cultivation on the Wheeler plantation matched what records show was grown on the grounds of the Wheelers’ Murfreesboro, NC, estate, a historical corrective to scholars who supposed that Crafts had instead served at John Wheeler’s Ellangowan plantation in Lincoln County, NC, near Charlotte. While Crafts does name North Carolina in her book, it is Hecimovich who adds the specific places and people, providing a sort of behind-the-scenes look into not only Crafts’s world but also how these properties changed hands often within the same family, and how the family’s captives were passed down from family member to family member as well. Hecimovich’s inclusion of images of the buildings and plantations in question, as well as occasional portraits of people, bring this history to

life for readers. In addition to engaging his audience through images, Hecimovich’s work also departs in some notable ways from much scholarly work in that it is fairly accessible, both ideologically and linguistically. This observation is not to lessen the importance of the book; indeed, the fact that a broader audience can read and understand the text only adds to how useful it can be to many fields of study and to a general interest readership.

While I want to avoid any spoilers, such as revealing Hannah Crafts’s true identity, I will say that The Life and Times of Hannah Crafts reads as part mystery, part history, and moves with a well-developed narrative arc. The book is a surprisingly refreshing mixture of eloquent and nuanced storytelling combined with in-depth literary scholarship. While readers may expect the book to be a straightforward biography of the writer known as Hannah Crafts, Hecimovich tells her story not only through historical records

and facts but also through engaging narratives of the communities and people with whom Crafts built her life. This method of including the context and relationships behind Crafts’s life helps the reader gain a better understanding of who she was and how the situations she encountered shaped her novel.

Certainly, Hecimovich’s work will be critical in any future discussion of Crafts’s novel, and it will also prove crucial for discussion of North Carolina’s literary history, including the difficult and tragic realities captured by writers enslaved within the state. The Life and Times of Hannah Crafts is a must-read for anyone interested in early African American literature, North Carolina literary traditions, freedom narratives, or early political histories, as Hecimovich ties the politics of the day beyond North Carolina to more northern states as well as foreign countries, such as Nicaragua. Hecimovich rises to the challenge Gates posed with the publication of this novel just over twenty years ago and in doing so, illuminates for his audience not only the true identity of the first African American female novelist but also the complex and fascinating life she led. n

27 N C L R ONLINE Flashbacks: Echoes of Past Issues
ABOVE Gregg Hecimovich with Benjamin Speller, Dean of the School of Library and Information Sciences at NC Central University, and James Moore, Murfreesboro Historical Association President, at the Wheeler House in Murfreesboro, NC, 6 Nov. 2023 PHOTOGRAPH BY ALTON PARKER; COURTESY OF MURFREESBORO HISTORICAL ASSOCIATION

Wolfe and Ammons: Their Brothers’ Seekers

JAMES W. CLARK, JR., English Professor Emeritus at NC State University, completed his bachelor’s degree in English at UNC Chapel Hill, followed by a master’s and PhD in English from Duke University. Winner of the R. Hunt Parker Memorial Award in 1997 from the North Carolina Literary and Historical Association for significant contributions to North Carolina literature and the 2020 John Tyler Caldwell Award for the Humanities, Clark focused his academic career primarily on the cultural geography and literary history of North Carolina, his native state. Clark edited and wrote an introduction to Thomas Wolfe’s novella The Lost Boy (University of North Carolina Press, 1994).

For Jan Hensley

Thomas Wolfe never published “The Promise of America.” This short essay appeared posthumously in Coronet in September 1940 and was incorporated by Edward Aswell into Wolfe’s You Can’t Go Home Again at the end of Book IV. The final paragraph reads: “So, then, to every man his chance – to every man, regardless of his birth, his shining, golden opportunity – to every man the right to live, to work, to be himself, and to become whatever thing his manhood and his vision can combine to make him – this seeker, is the promise of America.”1

George Webber is a fictional, North Carolina–born seeker, the major semi-autobiographical character in You Can’t Go Home Again. Known as Monk, he is seized by wanderlust after four productive years in Brooklyn, New York. Archie Randolph Ammons was an actual North Carolinian, an exceptional farm boy from the southeastern flatlands of the state. He would grow up, also go north, and there grow old while seeking at Cornell University “to reinvent lyric poetry for contemporary America,” according to Helen Vendler. She notes that Ammons “declared with every volume that he defined himself explicitly as an American poet writing of American places and American people.”2 In a 1966 letter, Ammons described himself as “a North Carolinian on the small side, an American on the large side.”3 Wolfe, who may have seen himself in the same way, and Ammons were autobiographical writers who sought through literary experimentation to realize the promise of America. Ammons had the good fortune to live and work into old age. Wolfe died in mid-career.

What did they have in common?

In a 1980 interview A.R. Ammons said he was not conscious of having any affinities with Thomas Wolfe. Cynthia Haythe had asked the distinguished poet specifically about his sense of home. He told her his sense of home was innate and not a result of his Southern roots or the influence of the author of Look Homeward,4

1 Thomas Wolfe, You Can’t Go Home Again (Harper, 1940) 508.

2 Helen Vendler, introduction, The Complete Poems of A.R. Ammons, Volume 1, Ed. Robert W. West (Norton, 2017) xxxi; subsequently cited parenthetically. Ammons’s poetry quoted in this essay is cited from these volumes.

3 Kevin McGuirk, ed., An Image for Longing: Selected Letters and Journals of A.R. Ammons, 1951–1974 (ELS, 2013) 256; subsequently cited parenthetically.

4 Cynthia Haythe, “An Interview with A.R. Ammons” Critical Essays on A.R. Ammons, Ed. Robert Kirschten (Hall, 1997) 88.


at the age of four, both [writers] had lost a brother who ate bad food.

Angel. This exchange helps explain how this important American poet and university professor, who spent the majority of his adulthood in Ithaca, New York, would begin the third stanza of his well-known elegy “Easter Morning” with these words: “when I go back to my home country in these / fresh far-away days” (II, 14). His home country, in this poem a church cemetery, remained rural southeastern North Carolina, no matter how far and how long he might live or roam away from there.

Ammons did not tell his 1980 interviewer, because he may not have known, that he and Thomas Wolfe, in fact, shared a most tragic and abiding personal affinity: at the age of four, both of them had lost a brother who ate bad food. Wolfe first described the death of an older brother in Saint Louis at the 1904 World’s Fair in Chapter 5 of Look Homeward, Angel. Whether Ammons knew that account or ever heard of or read Wolfe’s long-considered prose homage to his dead brother Grover is uncertain. It appeared in Redbook in November 1937; then in a different form posthumously in The Hills Beyond, published in 1941; and finally, the oldest version was published as a novella in 1992. Ammons’s memorial for his younger brother Elbert appeared in Poetry magazine in April 1979, and Ammons included “Easter Morning” in A Coast of Trees (1981), his twelfth book of poems.

The basic facts of how Ammons’s brother Willis Elbert and Wolfe’s brother Grover succumbed to bad food have survived. The death certificate of the Ammons boy says he had consumed raw peanuts without chewing them. He was less than two years old on May 10, 1930, peanut planting time in southeastern North Carolina. Seed peanuts may have been lying around outside where Elbert and Archie played. Elbert ate them raw and died. Twelve-year old Grover Wolfe, after eating spoiled exhibit fruit at the 1904 World’s Fair, contracted and died of typhoid at his mother’s rented boardinghouse in St. Louis that fall.5

5 Read about these deaths in Vendler (Vol. 1, xxxiii) and in David Herbert Donald, Look Homeward: A Life of Thomas Wolfe (Little, Brown, 1987) 10; subsequently cited parenthetically.

29 N C L R ONLINE Flashbacks: Echoes of Past Issues

in adulthood, each man longingly sought his missing brother in formal compositions, Wolfe in prose and Ammons primarily in poetry.

Neither author stressed the food-borne illness that caused his brother’s death, and neither railed against God in anger or grief. But in adulthood, each man longingly sought his missing brother in formal compositions, Wolfe in prose and Ammons primarily in poetry. Without creating additional literary texts or journal entries devoted exclusively to seeking Grover, Wolfe died less than a year after his 1937 publication of The Lost Boy. Ammons lived over a score of years after the publication of “Easter Morning” in 1979. Five years earlier, in Section 140 of Sphere: The Form of a Motion (1974), he had described “he long, empty, freezing gulfs of darkness . . . // . . . even from childhood, when / the younger brother sickened and then moved no more” (I, 715). He also spoke of the tormenting memories of his brother’s death at least twice after the elegy was published. Both of these accounts are included in Ammons’s Set in Motion: Essays, Interviews, and Dialogues 6

First, in this brief 1982 piece entitled “I Couldn’t Wait to Say the Word,” Ammons remembers:

Three sisters, two surviving, had been born before me, and two brothers, one dying at eighteen months and the other at birth, were born after me. The sister who died before I was born had lived for two weeks.

I was nearly four years old when the Crash came . . . [and] a strict change occurred that was deepened and made permanent by the death of my brother in May 1930. I have images of him lying in his cradle covered with a veil, and I saw his coffin being made, and I watched as he was taken away, his coffin astraddle the open rumble seat of a Model A. I see my mother leaning against the porch between the huge blue hydrangeas as she wept and prayed.

The surviving son, I must have felt guilty for living and also endangered, as the only one left to be next. Mourning the loss of life, in life and in death, has been the undercurrent of much of my verse and accounts for a tone of constraint that my attempts at wit, prolixity, and transcendence merely underscore. (35)

As the second tormenting memory of his little brother’s death, Ammons gave William Walsh in 1989 the following answer to the question “do you have a least favorite childhood memory?”:

The most powerful image of my emotional life is something I had repressed and one of my sisters lately reminded me of. It was

6 A.R. Ammons, Set in Motion: Essays, Interviews, & Dialogue, Ed. Zofia Burr (U of Michigan P, 1996); Ammons quotations from this volume will be subsequently cited parenthetically.

My mother some days later found his footprint in the yard and tried to build something over it to keep the wind from blowing it away.

when my little brother, who was two and a half years younger than I, died at eighteen months. My mother some days later found his footprint in the yard and tried to build something over it to keep the wind from blowing it away. That’s the most powerful image I’ve ever known. (70–71).

In reference to this account, Ammons scholar Roger Gilbert has written, “One would be hard-pressed to find an image that more poignantly captures the perennial conflict between transience, embodied so often for Ammons by the action of the wind on sand or dust, and the human need to preserve fragments of its own existence and of those it has loved.”7

Both the novella The Lost Boy and “Easter Morning” present ample evidence that Wolfe and Ammons had made personal pilgrimages as seekers to “preserve fragments of [their] own existence” and of their dead brothers’. The fourth part of Wolfe’s novella about Grover is based on the September 1935 stopover by Wolfe in St Louis to revisit the house in which he had endured his older brother’s wasting death over three decades earlier. In his poem, Ammons describes coming from Ithaca for another “home country” reunion in the New Hope Baptist Church cemetery where Elbert and other family and community members lay buried. Neither Grover nor Elbert was responsive to their brothers’ seeking. Hot and sultry St. Louis yielded “absence in the afternoon” only, and the sandy North Carolina graveyard that Easter morning offered not a whisper about resurrection, redemption, or salvation. Christianity’s crucifixion vocabulary could give nothing to the poet who had long since secularized his imagination and become, in his own view, an Emersonian. Still, he made the pilgrimages to New Hope cemetery seeking Elbert.

One of Wolfe’s long sought-after, unfulfilled longings throughout had been finding his lost brother. As a boy of three and then four in the summer and fall of 1904, Tom had anxiously awaited Grover’s return from the fair each afternoon. But over three decades later, Wolfe the seeker was finally convinced that Grover was gone:

“Well, then, good-bye.”

And again, again, I turned into the street, finding the place where corners meet, turning to look again to see where Time had gone. And all of it was just the same, it seemed that it had never 7

31 N C L R ONLINE Flashbacks: Echoes of Past Issues
Documentary Exhibit, Ed. Jonathan Dembo (J.Y. Joyner Library, East Carolina University, 2008) 15.
Roger Gilbert, “Footprints from a Poet’s Path: A.R. Ammons Collection at East
University” A.R. Ammon’s
ABOVE Grover Cleveland Wolfe, circa 1900

changed since then, except all had been found and caught and captured for forever. And so, finding all, I knew all had been lost.

I knew that I would never come again, and that lost magic would not come again...

I knew that I would never come again, and that lost magic would not come again, and that the light that came, that passed and went and then returned again, the memory of lost voices in the hills, cloud shadows passing in the mountains, the voices of our kinsmen long ago, the street, the heat, King’s Highway, and the piper’s son, the vast and drowsy murmur of the distant Fair – oh, strange and bitter miracle of Time, come back again.

But I knew that it could not come back – the cry of absence in the afternoon, the house that waited and the child that dreamed, and through the thicket of man’s memory, from the enchanted wood, the dark eye and the quiet face, – poor child, life’s stranger and life’s exile, lost, like all of us, a cipher in blind mazes, long ago – parent, friend, and brother, the lost boy, was gone forever and would not return.8


This Redbook ending to The Lost Boy, the wording almost identical in both versions of the story and the 1992 novella, deserves comment for two reasons. First is the beautifully expressed honesty about the triumphant failure of Wolfe’s long search for Grover. And second, this is the earliest description by Wolfe of what he would eventually express as “You Can’t Go Home Again.” Grover had gone forever with time and was not to be found in the house in St. Louis or anywhere else. Not finding Grover amounted, for Wolfe, to not finding home again. The sharpest articulation of this sad life lesson would come to Wolfe a little later: in December 1937, at a dinner party given by Sherwood Anderson (Donald 434). There Ella Winter had made the actual statement, but Wolfe already knew and felt its truth. For during the preceding period of over two years, 1935–37, Wolfe had made his failed stopover in St. Louis as well as two revealing trips to Germany, including the 1936 one giving him a deep sense of losing his European home, as described in “I Have a Thing to Tell You.” In the process of ultimately seeking Grover by writing and publishing The Lost Boy, Wolfe had learned from Grover, his “parent, friend, and brother,” that he can’t find the lost boy or home again.

In the case of Ammons’s seeking Elbert, Vendler leads other readers in her evolving explication of “Easter Morning.” To her it soon became his great poem, a “new treasure in American poetry

ABOVE The University of North Carolina Press’s 1992 edition of The Lost Boy, edited and introduced by James W. Clark, with illustrations by Lindlof
E. Skipp, ed., The Complete Short Stories of Thomas Wolfe (Scribners, 1987) 380.
Quoted from Francis

combining the blankest of losses with the fullest of visions.” 9 Shortly after the poet’s death, she wrote again of the poem:

It is the saddest of poems as it opens: “I have a life that did not become,” and yet it becomes sadder as it tells why that stunted life could not progress beyond the tragedy of his little brother’s death. It becomes even sadder as it sees this event as typical of all human life rather than singular to his own; and it bursts out in its more violent statement:

we all buy the bitter incompletions, pick up the knots of horror, silently raving, and go on crashing into empty ends not completions

Not stopping at the tragedy of death alone, the poet’s Easter morning in the family churchyard progresses even to the extinction of meaning and intelligibility in the “flash high-burn / momentary structure of ash.” Yet the poem ends with what Ammons calls “a sight of bountiful / majesty and integrity” . . . which marks this poem as distinctively American in its turn to wildness and the width of sky.10

Vendler sees Ammons as rewriting the Easter story, the “most sacred of Christian myths,” in ordinary American language (Vendler, “Titles” 44). He has a transformative vision in the New Hope cemetery. His joy in nature is resurrected as he again seeks his dead brother while walking there:

I saw something I had never seen before: two great birds, maybe eagles, blackwinged, whitenecked and -headed, came from the south oaring the great wings steadily; they went directly over me, high up, and kept on due north: but then one bird, the one behind, veered a little to the left and the other bird kept on seeming not to notice for a minute: the first began to circle as if looking for something, coasting, resting its wings on the down side of some of the circles:

9 Helen Vendler, “A.R. Ammons: Dwelling in the Flow of Shapes” Critical Essays on A.R. Ammons, Ed. Robert Kirschten (Hall, 1997) 210.

10 Helen Vendler, “The Titles” A.R. Ammons, 1926–2001,” Poetry 179.1 (2001): 43–44; subsequently cited parenthetically.

33 N C L R ONLINE Flashbacks: Echoes of Past Issues

the other bird came back and they both circled, looking perhaps for a draft; they turned a few more times, possibly rising – at least, clearly resting –then flew on falling into distance till they broke across the local bush and trees: it was a sight of bountiful majesty and integrity: the having patterns and routes, breaking from them to explore other patterns or better ways to routes, and then the return: a dance sacred as the sap in the trees, permanent in its descriptions as the ripples round the brook’s ripplestone: fresh as this particular flood of burn breaking across us now from the sun. (II, 16)

That Easter morning, Ammons’s radiant sunrise vision in his family’s section of this home country cemetery affirms once again his Emersonian faith in the unyielding laws of nature. The two great birds point the poet, with his long-dead brother Elbert, north toward home. Thomas Wolfe’s prose account of his long search for his lost brother Grover led, within the year of his own early death, to Wolfe’s ultimate acceptance of irreparable, irremediable loss – and of absence in the afternoon forever.

Independently of each other, from the age of four, Ammons and Wolfe had been seeking dead brothers.

Independently of each other, from the age of four, Ammons and Wolfe had been seeking dead brothers. Ammons’s need to seek Elbert continued even after the publication of “Easter Morning.” Wolfe had experimented in writing The Lost Boy as a short novel and as a story, ultimately learning to let death be death. He could not find Grover or go home again. The promise of America provided Wolfe and Ammons a chance to seek their own literary answers or visions. In a 1969 fan letter to Wendell Berry, the seeker who would write “Easter Morning” in the next decade, confessed: “I told Phyllis, my wife, you must be the brother I never had” (McGuirk 288). n

KAREN BALTIMORE has designed for NCLR since 2013. For this issue, she designed this essay, the essays on Payne and Bayes, and the poetry. See more of her work on her website



a review by George Hovis

Rebecca Godwin. Community Across Time: Robert Morgan’s Words for Home. West Virginia University Press, 2023.

Robert Morgan. In the Snowbird Mountains and Other Stories. Press 53, 2023.

GEORGE HOVIS, born and raised in North Carolina, lives in Upstate New York, where he is Distinguished Teaching Professor of English at SUNY Oneonta. He earned his PhD in English from UNC Chapel Hill. He is the author of Vale of Humility: Plain Folk in Contemporary North Carolina Fiction (University of South Carolina Press, 2007) and the novel The Skin Artist (SFK Press, 2019; reviewed and discussed in NCLR Online 2020 ). He writes frequently for NCLR , including interviews, essays, and book reviews.

REBECCA GODWIN is retired from Barton College in Wilson, NC, where she was Professor of English and Elizabeth H. Jordan Chair of Southern Literature. She received her PhD in English from UNC Chapel Hill. She is author of Gender Dynamics in the Fiction of Lee Smith: Examining Language and Narrative Strategies (International Scholars Publications, 1997), as well as numerous essays and book reviews in critical anthologies and scholarly journals, all focused on Southern or Appalachian writers, including an essay on David Joy in Twenty-First-Century Southern Writers: New Voices, New Perspectives (University Press of Mississippi, 2021). Past Chair of the North Carolina Writers Conference and past President of the North Carolina Literary and Historical Association as well as the Thomas Wolfe Society, she currently serves on the North Caroliniana Society Board of Directors.

Readers of Robert Morgan have ample reason to celebrate 2023 – with a new collection of his stories and an important new work of scholarship by Rebecca Godwin – as well as Morgan’s much anticipated biography of Edgar Allan Poe released in November. Author of thirty-two books of fiction, poetry, and nonfiction – the majority of them explorations of his family and regional history in southern Appalachia – Robert Morgan’s writing has attracted a growing body of critical literature, including a collection of interviews in 2019, a collection of critical essays in 2022, and special issues of four major journals devoted to his work.1 Despite this abundant interest, remarkably, Rebecca Godwin’s Community Across Time is the first monograph upon his work, and, as such, it is poised to satisfy a demand that is keenly felt.

Rebecca Godwin’s Community Across Time: Robert Morgan’s Words for Home, offers a comprehensive and seminal treatment of Morgan’s extensive body of fiction writing, one that uses as its primary touchstone the author’s biography, traced back across multiple generations of maternal and paternal ancestors. Very early in the study, the wisdom of Godwin’s approach becomes clear. Even Morgan scholars aware of how

biographical materials have found their way into his fiction will likely be surprised at how pervasive Godwin reveals these connections between life and fiction to be. In her introduction to a study of Morgan’s family novels, Godwin quotes Morgan as saying, “One of the motivations to write fiction is to make the past come alive – to try to understand it, to get into it, to see it in the kind of intimate detail and complexity with which we see contemporary life” (70). Community Across Time reads Morgan’s fiction and poetry as a palimpsest that builds upon family lore and regional history, breathing life into a past that has passed into oblivion under waves of industrialization and late capitalism.

We learn of Morgan’s greatgrandfather John Benjamin Franklin Pace and of how he encountered Holiness worship as a survival strategy while in New York’s Elmira prison camp during the Civil War. We follow the ensuing religious strife that engulfs Ben Pace’s descendants, how his daughter Sarah fought with her hardshell-Baptist husband over her desire to attend Holiness services, how their son (Robert Morgan’s father) was affected by this familial conflict. Making use of extensive interviews and an unpublished memoir, Godwin traces the ways Morgan has developed

1 Jesse Graves and Randall Wilhem, eds., Conversations with Robert Morgan (UP of Mississippi, 2019); Jesse Graves and Robert M. West, eds., Robert Morgan: Essays on the Life and Work (McFarland, 2022; reviewed in this issue). The following journals have published special issues on the writing of Robert Morgan: Iron Mountain Review (1990), Pembroke Magazine (2003), Appalachian Heritage (2004), and Southern Quarterly (2010).

35 N C L R ONLINE Flashbacks: Echoes of Past Issues

this and other family history in The Truest Pleasure (1995), Gap Creek (1999), This Rock (2001), and other writing. Inclusion of a series of family photographs further enhances these connections. Of course, Morgan’s fiction stands on its own without the necessity of being tied to biographical sources; however, Godwin demonstrates how biography provides an invaluable tool for organizing the body of an author’s work into a coherent whole, one that in Morgan’s case relates a history spanning several centuries.

Godwin practices a similar method when reading Morgan’s historical novels that are less directly tied to family stories. She provides historical context for Brave Enemies (2003) by relating events in the novel to the Battle of Cowpens, a turning point in the Revolutionary War. In her discussion of Morgan’s neo-slave narrative Chasing the North Star (2016; reviewed in NCLR Online 2017), Godwin makes connections to Frederick Douglass’s 1845 Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave and Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861), as well as the illuminating research of Stephanie M.H. Camp into sexuality among enslaved people.

Although the primary focus of this book is on Morgan’s fiction, Godwin incorporates frequent discussions of Morgan’s poetry

and historical biographies, especially when they connect with themes explored in the novels and short stories. One indication that Godwin has selected a fruitful – arguably the essential – approach to a reading of Morgan’s fiction is the way that her line of inquiry converges with and extrapolates the author’s own comments about his work and its connections to family history. Godwin’s text is dense with nuanced interpretation while also offering a pleasurable read, one that will be indispensable to the committed Morgan scholar and thoroughly accessible to anyone interested in reading single works by Morgan more deeply or making connections among his varied work.

In contrast to the sprawling family saga and Appalachian history that occupy his novels, the stories in Robert Morgan’s

Born in Hendersonville, NC, ROBERT MORGAN grew up in the Blue Ridge Mountains. He has published seven novels, five collections of stories, and sixteen collections of poetry, and, in addition to reviews, his work has been discussed in NCLR in several essays and interviews with the author. He has won awards and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Rockefeller Foundation. His awards also include the Thomas Wolfe Prize, the James G. Hanes Poetry Prize, and the North Carolina Award for Literature, and he was inducted into the North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame. He is Kappa Alpha Professor of English Emeritus at Cornell University, where he taught for five decades.

recent collection, In the Snowbird Mountains, feature mostly contemporary protagonists who travel west to rediscover the mountains of their youth and in so doing stumble into potentially deadly adventures, ones that often connect with the region’s past. In Community Across Time, Godwin relates an account Morgan has often shared publicly of the first story he ever wrote. He was in the sixth grade, and the rest of his class had departed on a field trip to the Biltmore House in Asheville. Because he “did not have the three dollars required for the outing,” he remained behind in the classroom. While the other students were away for the day, Morgan responded to a writing prompt provided by his teacher: “a man is lost in the Canadian Rockies, with no gun or knife; get him back to civilization. By day’s end, Morgan had created his first story, drawing

ABOVE Mount Mitchell, circa 1930s

OPPOSITE Judaculla Rock in Jackson County, circa 1930s


on his own experiences in the woods as well as his reading of London and Curwood” (23). With this latest collection, Morgan has gone back to this original story idea, creating a series of adventure tales in which ordinary men, several of them distinguished academics, having long established themselves in the North Carolina Piedmont, return to the mountains only to be thrust into life-threatening situations, some combination of mountain creatures, human criminals, law enforcement, and the natural elements themselves.

In “The Body on Mt. Mitchell,” “the editor of a small-time paper . . . fighting for its life in the age of television and social media” travels west to the tallest peak east of the Mississippi, in order to mix work with “recreation” (1–2). The editor intends to chronicle his exploration of Mount Mitchell in search of the waterfall where in 1857 the body of the mountain’s namesake, Professor Elisha Mitchell, was discovered after he’d accidentally fallen to his death. The editor finds that he is fighting for more than his professional life when he encounters a large alligator, which has apparently emerged from a “fetid sinkhole” at the base of the mountain (7). Our protagonist is reminded of the legends of gators inhabiting sewers of New York City, an allusion that amplifies the elements of tall tale marking this playful story. A second antagonism, and one that recurs throughout the collection, appears between the narrator and the park ranger who threatens to arrest him for violating park rules. Here, as in other stories of the collection, law enforcement occupies an ambiguous position, but ulti-

mately one intended to protect the “civilized” tourist from the mountain wilderness and vice versa. This editor/narrator seeks communion with the wilderness of his youth and, by extension, an earlier age of humanity, an age of tooth and claw when people were not insulated from nature by technology. As he confronts the gator, the editor identifies the “prehistoric animal” as a “demon from the age of the dinosaurs, from the era of volcanoes and flying reptiles, before there was warm blood” (10).

In “Judaculla Rock,” we find a similar quest into the mountains figured as a quest to know the past. Dr. Jim Evans, a botanist recently retired from teaching at a “small Lutheran college near the middle of North Carolina” (86), sees a news article about vandalism of Judaculla Rock, a petroglyph located near the site of his childhood home. The story begins with Jim providing a catalogue of guesses at the origins of the petroglyph. According to one theory, it is a Cherokee memorial to an important military victory over the Creeks. Other scholars claim that the stone originated from the era of Woodland tribes

who predated the Cherokee. According to Cherokee legend, the stone bears the imprint of a giant named Judaculla, who leapt from the mountain whenever he sought out his human lover. Another theory, one put forth by the young man convicted of vandalism, pushes the petroglyph’s origin even further back. According to this young man, the figures on the stone are an oracle of human suffering inscribed by “beings from outer space, from beyond the known stars, who had invaded the planet long before people existed” (87). When Jim Evans arrives at the site to make his own inspection, he is confronted not with a solution to the petroglyph’s puzzle but, rather, with a deepening of mystery:

The markings were like the deep language of nature itself, dark energy, black holes, and dark matter, like the strange attractor, the first cause: elusive, essentially unknowable. The more we know about nature the less we understand. That’s why science is so thrilling. We always look for the key that unlocks the code, the semiotics of our world, that recedes the closer we study. These ancient scriveners had understood and inscribed that very sense of mystery. (92)

37 N C L R ONLINE Flashbacks: Echoes of Past Issues

The ensuing action serves as a personal corollary to this cosmic message. Immediately following the revelatory passage quoted above, Jim Evans turns away from the stone to be accosted by an unkempt woman who lures him down a path farther and farther into the bush, presumably to help rescue her father stricken by heart attack. Once far from parking lot and path, Jim is struck in the head and later returns to consciousness with a splitting headache to find himself not only robbed of phone and wallet but also totally naked, even shoeless, an old man utterly exposed to the elements and without help in sight – King Lear on the heath.

In the collection’s titular story, “In the Snowbird Mountains,” an aging protagonist named Troy finds himself in a similar situation. Recently recovered from surgery to remove a meningioma, Troy takes to the trail with backpack and cane, only to be trapped in the wilderness by flooding streams and to have his good leg broken in a landslide. Crawling on all fours, without shelter from the elements, confronted by a bear and then poachers, he likens himself to the biblical King Nebuchadnezzar, stripped of his power and on his “belly, eating grass with the kine” (121). In “Hurricane,” we again find protagonists battling the elements. Two young men from southern Appalachia escape a sadistic deputy sheriff intent on whipping them with a chain, only to be whipped about by winds of the powerful storm. Reduced to little more than a

will to survive, they find delivery after jeopardizing their own safety in order to rescue another helpless victim of the storm.

The collection’s two stories with child protagonists are set in the early and mid-twentieth century. Even these two stories of childhood center upon confrontations with mortality. “The Wonderful City” resonates powerfully with our post–COVID moment by relating the story of the typhoid epidemic of 1924. Having seen his grandmother succumb to the Spanish flu only five years before, a teenaged boy named Billy imagines typhoid as “a giant stepping over hills, breathing venom and swinging a long razor” (15). As with COVID-19, one of the features of typhoid that makes it so threatening is its unpredictability.

According to Billy’s father, “Two people who lived together, ate the same meals, drank the same water, slept in the same bed, might have opposite responses. One could sicken and die, while the other was untouched, or at worst suffered what was called ‘walking typhoid’” (16). Billy becomes infected after he breaks his family’s quarantine and travels to a nearby farm to play with a friend and afterward drinks from a pool of infected water. For many days thereafter he suffers recurrent fever dreams in which he imagines himself traveling beyond the mountains toward a wonderful city, where, in contrast to his biblically-inclined expectations of “streets paved with gold,” he finds a paradise of sidewalks that “moved like conveyor belts

in both directions, and people soared above the streets on little platforms, holding to handlebars,” where “pavements were transparent as glass or ice” (28). Here as in the other stories discussed, a confrontation with mortality corresponds with a revelation of deepening mystery.

The same is true in “The Secret Face,” a tale inspired by Morgan’s boyhood love of fishing.2 A boy named Tony, while waiting for an elusive trout to find his bait, discovers a dead body immersed beneath the water and a head bobbing with the current. Instead of running for help or reporting the terrible find, as one might expect, Tony hordes his secret, and over the course of the following days the corpse becomes a source of complex emotions: feelings of misplaced culpability, along with the thrill of danger and pleasure at withholding the secret from other eyes. In contrast to Morgan’s novels, which explore networks of kinship and community, In the Snowbird Mountains is distinguished by a focus on the isolated self confronting mortality.

The one story from the collection to explore relationships within an Appalachian community does so only after its narrator has passed out of this life to be with his dearly departed. “Beyond the Outer Banks” is a dialogue-driven drama (which Morgan reports in his Press 53 reading, he originally wrote as a play) featuring a businessman named Charles who is rushing from the office to spend a vacation with his family on Ocracoke

2 According to Kevin Morgan Watson, Press 53 editor, during the online launch of In the Snowbird Mountains and Other Stories,” Zoom 1 May 2023: web.


Island. When he takes a detour by his Raleigh home to pack a few remaining items, Charles is shocked to be greeted by a series of unexpected guests from his Appalachian childhood and youth. As the evolving dialogues reveal, each guest in some way saved Charles’s life or furthered his success. There is his ninth-grade English teacher who gave him the A he did not deserve, thereby encouraging his confidence and paving the way for future, legitimate success. Next, he is greeted by the uncle who pulled Charles as a toddler away from a rooster’s slashing spurs. He meets the cousin who in adolescence prevented him from eating rat poison. As he listens to each guest casually relate another story of life-saving rescue, Charles impatiently ponders how he might gracefully excuse himself so that he might catch the last ferry to the Outer Banks. The story opens with this driven businessman’s observation, “When you’re in a hurry all things conspire to frustrate you” (59), and the irony and deeper message of that statement become apparent to the reader well before they do to Charles.

The motif of boys and older men confronting their own mortality may have a biographical source. But they may also be related to Morgan’s most recent biographical project: Fallen Angel: The Life of Edgar Allan Poe (2023). Poe’s stories, of course, frequently feature the isolated ego confronting its own annihilation. The story from this collection that most

clearly echoes Poe – and especially Poe’s preoccupation with premature burial – is “Devil’s Courthouse,” which involves an archaeology professor from a “small college in central North Carolina” (35), who returns to the mountains after reading news that a sizable gold nugget has been found in the vicinity of Devil’s Courthouse, a rock formation near the Blue Ridge Parkway where he explored as a youth. Of greater interest to this professor of archaeology and “student of the Cherokees,” the nugget was found near manacled bones reported to be Native remains. Steeped in the lore of gold rushes, including the one in the Piedmont region of North Carolina that preceded those out west in California and the Yukon, the professor is prepared to be greeted by “hordes of frantic prospectors” ready to “claim, dig, fight, kill, and spoil the land” (36). Instead, he finds several couples distracted by cell phones and iPads. “If there had been smart phones in 1849,” the narrator muses,

“there might not have been a Gold Rush.” Before leaving the parking area, the professor encounters a park ranger who warns him of an escapee from the “mental wing of the VA hospital near Asheville,” a man the ranger calls a “deranged Vietnam vet” (39). Later, exploring below the Devil’s Courthouse, the professor encounters the veteran, who has apparently fled the mental hospital in search of freedom. Perhaps concerned that the professor is encroaching upon his sanctuary, the vet warns of a panther that has been “using up here,” as well as “more skeletons in these woods than the one they found” (40). Later in the story, the veteran complains of being haunted by ghosts. Reference to hidden skeletons, ghosts, and to the panther (hunted to extinction in southern Appalachia), as well as to the veteran’s participation in the tragic and disastrous US occupation of South Vietnam, all set up themes of oppression, exploitation, and violence, as well as retribution,

39 N C L R ONLINE Flashbacks: Echoes of Past Issues
ABOVE View from Hwy 634 near Highlands, NC, including the shadow of Devil’s Courthouse in center

resurgence, and resistance to oppression, preparing us for the professor’s discovery of long-buried evidence of violent contact between Cherokees and marauding conquistadors searching for gold.

Undeterred by the “madman’s” warnings, the archaeology professor persists in his exploration until he unearths a cave entrance that leads down two hundred feet into the heart of the mountain, what he quickly assumes to have been a gold mine from the age of de Soto. The professor proceeds through the tunnel by way of stone steps he presumes to have been carved by Cherokees enslaved by Spanish prospectors in the sixteenth century. As he descends those steps into sulfurous, suffocating vapors, toward a terrifying revelation of retribution reminiscent of Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado,” the professor is overcome by childhood lessons of “fire and brimstone, of hell deep under the earth. It was easy to see why our ancestors believed the Devil dwelt far down in the ground, tormented by sulfurous fumes and black flames. Where else could hell be but deep in the earth? And here I was beneath Devil’s Courthouse” (50). Like Poe’s stories of madmen and killers, of mariners and prisoners facing death, Morgan’s story plumbs the darker spaces of the human psyche – both the professor’s terror and mankind’s propensity toward greed and pursuit of power over others.

Like Poe’s Montressor at the end of “The Cask of Amontillado,” Morgan’s professor leaves the earth’s crypt with a terrible secret of premature burial. But the protagonist of “Devil’s

Courthouse” is no Montressor, and his decision to keep the secret to himself is not driven by dark self-interest. On the contrary, he resists self-interest and the glory of publishing this major archaeological find, in order to avoid perpetuating further suffering. His cultural sensitivity and respect for Cherokee oral history makes him aware that they may already know of the centuriesold secret he has just stumbled upon. A scene he surreptitiously witnesses aboveground at the story’s end helps him to arrive at this choice of self-restraint. From a thicket of briars at the base of Devil’s Courthouse, he watches the park ranger and a state trooper brutally subdue the armed veteran he’d met earlier in the story. The professor laments, “The modern world had its own atrocities, more than enough” (56).

In the hands of Poe, “The Devil’s Courthouse” might have been written from the perspective of the “deranged” Vietnam

vet. Poe likely would have been drawn to the man’s neurological difference and the alienation that helped to produce it. By contrast, the protagonists of Morgan’s latest collection give the impression that they belong to a supportive community, even when they find themselves alone and deep in the wilderness enduring the most abject suffering. Although these communities tend to remain in backstory, or otherwise on the stories’ peripheries, they are felt in the consciousness of the protagonists. In “Devil’s Courthouse,” for example, we share the professor’s memories of teenage years hunting deer with his father in the Pisgah National Forest near Devil’s Courthouse, and also of the “hardscrabble,” “one-horse” farm where he’d grown up, a farm he’d been “happy to escape to attend college” but that now seems to draw him home, producing the feeling that he is “driving back in time” (37). Unlike Poe, whose mother died when he was still a toddler, who was abandoned by father and foster father, who lived an itinerate and impoverished existence, Robert Morgan’s deep ties to family and community across time, and to their collective roots in Appalachia, yield protagonists who may suffer terrible pain and fear but who are never divested of their humanity. In the Snowbird Mountains celebrates both Appalachian community and the spirit of frontier exploration alive in this contemporary generation, imagining adventures in which even aging academics might defy death and glimpse fresh revelations of the mystery at the heart of creation. n



a review by Randall Wilhelm

Robert M. West and Jesse Graves, Editors. Robert Morgan: Essays on the Life and Work (McFarland Press, 2022).

RANDALL WILHELM is editor of The Ron Rash Reader (2014; reviewed in NCLR Online 2017), Summoning the Dead: Essays on Ron Rash (2018; reviewed in NCLR Online 2019), which he co-edited with Zackary Vernon (both published by University of South Carolina Press), and Conversations with Robert Morgan (University Press of Mississippi, 2019), which he co-edited with Jesse Graves. He holds degrees in both art and literature, including an MA from Clemson University and a PhD from the University of Tennessee. He is recently retired from teaching after thirty years in the classroom. Read his essay “Expressive Interplay through Pictures and Words: The Art and Design in NCLR 2017

After thirty-two books of poetry, short fiction, novels, and nonfiction over the last six decades, it would be easy to crown Robert Morgan the elder statesman of Appalachian literature. Morgan’s award-winning work has been recognized for its impeccable craft, concision, and depth, and a chiseled prose and verse as clean and strong as if cut from mountain stone and teeming with inscrutable mystery. “Wonder” is the word many scholars wield when spelunking through the layered strata of Morgan’s mountain oeuvre, a mother lode still producing the purest gold, as two recent publications –The Oratorio of Time: Fourteen Poems and Three Stories (2022) and In the Snowbird Mountains (2023) – powerfully attest. In Robert Morgan: Essays on the Life and Work, editors Robert M. West and Jesse Graves offer a collection of superb essays that explore fundamental aspects of Morgan’s work throughout his long career, from Zirconia Poems (1969) to the break-

through novel Gap Creek (1999) to the cosmic poetry of Dark Energy (2015).

In the preface, West lays claim to the collection’s primary goal, that “the greatest praise” readers and scholars can offer a writer “is their repeated, sustained attention” (2). As the first essay collection devoted solely to Morgan’s writing, the book certainly achieves its ambition. In four distinct sections, readers move contrapuntally between Morgan’s work and his life, from the opening essays “On the Poetry” to a photo gallery in “People and Places” to studies “On the Prose” and, finally, to Morgan’s own thoughts about place and writing in “In His Own Words.” This collection assembles some of the best writing on Morgan’s work over the years and includes insightful new essays that provide constructive approaches to seeing even deeper into Morgan’s imagined world.

Since Morgan began his career as a poet, the collection rightfully begins with a

41 N C L R ONLINE Flashbacks: Echoes of Past Issues
ABOVE Old Morgan House, circa 1914 (Robert Morgan’s father is the child on the far left; Morgan’s great grandfather, J.B. F.Pace, the model for Pa in The Truest Pleasure is on the far right.) COURTESY OF ROBERT MORGAN

focus on his verse that includes four foundational essays previously published by fellow poets Fred Chappell (1976), William Harmon (1981), Rita Sims Quillen (1989), and Michael McFee (1990). These essays form the groundwork for the study of Morgan’s poetic sensibilities and signature aesthetics. Chappell’s “appreciation” anoints Morgan as a poet of the first order and offers a catalogue of thematic material essential to Morgan’s vision: “the outlines of this landscape are primitive; they consist of the enormous and imperious operations of nature, of a society of poor, narrow, and proudly embittered people” (7). Harmon’s essay on “Pelagian Georgics” shows how Morgan refuses “the easy equations between grief and doom” (15) in poems that “may be the last dwelling place of oldtime agriculture and country life in general” (22). Harmon’s essay is essential reading for understanding Morgan’s distinct craft and his use of difficult and unusual poetic forms, especially the feverish “three hundred and fifty roughly decasyllabic” line “Mockingbird” (18).

Recent essays from Bhisham Bherwani (2015), Jim Clark (2022), and West (2022) provide longer views into Morgan’s poetic work. Bherwani’s analysis of the “elegiac strain” examines how Morgan’s “intimacy with

perennial decay and renewal seems to underlie his urge to revive in poems what is in other ways irretrievable (his childhood, its people, the past in general)” (65). Clark’s look at the “musica speculativa,” the “medieval music theory . . . mathematics, and mysticism, underpinned by Pythagorean notions” (53), considers how “music is the ‘master metaphor’” that synthesizes and unifies Morgan’s “quadrivium of music, writing, history and nature into a harmonious whole” (61). West’s concluding essay on “The Missing as Muse” explores the role of absence, arguing that some of Morgan’s “best poems treat disappearances as sources of wonder and even inspiration” (82).

Section Three, “On the Prose,” features eight essays, three that address Morgan’s work in short fiction, four that focus on the novels, and one that examines

ROBERT M. WEST is the editor of the two-volume Complete Poems of A.R. Ammons (W.W. Norton, 2017; reviewed in NCLR Online 2019). His poems, essays and book reviews have appeared in Southern Poetry Review, Tar River Poetry, Pembroke Magazine, Appalachian Journal, Asheville Poetry Review, Carolina Quarterly Cultures, Poetry, and NCLR. He is also the author of two poetry chapbooks, Out of Hand (Scienter Press, 2007), and Convalescent (Finishing Line Press, 2011). He has an MA and a PhD in English and Comparative Literature from UNC Chapel Hill and a BA in English from Wake Forest University. He is Professor of English at Mississippi State University, where he is an Associate Editor of Mississippi Quarterly

his nonfiction work. In examining the stories in The Mountains Won’t Remember Us (1992), Paul Lincoln Sawyer points to the “dramatic duality” in Morgan’s work, describing the writer as “a poet of nature whose fiction contains an unusually complex view of social history . . . which is also a kind of geology – a record of the endurance and decay of the earth as well as humans and their products” (114). Suzanne Booker-Canfield connects Morgan’s poetry to the stories in The Balm of Gilead Tree (1999), placing him in the Emersonian tradition of American Romanticism, and showing how his attraction “to patterns of reduplication, linkage, and chiasmus in formal poems” is used “to create some of the same effects” in the fiction (127). In examining Morgan’s novels, George Hovis argues for The Truest Pleasure (1994) and

JESSE GRAVES is the author of three poetry collections and co-author of a fourth. He has co-edited several volumes of poetry and scholarship, including three volumes of The Southern Poetry Anthology (Texas Review Press), Jeff Daniel Marion: Poet on the Holston (University of Tennessee Press, 2016), and The Complete Poems of James Agee (University of Tennessee Press, 2018). He received the 2014 Philip H. Freund Prize for Creative Writing from Cornell University, and the 2015 James Still Award for Writing about the Appalachian South from the Fellowship of Southern Writers. In 2015, he was inducted into the East Tennessee Writers

Hall of Fame. With a PhD from the University of Tennessee, he has taught at East Tennessee State University since 2009.


This Rock (2001) as companion pieces, or “two parts of a whole” (174), because the two protagonists’ “exploration of faith are in dialogue” with each other regarding “the timeless questions of faith and work and body and spirit” (175). In similar fashion, Martha Greene Eads and Thomas Alan Holmes discuss the connective patterns of “love” and “faith” between Morgan’s bestselling novel Gap Creek and its companion The Road from Gap Creek (2013). Rebecca Godwin’s look at “storytellers” in The Hinterlands (1994) and Harriette C. Buchanan’s examination of the “madrigal of time” in Morgan’s Revolutionary War novel Brave Enemies (2003) offer productive readings of these less celebrated, but important, works.

Sections Two and Four focus on Morgan’s “life,” beginning with Graves’s essay and a gallery of twenty-three photographs of Morgan’s ancestors and family, many of whom appear as avatars in the poetry and fiction. In Morgan’s work, Graves argues, regardless of genre, “three elements emerge as constant presences . . . family, landscape, and history” (98). Section Four offers readers Morgan’s personal thoughts in “A Sense of Place” and in a recent interview with West and concludes with an extensive bibliography that readers and scholars alike will find

OPPOSITE Rebecca McCall, a member of the Henderson County Board of Commissioners, reading the proclamation (ABOVE ) declaring November 18 as Robert Morgan Day in Henderson County during a panel discussion featuring, left to right, novelist Terry Roberts, Robert Morgan, and Jesse Graves, co-Editor of Robert Morgan: Essays on the Life and Work, Hendersonville, NC, 18 Nov. 2023

indispensable. Robert Morgan: Essays on the Life and Work is a seminal achievement for the study of this North Carolina writer’s award-winning fiction and poetry. Coming in the footsteps of Conversations with Robert Morgan, edited by Randall Wil-

helm and Jesse Graves (2019), West’s and Graves’s collection offers a range of voices that reveal more insightful gems into the wonders of Morgan’s mountain world. As Chappell knew so well, Morgan’s work is a “fearsome accomplishment” (10). n


Henderson County Board of Commissioners expresses their deep admiration for the gifts and talents that Robert Morgan has brought to Henderson County and the world at large, as a man of great academic achievement and a highly prolific author of admired literature . . . we proclaim November 18 as Robert Morgan Day.”

43 N C L R ONLINE Flashbacks: Echoes of Past Issues


Coastal Town

This place used to mean something. The clapboard ramshackle fishhouse precariously perched over a salty creek, gone now is a victim  to vacation. The blood stained  planks slipped in the sea without a whimper. No one went  down with  the ship slowly she  slid  under  to make  room for the  pool and the tiki  hut. No more mansmen Sweating, bleeding, and sailing. You had to earn your place on the dock. Buying it was never an option, until it was. Coppertone, climate controlled condominiums strangle the view from below.

Chapel Hill resident WOJTEK WOJDYNSKI is a native of Warsaw, Poland. After completing a master’s degree at Warsaw’s Polytechnic Institute, he began his career as an electrical engineer, leading to a move with his family to the US in 1981. In 2000, he made photography his full-time career. In North Carolina, his work has shown at the Padgett Station in Carrboro and Through This Lens in Durham, among others. He has taught digital printing and Photoshop workshops at North Carolina Central University and conducts one-on-one and small-group training workshops with photographers across the country.

NATHAN SNEAD lives on Hatteras Island with his wife and three daughters. For many years he has worked on fishing boats, but he now teaches high school English.

Sand Castle by Wojtek Wojdynski COURTESY OF THE ARTIST


a review by Barbara Bennett

Jill McCorkle. Old Crimes and Other Stories. Algonquin Books, 2024.

Jill McCorkle tells us immediately what her new book of short stories is about with the epigraph, a quotation by Arthur Miller: “Maybe all one can do is hope to end up with the right regrets.” Regrets, secrets, fears, and lies all populate these new stories, McCorkle’s fifth collection of stories, to add to her seven novels. So, McCorkle is not a stranger to the short story genre, but this one feels a bit different.

BARBARA BENNETT is a Professor of English at NC State University. Her books include Understanding Jill McCorkle (University of South Carolina Press, 2000) and Comic Visions, Female Voices: Contemporary Women Novelists and Southern Humor (Louisiana State University Press, 1998). She is a frequent contributor to NCLR , including an interview with Lee Smith and Jill McCorkle in NCLR 2016, an essay on the adaptation of Daniel Wallace’s Big Fish in NCLR Online 2019, an article on McCorkle’s Ferris Beach in 2006, and several reviews. She was also a finalist in the 2021 Alex Albright Creative Nonfiction contest and her essay is in NCLR 2022.

If you expect to read about madcap adventures of an avenging woman, as in “Crash Diet,” or the whimsy of the characters named Adam and Eve who fall in love at a slapstick wedding in “Paradise,” you won’t find that here. McCorkle is in her sixties now, and her perspective has grown more serious, sadder even. In “Low Tones,” Loris Ward bemoans her postmenopausal body with “No one told her she’d lose her butt” and “Hair thins and disappears, and skin sags and also thins, bleeds and bruises over nothing” (35). A twenty- or thirty-something writer (even a twenty-/thirtyyear-old Jill McCorkle) would likely not write these words. These are the reflections of a woman who has a different –older, wiser, sadder – perspective on life, which makes her writing richer.

McCorkle told me that this change has been coming for a long time, but she needed the confidence to make it, and we saw the beginnings of that change in her most recent novel, Hieroglyphics (2020). In a review of that novel, I wrote for NCLR, I commented that it “is definitely her darkest novel to date. Tragedies of all kinds abound in her earlier work, but they’re always tempered by a wry sense of humor and scenes of comic relief. In Hieroglyphics, there is little to laugh at.”* That trend continues in these stories where the pages are full of fears: fear of aging, yes, but also fear of not living up to expectations as a parent, as a partner. Fear of losing what you have and, of course, of illness and death. The stories tell of people remembering their painful pasts, like Lynn in the title story, who meets a young girl, abandoned by her mother in a Friendly’s bathroom. The pain of the child reminds Lynn of her own battered past where belts were used “as weapons, narrow belts looped over rafters, belts wrapping and binding wrists and ankles – hog-tied and thrown away” (13). Startling and violent images occur at other places in the novel – as a matter of fact, belts as weapons occur more than once. The

JILL MCCORKLE is the author of thirteen books, including Creatures of Habit (Algonquin Books, 2001; reviewed in NCLR 2003), Final Vinyl Days and Other Stories (Algonquin Books, 1998; reviewed in NCLR 1999), and Life After Life (Algonquin Books, 2013; reviewed in NCLR Online 2014), all published by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. She has won numerous awards for her fiction, including the New England Booksellers Award, the John Dos Passos Prize for Excellence in Literature, the R. Hunt Parker Memorial Award for Literature, and the North Carolina Award for Literature. She was inducted into the North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame in 2018. She is a faculty member of the Bennington College Writing Seminars and a participating faculty member in the MFA program at NC State. She grew up in Lumberton, NC, and now lives in Hillsborough.

* Barbara Bennett, “Jill McCorkle and Lee Smith Mine the Past, and Both Find Gold” a review of Hieroglyphics by Jill McCorkle and Blue Marlin by Lee Smith, NCLR Online 2021: web

45 N C L R ONLINE Flashbacks: Echoes of Past Issues

image “[i]nside a room, behind a door, a man takes off his belt” (4, 13) repeats. In “Low Tones” and “Filling Station” an abusive husband and father tells his unknowing students that a “man needs a belt” (126). His has a “big hammer” on it (53).

This is not the McCorkle we are used to reading, though it’s a deeper one, more in tune with the ominous and fearful world around us. A husband has brain cancer in “Low Tones”; in “Swinger” a man falls dead, leaving behind his mistress of three years, homeless. A woman loses an older friend in “A Simple Question,” and the son of that woman commits suicide. In “Sparrow,” there is another suicide, and a woman dies of cancer. A man waits for his father figure to die in “The Filling Station” and keeps a list of those “dead too soon” (128).

Some stories stand out to me in this collection. “Act III” reminds me of McCorkle’s superb story “Intervention” in Going Away Shoes (2010) because it sets up a generational battle between parents and grown children. The title is a reference to a Capote quotation: “Life is a moderately good play with a badly written third act,” which sums up many of the stories in this collection. How does our third act play out? In this particular story, Vera and her husband Glen invite their three grown children with their families to a mountain vacation home. Unbeknownst to anyone else, Vera has cancer, and she wants to be around her family all together once more.

Unfortunately, the children all slide “back into their childhood roles” (183) and by the second day “have resurrected old sibling complaints, the jealousies, the competitions, full throttle” (187). And they are looking for someone to blame. Enter their parents, who despite admitting they are “Guilty! Crimes of passion! Will I get life or the chair?” (188), are still berated viciously by their offspring. Is this what’s left for our third acts, McCorkle asks? Can we never be free of past mistakes? Will our children ever forgive us for not having perfect childhoods?

Another excellent story is the one with the most quirkiness, flashes of McCorkle’s humor that has marked her earlier work, albeit a very dark humor in this collection. “The

Last Station” describes a mother who is known only as “Tori’s mother” – a fitting designation, since she believes motherhood martyrdom is all she is known for in her life. Every spring Tori’s mother “straps a makeshift cross to her back and begins her trek across the front yard, stopping twelve times,” at which points “she shouts out various social injustices she has witnessed during the year” (158). These may include a variety of “sins,” including hungry children or even “unfortunate fashion choices” (161). This particular year, however, the bizarre ritual becomes her platform to list the injustices piled on her own head. When she retired from being a librarian, for example, all she was given was a lamp. She complains, “My birthday

ABOVE Jill McCorkle at Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill, NC, 13 Jan. 2024

came and went, and no one remembered” (172), leaving her feeling “[i]invisible and unloved” (174). As a mother and wife, she sacrificed her own desires for everyone else “without even asking why. Without asking those I was sacrificing for if it even mattered” (175). She eventually laments, “‘I was forsaken!’” (179) and stretches out on the grass “arms spread wide, ankles crossed” like Jesus crucified (182).

Older women, “invisible and unloved,” McCorkle’s book is full of them, as is the world. But the stories are also full of secrets –secrets of characters of all ages. In “Confessional,” an old confessional is bought by a young couple as a conversation piece, but it ends up being the place where they tell each other their worst sins. The secrets eventually get darker and darker until the couple cannot look in each other’s eyes. “A Baby in the Pan” starts out as a disagreement about abortion between mother and

daughter, as well as an argument about the daughter’s illegitimate son. The mother can’t bring herself to love this child, instead pouring her attention on her doll collection – each doll comes with a “certificate of authenticity” (111), unlike her grandson. But the mother is also harboring a secret about a lost baby, and it keeps her distant and cold to the living daughter and grandson.

During a conversation with me about this new book, McCorkle described the way she writes a collection of short stories: she writes each story in and of itself, “its own little world.” Then she goes back and starts to weave threads through the stories – ideas, images, characters – making the process “more like writing a novel.” Besides the belts mentioned before, there are the Yde Girl, abandoned children and women, silence, domestic abuse, tattoos. Characters appear and reappear, as in the final story “Sparrows” whose narrator is Lynn from

“Old Crimes,” and “Patrick’s grandmother” seems to be Loris from “Low Tones.” Other characters appear in more than one story, but I’ll leave you to find those gems.

And loss, fear, regret. McCorkle’s characters struggle throughout these stories to find some sense of peace. Their creator is a master of the short story, and in these stories, she shows us people, mainly women, who feel “trapped, desperate” (114). Peace seems to be all they want, like Ben in “Filling Station,” who rents the apartment above a convenience store that used to be his grandmother’s house. He is trying “to escape” but is not sure from what (126). He just knows that this is the place “where he had felt loved” (138). In our troubled times, perhaps we are all like McCorkle’s characters: we just want a place to feel peace and love. This is not the amusing and quirky McCorkle of the past, but perhaps it is a truer one. n

47 N C L R ONLINE Flashbacks: Echoes of Past Issues
COURTESY OF FLYLEAF BOOKS ABOVE Jill McCorkle (right) talking with her Algonquin Books Editor Kathy Pories at Flyleaf Books, Chapel Hill, NC, 13 Jan. 2024


Joseph Bathanti. The Act of Contrition & Other Stories EastOver Press, 2023.

If you live in a grimy neighborhood pulsing with blood feuds, where every direction is menacing, how do you write an appreciation of Robert Frost’s pastoral “The Road Not Taken”? This dilemma vexes Fritz Sweeney, the teenaged narrator of Joseph Bathanti’s operatic, irresistible collection of connected slices of family myth, The Act of Contrition & Other Stories. Bathanti, winner of a multiplicity of awards for poetry and fiction, is the former North Carolina Poet Laureate and present writer in residence at Appalachian State University. In this, his twentieth book, blending realism and magic realism, Bathanti returns to his boyhood turf and frequent muse, Pittsburgh’s East Liberty section in the late 1960s. This ghost-stalked Italian enclave inspired an earlier eponymous novel and the volume of stories, The High Heart (2007).

middle of an ominous, freezing night, he prays “for Travis and Rita Sweeney to barge from that impenetrable pall of snow through the kitchen door” (66). But the house is cursed because neither husband nor son can defy Rita’s self-destructive will. They are handcuffed by love and terror. A femme fatale as dangerous to herself as she is to others, Rita lives on the verge of internal combustion. Her rage for violence is so dominant that during a high school wrestling match, she yells, “Kill him!” as Fritz grapples with an opponent (49). In addition, Rita trains her dog to play dead so long that the men fear the collie is never coming back. When she wields a knife while preparing dinner, they are ready to run.

in Greensboro, NC, taught journalism for nearly forty years at Bennett College and High Point University. He has won the Randall Jarrell Poetry Contest and the O. Henry Short Story Prize.

JOSEPH BATHANTI is MacFarlane Distinguished Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies at Appalachian State University. A native of Pittsburgh, he came to Huntersville, NC, as a volunteer with VISTA, working in prison outreach, and has served his second home state as North Carolina Poet Laureate. His numerous honors include the North Carolina Award for Literature, and he will be among the 2024 inductees into the North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame.

In the opening novella, “Fred,” Fritz ponders dangers Frost’s narrator never saw: hoodlums peddling heroin, aggrieved Blacks craving vengeance after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, and a bridge offering a way out for the leaping misbegotten. East Liberty bears an ironic name because its denizens are never free from the curse of malocchio (the evil eye) and the grip of vendetta. Fritz, the author’s alter ego, is driven to tell the truth – that Frost’s two roads cannot apply to the maze of his life.

Fritz’s blood mixes the Italian fury of his mother, Rita Schiaretta Sweeney, and the Irish stoicism of his shrewd father, Travis Sweeney. A rarity in coming-of-age fiction, Fritz deeply loves both parents. In the

Rita is consumed by the flaming specter of her father, Federico Schiaretta, a cobbler incinerated in a shop fire during Rita’s girlhood. An all-embracing craving for revenge possesses Rita, deranged by visitations from the burning shoemaker. Moreover, the immolated old man has begun to haunt Fritz, born Frederick, named after his Italian grandfather. The spell has moved to the next generation.

Ironically, the last story in the book, “Rita’s Dream,” fingers the grandfather’s ghost as directly responsible for the courtship of Fritz’s parents and the boy’s conception. After the old man appears in his nubile daughter’s nightmare, she enlists bartender Travis Sweeney to play 311, the date of her father’s death, in the day’s lottery. Hitting the jackpot for four thousand dollars, the couple embarks on a wayward spree to Atlantic City so that Rita, immured in Pittsburgh all her

MICHAEL GASPENY ’s latest book is Flight Manual: New and Collected Poems (Unicorn Press, 2023) He is also the author of the novel A Postcard from the Delta (Livingston Press, 2022; reviewed in NCLR Online Fall 2023) and a novella in verse, The Tyranny of Questions (Unicorn Press 2020; reviewed in NCLR Online 2021 ).Gaspeny, who lives

life, can see the sea for the first time. That doesn’t happen; Fritz does. In the end is the beginning, which threatens doom.

The author’s robust love for his characters prevents this fate-filled chronicle from being a naturalistic depiction of a life-stifling limbo. In fact, it’s Bathanti’s song, a lyrical tribute to East Liberty where every character, even the cruel, receives understanding. When Rita castigates a brutal construction worker, her husband responds, “Nobody’s just one thing” (134). Travis could be describing himself, a bartender with penetrating insight, resigned for all his natural days to serving drinks and his wife’s demands. He lives to counteract Rita’s demons.

Two of Bathanti’s most haunting stories reveal the forces wrestling in Fritz’s psyche. These tales, involving burials, invoke, without imitating, two masters

of short fiction. In “The Pall Bearer,” the fourteen-yearold boy helps carry the coffin of Cuss, a neighborhood scapegoat addicted to sweets and bad jokes, who read to Fritz when he was little. Remembering Cuss’s last visit, Fritz starts to break down. Then Rita gives him advice that echoes the ending of Hemingway’s classic “The Killers,” when neophyte Nick Adams is urged to forget the doomed boxer he has just tried to help.

In the book’s title story, Fritz, working as a hod carrier with a detested family enemy, exacts revenge after master bricklayer Kenny Fortuna bullies him and defames his mother. The teenager is utterly unqualified by physique and temperament to shoulder supplies and mix mortar in the stormy weather. Fortuna, delighting in Fritz’s bungling, repeatedly calls the boy “Mathilda.” At lunch, when Fritz’s tormentor snoozes inside a chimney after drinking buttermilk and whiskey all morning, Fritz picks up the trowel of vengeance. Readers will feel a chill if they recall the climax of Poe’s immortal tale of vendetta, “The Cask of Amontillado.”

In this instance, Fritz becomes the instrument of his mother’s

frenzy, but throughout his development, the boy is primarily guided by the wisdom of his resourceful father. When Fritz doubts his manhood after a humiliating pinning in a wrestling match, he’s consoled by his father’s code. Mr. Sweeney “understood what it took to be a man – not swagger or even bravery – but a kind of constancy” (39). In the collection’s most moving scene, Mr. Sweeney embodies this devotion to duty when he rescues Rita after she has run amok in a snowstorm. Readers need to meet this workingman’s hero blessed and cursed by selfless subservience to his wife.

Bathanti’s compelling collection does have an occasional drawback. The stage lights dim when the drama shifts from the Sweeney family and focuses on Fritz’s conflicts beyond the house. In addition, likely because the stories were published separately in journals (and not adapted for coming together in a collection), crucial background details of the grandfather’s immolation and his daughter’s madness are repeated. Now and then, the descriptions of the flaming Frederico seem over the top. All in all, Bathanti’s best stories rank with such eloquent evocations of the explosive Iron City as Jack Gilbert’s poetic tributes, John Edgar Wideman’s sermonlike novels, and August Wilson’s trumpeting plays. In this stirring portrayal of a blighted lineage, love cannot defeat doom, but it can bind and ennoble the souls battling annihilation. n

49 N C L R ONLINE Flashbacks: Echoes of Past Issues
PHOTOGRAPH BY BILL GRIFFIN ABOVE Joseph Bathanti at the North Carolina Poetry Society’s commemorative 90th anniversary meeting, Weymouth Center for the Arts & Humanities, Southern Pines, NC, 17 Sept. 2022

Diving into the Wreck:

A Review Essay on David Payne’s Trilogy

ELAINE NEIL ORR is an English professor at NC State University, and she serves on the faculty of the briefresidency MFA in the Writing Program at Spalding University. She is the author of novels released by Berkley Publishing Group/Penguin Books, Swimming Between Worlds (2018) and A Different Sun (2013), and both were SIBA Bestsellers. Her third novel, Dancing Woman , will be released by Blair Publishing in 2025. She is also the author of a memoir, Gods of Noonday: A White Girl’s African Life (University of Virginia Press, 2003), which was ranked by Book Sense second among university press books of the year, and two scholarly books, Tillie Olsen and a Feminist Spiritual Vision (University of Mississippi Press, 1987) and Subject to Negotiation: Reading Feminist Criticism and American Women’s Fictions (University of Virginia Press, 1997). Orr has won fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the North Carolina Arts Council, and she is a frequent fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. Read the interview

Kathryn Stripling Byer conducted with the author in NCLR 2015.

Between 1984 and 2006, David Payne published five novels. The first, Confessions of a Taoist on Wall Street, won the Houghton Mifflin Literary Fellowship Award. The next three – Early from the Dance (1989), Ruin Creek (1993), and Gravesend Light (2000) – formed a trilogy and together garnered stunning praise and wide critical attention. About Ruin Creek, The Boston Globe asserted: “David Payne may not be the most publicized American novelist homing in on 40, but he is certainly the most gifted.” The Dallas Morning News offered similar praise: “David Payne is the most gifted American novelist of his generation.” About Payne’s fourth novel, Back to Wando Passo, Pat Conroy wrote: “Payne takes on the whole known world and pulls it off with the deftness of a writer in his prime.”1 What would come next for a writer of David Payne’s caliber?

In 2000, Payne’s younger brother, George A., died in a vehicular accident as he helped David move from Vermont back to North Carolina. Driving in the larger truck ahead of his brother, Payne witnessed the accident in the side-view mirror. His next publication was the memoir that told the story, but it didn’t appear until fifteen years later. The Los Angeles Times called Barefoot to Avalon: A Brother’s Story “a tour de force.”2

In 2023, Cedar Lane Books reissued Payne’s trilogy. Those three novels form the basis of this review.3


I came to read David Payne’s fiction after I read Barefoot to Avalon. Lee Smith had recommended it to me. I thought it was the best book of contemporary memoir I had read in twenty years. So I already knew a great deal about Payne’s life and his family history before I read the novels, which I found to be wrestling with the same demons as the memoir: unhappy parents, alcohol, mental illness, a father’s calamitous violence and bad faith. I have a bone to pick with the author in that memoir, however. There Payne says that he hadn’t told the truth in the fiction. I believe he had told the truth in the manner in which fiction tells it. And the truth endures.

Loss: Life – and Death – Ultimately become Open-Ended Questions in Barefoot to Avalon: A Brother’s Story,” Los Angeles Times 2 Aug. 2015: F7.

3 Quotations from these novels are cited parenthetically from these new editions.

Richard Dyer, “Ruin Creek Is Flawed but Full of Life, Wisdom,” Boston Globe 12 Oct. 1993: 30; Gary Scharnhorst, “Close to Home: A Finally Shaded Family Chronicle,” Dallas Morning News 10 Oct. 1993: J8. Conroy is quoted from David Payne’s website,
David Ulin, “No Answers for Tragedy,
“What is it you’re looking for out here?”—Gravesend Light 2024 JOHN EHLE PRIZE 1

His is a perspective conditioned by losing family, piece by piece, and squaring up against his own complicated relationship with the truth about himself. Not truth as fact, but truth as self-awareness, truth as unsentimental shaking down of one’s own past to find what stands for goodness.

The Trilogy

At its core, each novel asks if we can survive the trouble we’ve seen and wrought, our self-imposed exile, our determination to be unlovable as we beg to be loved.

David Payne is a virtuoso whose eye for detail depends on a refusal to write what is easy. His is a perspective conditioned by losing family, piece by piece, and squaring up against his own complicated relationship with the truth about himself. Not truth as fact, but truth as self-awareness, truth as unsentimental shaking down of one’s own past to find what stands for goodness.

Spend a month or two reading Payne’s trilogy, first published by Doubleday, and you may come out limping like Jacob after a night of wrestling with the mysterious opponent who turns out to be God. The way you might limp after reading three Edith Wharton novels in a row, say The House of Mirth, The Age of Innocence, and The Mother’s Recompence; or William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom, The Sound and the Fury, and Sanctuary; or Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, The Crossing, and The Road. Payne is wrestling with God and has been, I expect, since he was ten. Certainly, he is wrestling with God in these three novels. The narratives circle and swoop and rearrange themselves like flocks of ocean birds surveying damage. The flotsam is wrecked families, hurt boys, hurt mothers and brothers, abusive fathers who were once capable of love and care, and the boys and girls out of these families who grow up to become lovers, coming in from the sea stumbling, slightly stunned, wondering what exactly befell them. In every case, the families, these mothers and fathers, brothers and lovers, bear a resemblance to David Payne’s own family of origin in Henderson, North Carolina, as chronicled in Barefoot to Avalon. Reading backwards from the memoir, the fiction reveals itself to be what I call scrambled autobiography, though the autobiography becomes clearer as we move from first to last in the trilogy. Payne is working out his past, the past, as Faulkner taught us, that “is not dead” and “not even past.”

At its core, each novel asks if we can survive the trouble we’ve seen and wrought, our self-imposed exile, our determination to be unlovable as we beg to be loved. Who can survive childhood and

51 N C L R ONLINE Flashbacks: Echoes of Past Issues
EARLY FROM THE DANCE Brilliant a defining voice for his generation.” The Boston Globe DAVID PAYNE RUIN CREEK a powerful, lyrical story that is a joy to read.” The New York Times Book Review DAVID PAYNE Author of Barefoot to Avalon GRAVESEND LIGHT the most gifted American novelist of his generation .” The Dallas Morning News DAVID PAYNE Author of Barefoot to Avalon
ABOVE The new Cedar Lane Books editions of David Payne’s trilogy OPPOSITE David Payne All images courtesy of David Payne

not be wounded? Payne’s young protagonists, boys to men, struggle to understand the origins of their pain, where things went wrong, how and when they lost themselves, and why so many others on this battlefield of ordinary American life are maimed or dead. Among other things, these novels are powerful studies in the making of American masculinities. In the end, the characters, like Payne, are wrestling with God, or whatever you want to call a divine arbiter, the Great Mystery that rolls and roils the oceans and brings little boys with big hearts into the world to be guided by adults who are themselves in deep trouble.

The three novels occupy the same settings: an intricately drawn Southern world of Killdeer (a fictionalized Henderson when it was a vibrant town with money-making industries) and Kill Devil Hills on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, where the male characters, like David Payne, have benefit of a family cottage on the beach, built and bequeathed by a grandfather. In the memoir, this home has a name: Four Roses. Killdeer/Henderson is portrayed as a world made by a poor man’s labor and a wealthier man’s capital, in jute bag mills and tobacco warehouses. As in Faulkner, the wealthier white man isn’t necessarily happier than his poorer counterpoint. Some of them shoot their brains out, fathers and grandfathers of the boys whose stories are the taproot of the narratives. The writer’s attachment to the coast is an abiding love song: “the sound lay spread out like a mirror, silvery and luminous but with a hint of blue in it there wasn’t any name for, just like a broken piece of sky floating on the brownish water with some heaven in it” (Early 282).

Each novel conjures a brother or a friend closer than a brother whom the protagonist has betrayed or may have betrayed and who suffers, sometimes unto death. And yet in every case, the protagonist was betrayed by his father’s betrayal of his wife, the protagonist’s mother. And in Ruin Creek and Gravesend Light, the mother is not guiltless.

Consider the titles alone: Early from the Dance, Ruin Creek, Gravesend Light. We know from page one that we are opening books into dimly lit passageways that may well lead to the underworld. Each sentence, we suspect, will be crafted with the same care that the titles are selected. And the roaring we find there: fire in the backyard, a long day’s journey hunting wild boar, near drownings, a winter’s sojourn into storm, characters running full tilt into disaster. Sex so consuming, it reads like self-immolation.

ABOVE Four Roses in Kill Devil Hills, NC

Payne writes out of desperate love and fierce attachment

David Payne’s prose is so clear and sharp I sometimes feel I might cut a finger running it across the page. Words culled for their rightness sparkle in the hills and valleys of the narratives. When I ran into “the sere clattering of disturbed grasses,” I had to look up “sere.” Same with “slavered,” “dredge spoil,” “ursine,” “dewclaw,” “piliform,” “chromoscope,” “demesne,” “barn oil.” I had no idea about barn oil. Or “winch” and “outriggers.” Payne’s obsession with the perfect word unspools page after page. Perhaps he is, first of all and still, the poet he meant to be when he was studying English literature at UNC Chapel Hill in the 1970s. He graduated with highest honors in creative writing in 1977. Payne’s precision with words and human occupations reminds me of Cormac McCarthy, but Payne writes out of desperate love and fierce attachment whereas McCarthy seems to write out of an analytical obsession with American violence and crime, love coming second, if at all.

Along with the elegant prose, Payne also serves up the syrupy slow dialect of Eastern North Carolina where folks like Pa (the grandfather in Ruin Creek) speak thusly: “y’all can wipe them smirks right off yo’ faces, too . . . cause I’m just as serious as a heart attack, hemme?” (315). Payne adds “Big Rock Candy Mountain,” “The Wabash Cannonball,” and “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” to the tonalities of these novels and the boys and men who appear to be caught in them like fish in a net.

Payne steers his course with a set of essential texts, perhaps foremost The Odyssey and T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” the last of which leads “to an overwhelming question,” though Eliot’s poem skirts the question: “Oh, do not ask, ‘What is it?’” In the voice of Joe Madden in Gravesend Light, Payne does ask the question repeatedly: “What if I have missed my chance?” Other antecedents to Payne’s writing can be found in the numerous epigraphs that populate every book: Old and New Testaments, Joseph Conrad, Faulkner, Rebecca West, Tennyson, Philip Roth, James Seay, Tolstoy, Clifford Geertz.

The central question in these novels is whether we are doomed to repeat the past or whether we can evolve out of it. Are we caught in an Eternal Return or can we hold hands with someone we love, ascend the Spiral, and move into greater light higher up, out of the

53 N C L R ONLINE Flashbacks: Echoes of Past Issues

darkness of our wounded and angry selves? The force driving Payne’s fiction is his family of origin: a father’s unfulfilled dream and volcanic anger, a mother’s overkindness and sudden absence, a younger brother’s diagnosis with Bipolar I. And everyone’s returning to the scene of the crime until finally the family explodes. Payne’s narrative persona imbues every corner of his fiction, an authorial presence that is absolutely not dead, Roland Barthes notwithstanding. If this is confessional writing, we need more of it.

In our present era of blame, accusation, deep division, disarray, and cycles of violence bringing us close to national and global catastrophe, these are books to read like poetry, like Adrienne Rich’s poem from which I draw my title to this review essay:

I came to explore the wreck.

The words are purposes.

The words are maps.

I came to see the damage that was done and the treasures that prevail.

This is the place.

And I am here, the mermaid whose dark hair streams black, the merman in his armored body.

I am she. I am he[.]4

A self-examination is in order. The brother or lover or father or mother we blame for our diminished futures may be guilty. But what are we?

Love’s Labors: Early from the Dance

Early from the Dance is the most traditionally Southern of the novels in the trilogy. A Black chauffeur appears who looks out for an ancient grand aunt; a Black maid to the white family shows up at the center of the story. Killdeer is segregated not only by race but class. Here white boys can be best friends but live on separate sides of the tracks, and the poorer one always knows it better than the wealthier one. A present-day story frames the novel when two of the characters, Adam and Jane, once eighteen-year-old summer lovers, are reunited thirteen years later in Killdeer when that ancient grand aunt, Adam’s aunt Zoe, up and dies and leaves him her very large house. Adam is a New York City artist, a rather famous one, whose prospects took a turn when he left his experimental work and turned to realism, perhaps a premonition on Payne’s part, as one day he would leave fiction for memoir. In any case, Adam goes back South for the funeral. Jane is divorced. They haven’t been together since that disastrous summer. Returning to the Outer Banks is a leitmotif for Payne.

4 Adrienne Rich, “Diving into the Wreck,” Diving into the Wreck: Poems 1971–1972 (Norton, 2013) 22–24; subsequently cited parenthetically.

. .

When I read Early from the Dance the first time, I thought, this guy, David Payne, is a writer running with his heart wide open.

When I read Early from the Dance the first time, I thought, this guy, David Payne, is a writer running with his heart wide open. He’s pitching himself across the dunes, and I can see him from the gazebo. His heart is a window: it’s blown apart (a nod to Paul Simon’s “Graceland”). Perhaps I confuse Payne with Adam. You’ll forgive me when I remind you that all of these novels are autobiographical, scrambled or not. In one way or another, these are Payne’s family stories. The flashlight held by the diver as he descends into the murky depths is actually turned on the writer, and the reader too.

Jane and Adam’s present story opens onto the past when they were young and there was a third character, Cary. Payne uses a love triangle to plot this particular excavation. Two boys, best friends, grow up in Killdeer. One, the protagonist Adam, is more privileged. His father is a successful writer, though his writing has caused a family scandal for his mother’s people, who own Dixie Bag. Cary’s family owns a cafeteria and lives on the other side of the tracks. Cary has worked for his father since he was ten. Adam is destined to attend Keane (a fictionalized Exeter), a private school in Boston, while Cary stays in Killdeer to go to high school. Jane becomes Cary’s girlfriend while Adam is away and Cary isn’t just in love with Jane. He is in adoration of her. The boys arrive at that liminal space between high school and college. They plan to attend UNC Chapel Hill as roommates. But before that, Adam and Cary have pledged themselves a summer at Kill Devil Hills, lifeguarding and living in Adam’s family’s beach home. Jane is going too, sharing an apartment with a girlfriend and waitressing. But at the last minute, Cary’s father becomes ill, and Cary stays back to take care of the family business. He tells Adam, his best and trusted friend, to look after Jane.

At first, Jane and Adam spar. They’ve entered a danger zone. There’s a tension between them, and it’s not hard for readers to discern their mutual attraction. But as soon as they arrive on the Outer Banks, they are seduced by a pair of ex-lovers who own and run a fancy hotel at the beach, Adam by Morgan, a woman fifteen years his senior, and Jane by Cleanth. Cleanth is a self-described Vietnam vet who has created a game, a life game of chess, in which there are no apparent

55 N C L R ONLINE Flashbacks: Echoes of Past Issues
ABOVE Four Roses, original house painting by Melissa Long

This is real literature: alive, demanding, beautiful, passionate, frightening, redemptive.

rules but once its begun, it never ends. He ropes Adam into playing over lines of cocaine. (There’s lots of coke in the novel, and sex too, though we learn that sex isn’t always enhanced by the drug.) Cleanth appears to want Jane as a lover and Adam as a disciple. The “game” is one of one-upmanship, though Cleanth preaches giving into joy, not pride, letting go, not winning. All the while, he’s trying to win, of course: win Adam and Jane. This is the way Cleanth talks to his young acolyte, Adam: “There are two ways to live and two types of people living them. There are those who love life and accept it as it is, and there are those who are afraid of it and close their eyes and want to be off someplace else. I call the first way playing, it’s the path of comedy, the second is the tragic path. And it’s all so sad and boring, really, isn’t it?” (211). In contemporary pop-psychology, we call this gas-lighting. Cleanth is not playing. He wants Adam to play, and he wants Adam to stake his life. The center of the novel involves these four characters as Jane and Adam journey into the Underworld of Cleanth and Morgan. The traveling down is terrifyingly sexy and culminates in a hunt for wild boar on the Outer Banks. Adam reluctantly agrees to go, never having forgotten “that September morning in the cornfield standing over the dead dove, the blood lesson” (198). His unfaithful father took him hunting, the father he caught in bed with another woman (not his dying mother) the night before he was to begin high school at Keane. On the hunt with Cleanth, Morgan, and Jane, he will carry a gun for protection but not shoot. The wild boar appears, flushed out by a hunting dog, and Adam shoots. He hits the animal but doesn’t kill it: “There was no sense of misgiving, no doubt or question, I didn’t think at all. . . . [I]t was like a wager whether I would shoot or not. . . . I never knew the answer till I felt the mule-kick of the shotgun and heard the amazing ringing violence of the blast, a brutal jolt of mindless utter power” (314). The animal isn’t dead, and Adam feels compelled to hunt down the boar, to save it from a lingering death. Cleanth goes with him. They split up. For a few minutes, the reader wonders if we are in Vietnam, if Cleanth is going to hunt Adam. But, of course, he already has. Later we learn that Cleanth suffers from manic depression. He is off his meds. And this season with Jane and Adam is one of his manic periods. His mania and seduction lead Adam to conclude that “Nothing was wrong” (323), certainly not shooting a boar. Perhaps not even betraying his best friend, Cary.

After the hunt, in the traveling up from this bloody battle between beast and man, or is it between Adam and Cleanth, the truth comes out about Cleanth’s illness. All of the talk and bravado, all of the “freedom” and “joy” was mania talking. As if awakened from a horrible dream, Adam and Jane stagger off together. They fall in


love, betraying the third person they both love, who is back home in Kildeer. But toward the end of the novel Cary shows up at the beach house. Jane and Adam are in bed together. It’s an impossible knot. Adam is haunted by Cary, his better self, he believes. Three years later, Cary will kill himself (this is not a plot spoiler; we know in the frame story that Cary is dead), though the suicide may have nothing to do with Jane and Adam. That’s the “overriding question” for Adam: “what do you do when the wrong choice appears to be your only hope, when the right choice leaves you where you already are, a place that you can’t live in any more because you’re dying there?” (296). Did Adam betray as his father did? This question is quintessential David Payne.

Will Adam and Jane have a second chance now, in the present, years later, again in Killdeer, within the pages of the novel? I won’t reveal the answer to that, but there is a moment late in the novel where we catch a glimpse of Adam’s theology or philosophy or artist statement, which may be akin to the author’s: “I remembered what I had allowed myself to forget, that it is always then, always in those times and places when you’ve carried it just as far as you can carry it that the other something kicks in from below and lets you know that there’s a force in life, whatever name you choose to call it, that when you let go it supports you” (440–41).

This is real literature: alive, demanding, beautiful, passionate, frightening, redemptive.

The Heart of the Matter: Ruin Creek and Gravesend Light

While the three novels form a trilogy, each in turn grappling with the core elements of Payne’s haunted past, the second and third can be read as two parts of one novel, a brilliant study in loss and mourning but with glimmers of hope. The central characters are the same in both. Mother, father, older brother, younger brother. May, Jimmy, Joey, Reed. (In Gravesend Light, a second younger brother appears, Gray, something of an innocent, he’s so much younger.) And these parallel Payne’s own knotted family: his mother Margaret, father Bill, older brother David, younger brother George A. Theirs is the story we get in Barefoot to Avalon. Any reader who knows that memoir and reads the novels cannot fail to see the author grappling with that past that culminated in the year 2000 in the death of his forty-two-year-old brother, diagnosed at age seventeen with Biopolar I: “severe, with psychotic features.”5 George A. and David had once shared a “little amber room” in Henderson with “matching cowboy quilts and college pennants thumbtacked to the wall” (Barefoot 9).

57 N C L R ONLINE Flashbacks: Echoes of Past Issues
ABOVE The author (left) with his brothers Georga A. and Bennett and his mother, Margaret, 1971 5 David Payne, Barefoot to Avalon (Grove Atlantic, 2015) 7; subsequently cited parenthetically.

Ruin Creek, set in Killdeer and on the Outer Banks like Early from the Dance, is still a Southern novel. White women care about the DAR. Joey’s father is a tobacconist, working for his grandfather, Pa, who owns the Bonanza, a “tobacco warehouse on Commerce Street, the biggest one in Killdeer and the five surrounding counties” (9). But as Payne pares down to family, he also opens the horizon to a myriad of literary archetypes. The novel is a bildungsroman, a boy’s mythic quest, a collection of testaments, a love story. Told primarily from young Joey’s point of view, May and Jimmy, star-crossed lovers and Joey’s parents, also narrate chapters. The novel covers a summer at the beach cottage when Joey is eleven, but it also encompasses Joey’s parents’ past, so it gives us twelve years in a particular family’s story. Joey’s gripping observations of his parents’ break-up and the parents’ own struggle with themselves slice the reader with a thousand cuts. As much as this novel conjures a particular place and time, Eastern North Carolina in the 1950s and ’60s, the emotional power of the narrative feels contemporary. In some ways, it reminds me of The Round House by Louise Erdrich in which another young boy named Joe grapples with violence in his family, a violence that begins on the outside but worms its way to the inside until they finally break.

In Payne’s novel, Jimmy, the father, dreamed of being a writer but accepts the destiny of a proper profession, medical doctor, because his parents press it upon him. Both dreams go up in flames when his girlfriend, May, becomes pregnant at eighteen and Jimmy is twenty-one. Against a deeper voice inside him, he feels he must marry her and return to Killdeer and labor like a man. He loves her, the way she danced, May Tilley in white silk and pearls with the natural wave in her black hair and little white gloves that buttoned at the wrist, and those beautiful black eyes, so deep and grave, searching into you for something you were suddenly afraid you might not have. Take her into Earl’s some Friday night when they had a roadhouse band and before you knew it she’d kick her shoes across the room and go for broke. (61)

May is the pampered and beautiful heir of her father’s tobacco company, who attended Ascension, a private girls’ school (St. Mary’s in Raleigh), loves Jimmy, who “seemed more alive than anybody else, as though he had a fever” (42), and believes she will make a beautiful family with him. But early in the marriage May slips into sorrow and disappointment when Jimmy can’t find it in himself to succeed at being a husband, or a doctor, or much of anything, at least not succeed well enough for her family’s standards. In Jimmy’s memory of May’s disappointment, he thinks (echoing Prufrock),

ABOVE TOP The author with his brother George A. and their father ABOVE BOTTOM The author with his brother George A. and their mother

“I was never meant to be Prince Hamlet” (63). Though they have good years, and the boy Joey remembers joyful car rides with his parents, his parents walking off to the gazebo holding hands, his mother’s sweet attention to him, and above all, those Thursday nights in summer when he, Reed, his mother, and his grandmother Nanny, already at the beach house at Kill Devil Hills, listened for the Cadillac to arrive. His father and Pa always came late after closing the tobacco warehouse back in Killdeer. They arrived with meaty red steaks they grilled outdoors, adding to the shrimp and cocktail sauce his Nanny has prepared. The women wear dresses and jewelry. “There’d be starched linen napkins on the table and new white candles burning in the chimneys of the hurricane lamps” (10). But the summer the novel begins, this tradition crumbles. The father ceases to show up. Footprints appear on the salt-frosted porch as May spends her nights pacing.

Joey’s attempt to hold the family together, if only in his mind, his deep desire to keep things together as they were, is the taut line the novel hangs on. Meanwhile, the plot loops back in tellings from May and Jimmy, how disappointment built on disappointment, lubricated by Jimmy’s drinking and May’s assumption of superiority, until finally one night, Jimmy, feeling both desperate and “magical” (224) goes deeper and deeper at the poker table until he’d won and lost five thousand dollars and put his and May’s house up against the loss. And then he loses the house, soon after which, May ruminates, “Jimmy wasn’t really with us anymore, not by then” (228).

Something in Payne, the writer, loves women and depicts them with a kind of gratitude akin to Charles Frazier. They stand on their own. They may be profoundly sexual. They bear burdens. They have their own story apart from the men. May Tilley is such a woman. Ruin Creek is a love story at two levels. There is the love story between May and Jimmy that begins in such brightness and ends in the dark last night of summer as the family leaves the beach after the death of Pa, the patriarch. But there is also Joey’s love for both of his parents: both wronged, both essential, both capable of cruelty, though Jimmy’s appears more direct. He’s the one who ends up yelling at his children and hitting the door hard enough to take it off the hinges. May’s cruelty cuts through Jimmy in the form of disdain. He’s no good. The son is witness to the woman and the man. Still, one senses Joe may love his father best.

Meanwhile, there’s Pa, the wise man, whose father shot himself, Pa who owns the Bonanza and delivers Jimmy from trouble time and time again and loves his son-in-law. That may be what ties Joey so tightly to Pa, that and the thousand days of fishing. The novel is dedicated to David Payne’s grandfather, George A. Rose, and to Payne’s father.

59 N C L R ONLINE Flashbacks: Echoes of Past Issues
ABOVE Georga A. Rose, the inspiration for “Pa” in the novels, circa 1948–49

And Reed, the younger brother, who begins to bang his sleepy head against the pillow when his parents fight, a response to trauma, and the beginning of a life of acute mental health struggles that we see in the last novel, Gravesend Light

After the poker game, May and Jimmy split up for a time, Jimmy living in a trailer, trying to write his novel, never getting a full sentence. Joey and Reed stay with him briefly and disastrously. Joey accidentally shoots Reed with his bb gun. Jimmy’s violent dismantling of that gun reads like a car crash with the entire family in it: Daddy raised the gun above his head and smashed it to the floor. I heard the stock crack open, and then he raised and brought it whomp back down again so hard the floor beneath the carpet crunched and started caving in. He didn’t stop. I laid there flinching every time it hit, and Reed was screaming at him, “please, Daddy, stop it, please, please stop,” but I don’t think Daddy even heard. He kept right on till the barrel twisted and the stock flew off, and then he stormed out on the porch and flung the pieces toward the lake as hard and far as he could throw. (211)

Late in the novel, Jimmy arrives at the beach house, trying one more time to save his marriage and his life. Ironically, Joey almost drowns, floating down to the bottom of the ocean until he’s enchanted by it, believing in those moments it may not be so bad to die: “The bottom was lit with a brilliant light as green as emeralds, so beautiful it made me want to laugh. The sea grass . . . stirred up golden butterflies which, when I looked closer, turned to tiny shrimp and sea horses . . . I knew there would not be time to gaze at all the sunken treasures and felt more sad for this, I think, than dying” (332–33).

His father saves him. But saving the son is not enough to save the marriage, to save Joey’s world. May considers why this is: “Whatever anybody says, real love is a fragile flower that grows only on the highest slopes and mountaintops of human life; real love is rare, not common; it’s the crown, not the foundation; love is the last thing, not the first” (238). This is the kind of line Payne delivers that vibrates out like a sage’s testimony across time and space and that should be delivered as headline news every day of every year. Love is the gift of a lifetime of small, boring choices that lead us inch by inch up the mountain to the reward of enduring charity in the New Testament sense. Love is kind.

Joey’s is the central consciousness that bears the weight of this family tragedy and it’s David Payne’s consciousness fictionalized – but

ABOVE The author as a child, 1958

not, too. There are knots too complicated to untie, and Joey’s parents’ marriage is one. At the end of the novel, we don’t know if Joey will ever untie the knot of pain, but he holds on to each of his loves and especially Pa, whose courage binds him to Joey “like the fisherman’s knot, which you can cut in a split second but not untie; if you hitch it fast and right, nothing in this world can ever make it come undone, not even the tidal wave the day it comes” (367), a shimmer of pre-adolescent determination and hope as the sun comes down.

The question Jimmy asked himself earlier in the novel, probably David Payne’s question, moves out into the future that this novel doesn’t tell, because it’s still unanswered. Jimmy is a new father in this remembered moment:

Standing there, I felt like God with Adam and whispered all the names of things to him, bird and tree and grass, and Joey opened his eyes and gazed at me solemnly for a moment. . . . I felt so moved and happy I was close to tears.

I loved them both that way, May and Joey, so how does it get mauled and broken, love like that? (157)

One must see the echo of the Biblical story here, of God’s creation gone wrong. This devastating novel is as surreal as Joey’s dream of drowning and as unrelenting as the real life of Jimmy breaking up that gun. No reader can feel untouched by it.

The last novel in the trilogy, Gravesend Light, leads off-center into the vortex. Fittingly, it is the most accomplished of the three novels. Originally, Payne chose the title, Behold This Dreamer Cometh, conjuring the Genesis story in which Joseph’s brothers mock him.

Here we learn how the father torpedoes the family beyond any retrieval of it. The pivotal scene appears in Barefoot to Avalon, making it a high-stakes sequence in Payne’s fiction and nonfiction. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Joey is now Joe, a twenty-eight-year-old anthropologist who has returned to Little Roanoke, a fictionalized version of Wanchese, on the Outer Banks; Gravesend Light is a fictionalized Bodie Island Lighthouse nearby, essential to fishermen. Payne begins the novel with an epigraph from Clifford Geertz’s The Interpretation of Cultures: “[The anthropologist’s] personal relationship to his object of study is, perhaps more than for any other scientist, inevitably problematic. . . . All ethnography is part philosophy, and a good deal of the rest is confession.”6 David Payne has never tried to hide what he’s up to, or at least not very hard.

I happen to have read Geertz in graduate school and to be a devotee. I especially love his concept of “thick description,” an ethnographic method in which researchers write as they immerse themselves within the context of a certain culture, noting specific,

61 N C L R ONLINE Flashbacks: Echoes of Past Issues
ABOVE Young David and brother George A. Payne with their Rose grandparents George A. (Pa) and Mary (Nanny), 1948–49 6 Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays (HarperColins, 1973) 345–46.

detailed references about social actions and behaviors of participants. In literary writing, Geertz is defining realism. Remember Adam from Early from the Dance who turned from experimental painting to realism and was punished for it by critics? Payne is a realist in many ways and certainly in his detailing of ordinary life. If he follows Faulkner in chronicling a dark, haunted past, he also follows Sherwood Anderson, William Maxwell, and John Williams in his “thick” descriptions of American life and family.

This is Day Shaughnessy, MD/OBGYN, Joe’s love interest, surveying the garage of Joe’s family’s beach cottage the first time she visits, the same house where we have seen Adam and Jane and Joey and Pa and May and Jimmy. Indeed this cottage, which I believe David Payne is still heir to, along with his younger brother, is the Garden of Eden after the fall:

The place looked like a camp – pairs of old, patched waders hanging upside down from the exposed joists, along with children’s orange life preservers, sun-faded, threadbare relics that had done their duty in another generation. A collage of dented, rusty license plates on the east wall dated back to 1936, the year the house was built; the west was lined with antique fishing gear – old deep-sea rods of thick bamboo, lacquered to an amber tone, the frozen brass reels painted with a patina of green corrosion. (45)

Here is part of the wreckage Adrienne Rich’s diver encounters on the bottom of the ocean: “silver, copper, vermeil cargo . . . / obscurely inside barrels / half-wedged and left to rot” (ll. 80–82).

Day is a surprising character, not the Southern girl May was, but a woman in black boots who is comfortable in Boston and the Outer Banks. She matches Joe in wit and intellect, if she does not surpass him. Serving for a year as an OB/GYN in religiously conservative Roanoke Island village, she becomes a primary care doctor for young women, including seventeen-year-old Pate Ames, who wants to go to college and become a vet but finds herself pregnant by her high school boyfriend. In an early conflict between Day and Joe, Day wants to help Pate get an abortion. In his usual ambivalent, anthropologist fashion, Joe, like Prufrock, can neither agree nor disagree (“Oh, do not ask”). Pate’s church, of course, absolutely opposes this plan once Pate’s mother sniffs it out. This conflict mirrors Joe’s own parents’ beginnings in the cottage he is living in as an anthropologist, a marriage decided by a pregnancy that led to hell. It also gives con-

ABOVE Four Roses, original house drawing by Melissa Long

temporary urgency to the novel in 2023, a time in which the choice to terminate a pregnancy is increasingly unavailable in the United States, including in North Carolina.

The description of the garage Day offers is more than local color. It gives us a glimpse of her sensibility and intelligence. Furthermore, this thick description acts as an emblematic history of the family, going back to Pa, dead since Joey was eleven, dead since the end of the last novel. He is the one whose father shot himself. Yet somehow he recovered and built this cottage and brought his family to this dwelling every summer, this enchanted place far from Killdeer (five hours by car). The garage conjures the family Cadillac, May’s childhood, a life before her boyfriend Jimmy arrived one night when she, chaperoned only by a careless older sister, became pregnant. And then she married Jimmy, and Joey, the unplanned child, arrived, and then Reed. The relics in the garage, like the lost treasures Joey sees on the ocean floor as he is about to drown in Ruin Creek – all of this is given to the reader, reminding us of the fatalities of time and neglect.

After a stint in Bali and the publication of his first book (Joe became the writer his father couldn’t become though he writes scholarship, not poetry), Joe Madden believes he has come to Little Roanoke as an anthropologist because the culture and locale are threatened, destined to be erased by development and tourism. But isn’t he looking for something else, too, back in this territory where he learned the fisherman’s knot and grieved over his family’s undoing that fateful summer? After all, as he nears the village on Little Roanoke, he thinks of the area as “a prehistoric world of small towns, tended lawns and family cookouts, a world whose demise had coincided with the death of his own family” fourteen years earlier (74).

Studying a culture means submerging yourself in it. Against great odds, Joe manages to convince local fisherman Dolph Teach to take him on as an apprentice. He’ll be “lumping fish,” or, for the uninitiated, shoveling fish into buckets, over and over and over. The other men on the boat the Father’s Price are skeptical of the PhD greenhorn. But Joe takes to the work, though it brings with it blistered hands that turn into bloody ones on the first day. The boat is one anthropological “field” of study for Joe. Here he meets Ray, born-again ex-con (if he isn’t bluffing). The other field Joe marks out is First Covenant Pentecostal Church, where John Calvin Teach is the minister and pregnant Pate Ames is brought back into the fold.

A journey out and hope of return frames the novel. Within the frame, the primary action is woven from two melodies advancing in counterpoint: Joe’s being in the field, an objective anthropologist who can’t or won’t commit to one position or the other on the vil-

63 N C L R ONLINE Flashbacks: Echoes of Past Issues
ABOVE Georga A. Rose (on right), circa 1960s

lage’s current debate about whether to build jetties into the ocean to make boats safer coming and going through the treacherous shoaling miles leading to Oregon Inlet, and Joe’s love affair with Day, which will require a commitment, actually two commitments. At the beginning of the novel (but near the end of the plot), he and Day have had a falling out. She is pregnant by him and wants the child. He can’t commit to repeating his father’s story, marrying because of a child. “How, knowing what they knew, had he and Day, in 1983, arrived at the same place where May and Jimmy Madden found themselves in 1954” (249). I confess that as a reader it took me some time to recognize that Day and May both become pregnant at the beach cottage.

In Civilization and its Discontents, Freud identifies repetition compulsion as one argument for the existence of the death instinct. The author’s own parents wrote this script. That Payne stages this drama three times in one novel lays bare the author’s own compulsion to find a way out of the circle. Why would anyone want the circle to be unbroken? Isn’t it essential, in fact, to break it? But there he is at the beginning, which is near the end, actually, on board the Father’s Price in winter, watching Day, on shore, become smaller and smaller. He has remained in his studied limbo. A storm is coming up, but these are fishermen and what they do is fish. Allusions to The Odyssey are frequent enough for the reader to understand what the writer is playing with. In case that’s not enough, here is the first paragraph of the novel:

Cracking the hawser like a sluggish whip, Joe Madden shook off the row of icicles that had formed like murderous tinsel overnight and leaped aboard, his steps ringing on the steel deck plate of the already moving boat. Above him in the bow, Jubal Ames, in aviator glasses, red hair stiff as a wire brush, loomed through the tinted Lexan windows of the wheelhouse. As the captain nudged her from reverse to forward, the corroded stack kicked back a croupy cough of diesel-scented smoke, her old Cat engine dropping an octave into a black-lunged basso profundo. The wake she boiled washed through the barnacle-encrusted pilings, stirring filleted skeletons and beer labels from the bottom of the Gut. A soft breeze stirred Joe’s hair, the cutwater releasing smells of oxygen and something else fundamentally nameless and marine. (1)

It’s a cold scene written in poetry. Try breaking those sentences into lines on a page. It’s not hard. The ocean, however, does not care about human plans and aspirations. It has no particular feeling for Joe in its “fundamentally nameless and marine” nature. This is not Walden Pond. It’s closer to Melville. When the storm reaches cataclysmic proportions at the end of the novel, Joe thinks, “The sea was like a former friend who, overnight in the rise to greatness, has

ABOVE The author’s brother George A.

“ A sea was like a former friend who, overnight in the rise to greatness, has forgotten you”

—Gravesend Light

forgotten you” (33). Payne worked on trawl boats after graduating from UNC. Perhaps he set out on a winter’s day like this one. Certainly that experience explains his expertise in shipping equipment.

But Joe, even if ambivalent in his commitment, is warm, a man with a poet’s eye, still a dreamer, a man who fell for Day, hoping to find a way into a life that isn’t just repeating the familial crimes and devastations of his past. As the boat departs, she stands out in the midst of other women on shore “like a letter crisply printed on a blurred gray page” (2). He observes what seems to him a raft of butterflies flying upward when a “flash of sunlight caught their underwings, revealing what they were”: Snowgeese. Rising helter-skelter, spooked by something, they gradually ranked themselves in order, forming a long fluid V, the arms rippling and fluctuating as they crossed the bow and circled back. Against the pale sky, their whiteness blackened as they climbed, till they suggested specks of dust or iron filings. Iron filings in a magnetic field – as he watched them waver and align, setting out on their remembered journey, following an invisible line of force, the image came to Joe together with a question: What was the field? (3)

Joe is the field, of course, his past, this place, the family cottage at the beach where his mother became pregnant with him on a weekend getaway with her boyfriend, who becomes Joey’s father. The novel includes an inset scene when Joe and Reed (the younger brother we last saw in Ruin Creek who began pounding his head into his pillow over the family’s traumas) go hunting one early morning. It turns out Reed has Pa’s rifle that was bequeathed to then Joey. The brothers’ rivalry – at least as seen from Joe’s point of view – is brought into full view as another casualty of the family’s history. Reed’s mental illness makes him a kind of magnet for anything the family has left to give, especially May, their mother (a theme that takes over in Barefoot to Avalon). In a way, Joe knows he is his own subject of study. As he leaves Roanoke Village that winter day, he “thought of Boston fourteen years before, the night his first world ended. Gazing out from the high floor of a hotel, he’d watched the blinking lights at Logan and the Mystic Tobin Bridge turn into whirling galaxies, and the thought of human intervention in the processes by which they turned seemed vain and of no use” (24).

What caused that world to end? What was “the rock against which he [was] shattered?”7 In the middle of the novel, Joe tells Day,

65 N C L R ONLINE Flashbacks: Echoes of Past Issues
ABOVE Young David and brother George A. Payne 7 Karl Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, Ed. Aniela Jaffé (Pantheon, 1963). 117.

the woman he loves: his parents had taken him and Reed to Boston where Joey is to begin boarding school the next day. Still hoping to win May back, even after putting the house up against the gambling debt, even after drinking himself into stupors and failing adequately to keep his boys safe for two weeks in the trailer he’s moved into when she kicked him out of the house, Jimmy plans a family excursion, touring Boston landmarks. He takes his family out to eat. They dress up. But May isn’t playing. She has checked out. Later that night back in the room after too many drinks, the boys put to bed in the same room, Jimmy assaults May, first in the bathroom and later in bed. Reed screams. Joey bangs on the door to the bathroom, telling his father to stop. Barely covering himself with a towel, Jimmy opens the door and delivers the murderous line: “Get back in bed or I’m going to kill you” (227). May flees with Reed. She leaves Joey with his father. Later Joey reports the assault to his paternal grandmother as rape. And then he begins high school.

The recitation of this monumental memory, the origin story of Joey Madden’s adulthood, now Joe Madden’s near-fatal wound, tumbles from Joe’s mouth and into Day’s ear when, at Christmas, he discovers pictures of his parents’ shot-gun wedding in his mother’s drawer. He was looking for playing cards. Well, here is another stack of cards. For the first time, he understands that his father married his mother out of desperation, the desperation of his, Joe’s own existence, in utero. Not because he and May were so in love they could not wait. Boom.

In Gravesend Light, treacherous situations are stacked one upon the other like pancakes: the treacherous waters of the sandbar of the ocean in winter storm of unmarried lovers and an unplanned pregnancy of the past and repeating the past.

Joe’s family is as treacherous as the shoals off Roanoke Island. Alongside Joe’s story is Reed’s, who has developed bipolar disorder. Joe is certain it originates in his parents’ troubled marriage but mostly his father’s violence and rage. If there is something essentially wrong with one’s origins, how does one ever get out? And to where?

With all of this at stake, Joe leaves that morning at the beginning of the novel, heading out to sea and into a catastrophic storm. But then again, his life has been the storm. Returning to Little Roanoke, the Father’s Price runs afoul of the shoals. The question of jetties is no longer theoretical.

As the boat rolled on her bottom, the floor went vertical beneath their feet, pitching them to port. Square by square, the sea filled

ABOVE The author with his baby brother circa 1958–59

One senses that David Payne was compelled to write these novels, to face down a traumatic and horrific past shot through with love like refracted light through stained glass in a bombed-out church.

the Lexan panels port to starboard, a view as into a dark aquarium. When she stopped, the starboard door was overhead; through it, Joe caught a glimpse of cloudy sky like the last view from the bottom of the grave, and then a breaking sea streamed down like the first spade of earth and buried them. (306)

Is there another living American writer who can write a scene of such brevity and scope?

One senses that David Payne was compelled to write these novels, to face down a traumatic and horrific past shot through with love like refracted light through stained glass in a bombed-out church. He does so glancingly at first with Early from the Dance and much more directly with Ruin Creek and Gravesend Light, so directly it’s hard to sort fiction from fact. Day thinks of Joe as having “pr[ied] his own back open with a shovel and a pick and his bleeding fingernails. It wasn’t always pretty” (346). Here is a moment of auto-ethnography. Payne writing about David Payne who has done just that.

Payne lets Day offer the answer to the question of how you get out: “You have to let your heart stay open” (346). Maybe that’s the answer the author comes to. Life doesn’t get easier. If anything, it gets harder. Something outside of us wants to meet something inside. Maybe the fisherman’s knot that holds so tight has to be cut, even if we risk drowning. By cutting it, we also risk saving.

Hoping for home still aboard the pitching Father’s Price, Joe Madden:

discovered . . . that his sole wish was to come down from the mountain he’d ascended in his lesson, to leave the singing jet stream and the ravishment of spectral black and whiteness, to escape the sky’s inhuman blue, and descend to an altitude where human life is possible, and there, like Odysseus, plant his oar and stake his row of beans and love his wife.

If You hear me, if You’re there, deliver me. Give me strength to rise. (310–11)

To read David Payne is to follow a profound, intelligent, humane, witty, and prophetic writer into an examination of life, his life and ours, to dive into the wreck and discover “the treasures that prevail.”

There’s that Divinity (or even divinity, with a small d) David Payne has been wrestling with, that You to his I or I and Thou, to invoke Jewish theologian and philosopher, Martin Buber. To read David Payne is to follow a profound, intelligent, humane, witty, and prophetic writer into an examination of life, his life and ours, to dive into the wreck and discover “the treasures that prevail” (Rich, l. 56) Stay a month or two with his novels and discover a fierce and searing voice – that finally sings. n

67 N C L R ONLINE Flashbacks: Echoes of Past Issues


a review by John Kessel

Dale Bailey. This Island Earth: 8 Features from the Drive-In. PS Publishing, 2023.

In 1958, Forrest J. Ackerman founded the magazine Famous Monsters of Filmland, a colorful celebration of schlock science fiction and horror movies in all their lurid sensationalism. Ackerman coined the label “sci fi” for these movies. His magazine was an immediate hit, and soon the term “sci fi” replaced “science fiction” in the popular mind. Writers trying to write serious science fiction, to high literary standards, have fought having their work thrown into the sci fi bin with The Blob. Some have latched onto new labels – speculative fiction, magic realism, cyberpunk – in the hope of separating their work from “sci fi.”

never would have gone. His story titles may be borrowed from actual fright night features of the 1950s, and the stories abound with mutant monsters, flying saucers, aliens, rebellious teens, hot automobiles, and high school romances, but they do not focus so much on the sci fi as on the people. As Bailey says in his preface, “these stories should not be seen as homages to the movies they draw their premises from [but as] homages to the movies I summoned into being as a boy – movies that never truly existed outside the theater in my head” (Bailey xii).

JOHN KESSEL’s latest book is The Dark

The Best Short Fiction of John Kessel (Subterranean Press, 2022), the subject of a review essay in NCLR Online Winter 2023. Kessel’s stories have twice received the Nebula Award given by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. Additionally, he has gotten the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award, the Locus Award, the Shirley Jackson Award, and the James Tiptree Jr. Award. Kessel holds a BA in Physics and English and a PhD in American Literature. He is retired from NC State University where he helped found and served as the first director of the MFA program in creative writing.

In his new collection, This Island Earth: 8 Features from the Drive-In, Dale Bailey, thirty or more years into a career writing science fiction for grownups, tries a different strategy. Rather than run away from schlock sci fi, he steals the rubber alien costume, tries it on for size, and uses it without apology to tell stories that touch the heart and mind.

Bailey, who teaches writing and literature at Lenoir Rhyne University, brings a wide knowledge of non-genre fiction to his work. So though you will find “The Horror of Party Beach” in this collection – a story that does indeed contain a horror on a beach where teens go to party – Bailey pushes this scenario in directions that the 1964 movie released under that title

For example, in “I Married a Monster from Outer Space,” Ruth and Donny live in a trailer, and their stale marriage is going nowhere. Ruth works checkout at the Walmart; Donny, though he is a superior auto mechanic, doesn’t seem to be able to hold a job. Everything changes the day Ruth brings home a stranded alien from outer space whose flying saucer has crashed. Ruth and Donny nickname him “Gort” after the killer robot in the 1951 movie The Day the Earth Stood Still. His stay with them while Donny repairs the flying saucer and Ruth finds a (perhaps imaginary) emotional connection with the mute alien renews the couple’s marriage. It’s not exactly E.T., but the saga of Ruth’s relationship with Gort is a sad and funny commentary on the ordinary and the strange in our own world, and the emotional

DALE BAILEY is the author of nine books, including The End of the End of Everything (Tor Books, 2015) and The Subterranean Season (Underland Press, 2015). His story “Death and Suffrage” was adapted for Showtime’s Masters of Horror television series. His short fiction has been frequently reprinted in best-of-the-year anthologies, including The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy, The Best Horror of the Year, and The Year’s Best Weird Fiction. He has won the Shirley Jackson Award and the International Horror Guild Award and has been a finalist for the World Fantasy, Nebula, Locus and Bram Stoker awards. He lives in North Carolina with his family and reviews frequently for NCLR.

Ride: OPPOSITE Dale Bailey (left) talking with fellow North Carolina speculative fiction writer Nathan Ballingrud at Malaprop’s Bookstore, Asheville, NC, 21 Mar. 2023

complexity of Bailey’s characters recalls Ray Bradbury more than Ed Wood.

The majority of the stories in This Island Earth are set in small towns. Ordinary people leading ordinary lives find themselves in the middle of lurid horror stories. The horror is most definitely there: in Bailey’s stories a lot of bad things happen to good – and bad – people. But Bailey’s focus is always on their hopes, their fears, their frustrations, their low motives and their high ones. Teenagers on their way to adulthood try to find a better way to live than what is held out to them; old people look back on the choices and accidents that led them to where they are now. And, I think centrally, most of these are love stories.

“Teenagers from Outer Space” turns aliens from space into a metaphor for race. In the town of Milledgevillle, OH, aliens have appeared and settled into “Bug Town,” a disreputable neighborhood across the tracks. The townspeople’s attitudes toward the aliens – “the aliens walked among us, but we did not walk among the aliens” (179) – are analogous to the racial prejudice of that era.

Against this backdrop, high school student Nance tells us about her best friend Joan’s rebellion against her dictatorial, righteous father and the stifling culture of the town. Joan first takes up with Johnny Fabriano, who drives a tricked out 1948 Mercury with flames painted on its hood. When Johnny turns out to be bad news, to his dismay, the horror of her father, and disapproval of most of her fellow students, Joan starts dating one of the aliens. Worried Nance protests to her that they’re

aliens; Joan replies, “No worries, Nance. I’m used to it” (197).

In some stories

Bailey plays the absurdity of the premise for laughs. “Creature from the Black Lagoon” is about the making of that classic ’50s horror movie, but in this version the creature is played by an actual amphibious Gill-Man, captured in the Amazon, brought to Hollywood, and persuaded to become an actor. Unfortunately, as the Creature explains to us, he has fallen in love with Julie Adams, the movie’s star. Plus, he’s afraid his career will suffer if he’s typecast as a monster. He tries to master his loneliness, murderous impulses, and hopeless love. What might have seemed a joke becomes a story of someone dying – or perhaps willing to kill – for love.

The windows of the station glowed yellow. Behind it, the shadowy tower of the transmitter array printed itself against the sky.

Against these frail assertions of human dominion, a wall of night and the sigh of wind combing the rye; above them, the black arc of heaven: a thousand stars like still points moving and billions more unseen beyond them. Nothing else: only the vacuum of space running on to the edge of all things, expanding. (92)

My favorite story from the book might be the quietly evocative “Night Caller from Outer Space,” which tells of Ezra, a late-night DJ at a tiny Iowa radio station trying to cope with the aftermath of his wife’s recent abduction by aliens. His struggle to get back to his lonely work is complicated by strange phone calls that come into the station’s request line in the dead of night.

Bailey’s description of this time, place, and man are simply beautiful:

He killed the engine, listening to it tick as he pulled himself together.

When he finally forced himself out of the car . . . he stood hesitant in the January cold, fixed in the red neon haze of the call letters bolted to the sign high above him: KNWC.

Bailey evokes Ezra’s loneliness and the guilt he feels, though there really was nothing he could have done to save his wife. We’re marooned with him in a small radio station at night on the great plains and the feeling that humans are very small in the midst of a vast and mysterious universe.

There’s fun to be had in Dale Bailey’s fantasias on the themes of drive-in horror movies of a bygone age. There’s nostalgia for those few who still remember that time. There are chills at the horrifying things that come from outer space or from within the human heart. And there is hope that the world, at least sometimes, doesn’t have to be an abode of monsters. n

69 N C L R ONLINE Flashbacks: Echoes of Past Issues


a review by Jim Coby

Nathan Ballingrud. The Strange Saga Press 2023.

Nathan Ballingrud might be one of the best kept secrets in the American literary scene today. Primarily known for his masterful horror short story collections North American Lake Monsters (2013) and Wounds (2019), Ballingrud has made fans of Paul Tremblay, Victor LaValle, Stephen Graham Jones, and countless other contemporary giants of the genre. With his first novel, The Strange, however, one can’t help but imagine that Ballingrud might soon be propelled to literary stardom.

with Joe Reilly, an alcoholic space pilot, and Sally Milkwood, a moonshiner and one of the diner’s thieves, to track down the lost recordings. As she ventures farther and farther away from New Galveston, Annabelle begins to realize that Mars harbors far more strangeness and danger than she could have possibly imagined.

JIM COBY is an Assistant Professor of English at Indiana University Kokomo. He regularly contributes reviews and interviews to NCLR . His NCLR 2021 interview with Nathan Ballingrud received NCLR ’s premiere Randall Kenan Prize. His edited collection, Boom! Splat!: Comics and Violence , is forthcoming from the University of Mississippi Press.

NATHAN BALLINGRUD is the author of two collections of short stories, Wounds: Six Stories for the Border of Hell (Simon and Schuster, 2019; reviewed in NCLR Online 2021) and North American Lake Monsters (Small Beer Press, 2013). The winner of two Shirley Jackson Awards, Ballingrud studied literature at UNC Chapel Hill as well as the University of New Orleans. He lives in Asheville, NC.

OPPOSITE Nathan Ballingrud at Malaprop’s Bookstore, Asheville, NC, 21 Mar. 2023

In his immediately engaging and compulsively readable first novel, Ballingrud takes readers to an outpost on Mars named New Galveston, where adventurers, entrepreneurs, and scoundrels have settled in the distant year of – 1931. Annabelle Crisp runs the Mother Earth Diner with her distant and grieving father. After Anabelle’s mother decides to return to Earth, the pair, but especially Annabelle’s father, seek comfort in an audio recording that his wife has left behind. This token emerges as the final bond they have with their mother; however, when “The Silence” takes effect, and communications between Mars and Earth end, it leaves the Martians to wonder precisely what, if anything, remains behind on Earth. Stability is further upended when one evening, cultists who populate Dig Town, the desert outside of New Galveston, rob the diner of its valuables, including the audio recording of Annabelle’s mother. Hoping to join the sheriff’s posse, Annabelle quickly becomes disenchanted with how the law had “given up so easily” on its pursuit (32). Left with few options, she teams

The temporal anachronism and historical revisionism quickly upset readers’ expectations of how science fiction traditionally works, as does Ballingrud’s incorporation of historical figures and events into the plot. Legendary pitcher, Satchel Paige, for example, plays an exhibition game on Mars, effectively revealing that Ballingrud isn’t beholden to the rules previously set forth by Asimov or Butler or Dick, but rather seems determined to carve his own niche at the intersections of speculative fiction, historical fiction, horror, bildungsroman, and literary fiction. In short, this novel does a lot of things, and generally it does them very well.

For example, the young protagonist, Annabelle, bursts forward with life and a righteous indignation about the wrongs done against her and her father that can only exist in the lionhearted spirit of a young person. Despite his admitted apprehensions that he frequently composes stories focusing “on working class men,” and so, “What business did [he] have writing Annabelle’s story?” (291), Ballingrud crafts a fully realized, rounded character who actively displays the wealth and depth of human emotions and experiences. Following the robbery, Annabelle finds herself sickened with the lack of judicial progress


and frustrated with her place as “a child among adults caught in a derangement” (91). The second portion of the novel is entitled “What I Did About It,” and this curt title thoroughly sets the stage for the thrilling retribution to come.

Alluring tertiary characters also populate Ballingrud’s Mars. Joe Reilly and Sally Milkwood, Annabelle’s colleagues of necessity, each possess tragic, fully formed backstories. But aside from Annabelle, no character draws our attention and emotions more so than her robot or “engine,” Watson, “a bipedal construct, humanoid in form, utilitarian and featureless” (5). Although his primary function is to cook and clean at the diner, Watson, too, finds himself caught up in Annabelle’s rescue attempts. Watson, of course, lacks any personality save for what he is programmed to have, and so he becomes largely a sounding board for Annabelle’s fears, while also providing perfunctory solace and advice in return. Watson, therefore, shouldn’t elicit the emotional response that he does, but as readers feel themselves more deeply enmeshed in the loneliness of Mars life, it’s impossible to deny just how necessary a sounding board can be, and how his unwavering dedication to Annabelle proves as endearing as any human’s.

It’s also worth noting the environment about which Ballingrud writes. Crafting a believable locale is essential in making resonant science fiction. Veer too far to the fantastic and readers become too caught up in the details of place at the expense of story; veer too far to the realistic and readers wonder why

the story needed an interplanetary location at all.

In this high-wire act of crafting an immersive world for his characters, Ballingrud succeeds. Mars feels both intimately familiar, drawing from tropes of noir and western fiction, while also deeply foreign. “Colonists often had difficulty,” Annabelle notes, “getting used to the colder temperatures of Mars. . . .

The sun is smaller here, the days shorter and cooler. Twilight is the common mood of our sky” (22). A description of a decommissioned spaceship reads: “On windless days the pink sand and the dust covered it like a caul, giving it the appearance of a relic from an older age: something cobwebbed and forgotten. A haunted house full of the ghosts of the entire world” (46). In these passages, Ballingrud provides readers with a discordant sense of place; the tropes of American western literature would suggest hot, sluggish days, but Mars’s climate upends such comforts. Similarly, shining, sleek retro futuristic visions of rockets are exchanged for abandoned junk vehicles, essentially forcing readers to abandon their expectations and settle in for the ride that Ballingrud has laid out before them.

I’m not the first (or second or third) reviewer to note that The Strange reads like an amalgamation of Charles Portis’s True Grit

and Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles. But the comparisons are too obvious and too clever to be ignored. Like Bradbury in the best of his short stories, Ballingrud fashions an interplanetary locale both immediately familiar and oddly foreign, divorced from time, but also of a very specific moment in American cultural history. Once you get comfortable with the fact that the story takes place on another planet, the descriptions of Martian soil and meteorological events seem no more foreign or unexpected than, say, Louis L’Amour’s descriptions of Colorado. Likewise, Ballingrud’s precocious antagonist who, in her quest for justice, provides not only answers for herself, but redemption for her rapscallion cohort, immediately draws to mind Portis’s Mattie Ross. Ballingrud proudly wears these influences and extracts what works best from these works while also fashioning his own vision of the interplanetary western. n

71 N C L R ONLINE Flashbacks: Echoes of Past Issues


a review by Abby Trzepacz

Micki Bare. Blind Fairy. Level Elevate, 2023.

Micki Bare’s book Blind Fairy, the second volume in her Zahra of the Uwharries series, picks up right where she left off with the first book, Society of the Sentinelia. Blind Fairy is set in the Birkhead Mountains Wilderness in central North Carolina, and Bare successfully weaves magical elements with characteristics of her home state, exploring environmental stewardship, friendship, and self-confidence within this fantastical comingof-age story

around the stream by her tree, she thinks she has found her next heart animal. So when the turtle is stolen by the new neighbor, she devises a plan with her best human friend, Danni, to get it back. Alas, Zahra discovers the turtle has escaped, and now she’s on the hunt to find it.

ABBY TRZEPACZ is an English major at East Carolina University with a double minor in Professional Writing and Information Design and Communications. She currently works at NCLR as an intern.

MICKI BARE is a graduate of NC State University. Her career in education spans three decades, with service as a teacher, administrator, and marketing director. She is the author of three early reader children’s books. She has also published in regional and state magazines and anthologies and has written a human interest column for almost twenty years. Her first middle-grade novel, Society of the Sentinelia (Best Level Books, 2022), and Blind Fairy both received the North Carolina AAUW Young People’s Literature Award.

Zahra is a scraebin and a fairy, which grants her more powers and benefits than what regular scraebins get. Scraebins are the size of sprites and have powers that allow them to sense the weather with their feet and thrive in their home tree, while fairies get heart animals with amethyst-colored eyes that guide and help them on their journeys. A new fairy quality that Zahra acquires in this book is the ability to see the future through her dreams.

Blind Fairy begins with Zahra at her home tree reunited with her family after her adventures in Society of the Sentinelia (2022). When she spots a turtle with amethyst eyes roaming

Just when Zahra begins to have hope about uniting with her new heart animal another threat emerges. Strange cicadas emerge from the ground by their tree and place her colony in a deep sleep. She hears her mentor fairy, Miss Jellisia Levion, call to her in her mind, and she and Gigesdi, her cat heart animal, travel together to find her mentor. When she gets the opportunity to ask questions, she first thinks to ask about the odd cicadas. Miss Jellisia Levion responds, “They warn of the probable extinction of scraebins” (45). Zahra is panicstricken, concerned about her own family.

Miss Jellisia tells Zahra that she is “The Convener” and that “Conveners bring other fairies, animals, and sometimes humans together. They have the ability to master all the fairy skills,


but become acutely adept at the ones they use and need the most. In special cases, a Convener may develop a specific skill suddenly – it emerges out of nowhere” (46–47). To assume her role as The Convener, Zahra is tasked to unite the Trilaterian, three fairies born on the same day, at the same moment. She will recognize them by their “Amethyst colored eyes, a red wart on the left foot, and a blue pinky fingernail on the right hand” (48). Zahra and these three fairies can save all of scraebin kind.

Before Zahra can start her quest to find the three fairies, she needs to work on her special fairy skills. For example, she must learn how to coax and camouflage and focus on her fairy connection with lightning bugs. Zahra is a natural, and in no time, she masters these skills. With the help of her mentor and Danni, she is ready to start her duties as The Convener.

When Zahra is led to the first fairy in the Trilaterian, she is shocked to see that the fairy is blind and missing her left foot and two of her fingers, including the right pinky. This made her doubt if she had the right fairy. But Zahra listens to her heart, which tells her this is the fairy she is looking for. Zahra and her new fairy friend Aoife endure many obstacles, but one thing will always remain a fact: they will be best friends. Always.

Within the story’s adventures, Bare reminds readers that we have only the one Earth, and we should not take advantage

of it; as Ms. Clara Festimire, a member of the Society of the Sentinlea, says, “That boy and his family have to decide on their own that the Earth and its resources are valuable. Many people have lost sight of that. But you can’t force them to believe what you believe.” (10). Bare’s book suggests that the earth is at least as important as those who inhabit it.

Another main theme of the novel is following your heart and having hope. There are many times when not only Zahra but everyone around her doubts her ability to be The Convener. Zahra overcomes that doubt when she believes in herself. She accepts that she was chosen to do her job as The Convener for a reason.

Bare reminds her reader that we reach our potential with the

help of friends. Danni is there for support of all Zahra’s scraebin problems and provides help when a human is needed. When Zahra’s colony is put to sleep, it is Danni who helps Zahra on her quests. Once Zahra meets Aoife, her new friend helps Zahra avoid the humans trying to capture her and to wake up her colony. These friends help shape Zahra into the girl she becomes in this novel.

In spite of the magical world of Blind Fairy, readers will relate to Zahra’s self-confidence issues and find her friendships familiar. And Bare introduces readers to environmental awareness and appreciation. Blind Fairy ends on a happy and uplifting note but with enough unanswered questions to make the reader look forward to the next volume of the series. n

73 N C L R ONLINE Flashbacks: Echoes of Past Issues
8 Dec. 2023
AND ABOVE Micki Bare receiving, from Lori Bunton representing the AAUW of North Carolina, the 2023 Young People’s Literature Award at the North Carolina Literary and Historical Association Awards Ceremony in Raleigh, NC,


Senior Year

TEACHING Mrs.Dalloway


“This essay about the seismic movements a high school English teacher witnesses and inspires in a single year moved me so deeply. They say teachers learn as much from the classroom as their students, and few pieces of writing I’ve encountered embody this so thoroughly.”
—James Tate Hill, 2023 Final Judge :


Senior year: I challenge my exceptionally bright Advanced Placement English IV class with an in-depth analysis of how novels and characters become identified as classics. What does the writer do to make that happen? I ask them. In class, we often answered that question with examples from my own life as a writer, and the kids loved those moments. Now it is their turn to act as writers.

DAWN RENO LANGLEY has published more than thirty books, among them The Mourning Parade (Amberjack, 2017) and You Are Divine: A Search for the Goddess in All of Us (Llewellyn, 2022). Her short stories, essays, and poems have been published in journals such as Hunger Mountain and Superstition Review. A Fulbright scholar and TEDx speaker with an MFA in Fiction and a PhD in Interdisciplinary Studies, Langley lives in Durham and on the North Carolina coast where she offers writing retreats for other women. She also teaches in the MFA program at Southern New Hampshire University.

Nancy, an always ready with the quip, short and spunky girl whose African parents expect a lot of her, slides down in her chair and lets her arms dangle as her head lolls to the side. The class laughs, but I continue explaining how we’re going to analyze the three novels I’ve chosen, and they’re on board. Excited.

There are six students in this class, only twenty-four in the graduating class itself. It’s the

Multimedia artist E. VINCENT MARTINEZ was born in Cuba, grew up in Miami, and lives in Atlanta, where he is a Professor at the Art Institute of Atlanta. He earned his BFA from Barry University in Miami, followed by a two-year core fellowship at the Penland School of Craft in North Carolina, where he has served on the Board of Trustees since 2020. He earned his MFA in photography at Rochester Institute of Technology in New York, and his MA in Art Education at Georgia State University. In addition to teaching, he maintains FASHIONADO, a fashion and lifestyle digital publication he created in 2009, and he is the host and anchor of Ai-Live, the systemwide Art Institutes digital TV platform.



first graduating class from Franklin Academy, and they’re proud of the distinction. I started teaching them in the tenth grade when I started in January, inheriting some deep-seated issues. We worked through them, thankfully, but not without some sleepless nights on my part. Surprisingly, the fact that I hung in there with them seems to have earned their respect, and teaching them during their high school years has created a strong bond. I love every single one of them.

My choices for the books we’d read in the AP class are difficult ones. In fact, I usually teach them at the college level, but these kids are smart, and I know they’ll dig into the grittiness of these stories: Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, a novelist known for her skillful command of omniscient point of view; the perfect accompaniment to Woolf’s masterpiece, The Hours by Michael Cunningham (he read Mrs.

Dalloway at the age of fifteen, three years younger than these kids); and finally, the other side of the Dalloway story, Mr. Dalloway by Robin Lippincott, one of my mentors during my MFA studies at Vermont College and a gorgeous writer who graciously agrees to be our Skype guest later in the semester.

The students need this challenge. Without some intellectually intense literature under their belts, they’ll find the AP exam daunting. Besides, they’ll perform more effectively in college if they step out of their comfort zones.

We’ve already examined Shakespeare plays and the ways other authors utilized Shakespeare’s framework to build their own stories. Romeo and Juliet morphed into West Side Story; King Lear turned into A Thousand Acres; Othello became O; Taming of the Shrew grew into Ten Things I Hate About You. We held a Shakespeare Film Festival, and the students appreciate the Bard’s influence. Now it’s time to

75 N C L R ONLINE Flashbacks: Echoes of Past Issues
Untitled No. 9 (mixed media photo collage, acrylic and spray paints, prismacolor pencil, gold powder, polyurethane, 30x60) by E. Vincent Martinez COURTESY OF

introduce them to more contemporary authors with whom they are not familiar. This semester, I’ll set the students loose with the skills I provided them – and test whether they can apply what they have learned.


I took the job at Franklin Academy after my husband and I moved north from Florida. It’s temporary, I promised myself. I’ll keep writing.

My husband landed a job at Duke University Press, a job I was instantly envious of because I’d love nothing better than to be in publishing in that ivy-covered setting. We bought a house in North Raleigh, halfway between our two jobs, and settled in. Immediately, it was clear we weren’t in West Palm Beach anymore. Two weeks after we moved in, someone threw a cherry bomb onto our front porch. Our neighbors didn’t like interracial couples.

Hired only two days before classes started, I walked into the Sophomore Honors class having done little more than scan the assigned readings the night before. I was nervous, and the kids sensed it.

Nancy and her classmate Mike spent most of that first week testing me. I tried to laugh off their jabs and reasoned with them when they forgot their homework or made smart comments, but

when I went home at night, I cried on my husband’s shoulder. “What am I doing wrong? Why do they hate me so much?”

With his impossible logic, he said, “Kids always hate teachers.”

I didn’t. I remember my high school English teacher, Mr. Sarno, the football coach and three hundred pounds of teddy bear. He quoted Shakespeare in a booming voice as he walked the perimeter of the class, so much love on his face that it was impossible not to get drawn in. He was the teacher who inspired me to write. I wanted my students to love me as much as I loved Mr. Sarno, wanted to teach them as much about Shakespeare and literature as he taught me, wanted to know that they’d remember me.

“Why do you need their adulation?” my husband said. “Be happy if you get their respect. You have a job. You’re there to teach them.”


I planned the AP readings over the summer, poring through each novel to find the links that connected it to the other two, and determined to go into the novels with a focus that we can follow throughout the semester. How could I get them interested in following Woolf’s narrative thread




Golden Rose (mixed media photo collage, acrylic and spray paints, prismacolor pencil, gold powder, polyurethane, 36x36) by E. Vincent Martinez COURTESY OF THE ARTIST


and stream of consciousness writing? The book is challenging for the best of readers and nearly impossible for writers to imitate. I know. I spent the summer trying to incorporate that style in my latest – yet unpublished – novel.

On the first day of class, everyone has done their reading, and we take turns reading aloud. The group slumps in their chairs, as Nancy had done when I introduced my idea. Sara’s freckled eyelids droop as she plays with her waist-length strawberry blonde hair. The only one who’s paying attention is Stephanie, a sweet and quiet girl who comes from a family of Jehovah’s Witnesses.

I walk the classroom, as Mr. Sarno did, and the students watch me, determined to pay attention. I repeat the opening line of the novel,“Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself,” often and emphatically, establishing the character and voice of the speaker, showing the students how voice changes mid-sentence or mid-paragraph when one character walks by or touches another. In my mind’s eye, I see Mr. Sarno repeating lines from Julius Caesar

We read the whole book aloud over the next week. The students, raised on MTV and iPods, reluctantly see the beauty in Woolf’s writing and the intricate technique of winding all the characters’ stories throughout each other’s during that one eventful day in Mrs. Dalloway’s life. Though they are disappointed in what they view as a “soft” ending, they appreciate the literary techniques Woolf employs. They’ll recognize the techniques on the AP exam, I’m sure.

4 Senior Year: At the beginning and ending of each day, I hear their gossip, even though none of them are in my classes that year. Mary Kathryn’s dimpled smile gives way to an up-the-scale giggle as she describes her recent dates. She’s taking American literature with another teacher this year and loves to write. Nancy has become a basketball star. She and I call a truce in our personal war, and with that truce also comes one with Mike. They’re buddies, sharing a common intelligence and whip-smart

cracks. Some of the kids have jobs. My husband and I run into Samantha at the movies every Friday night, professionally handling her job behind the popcorn counter with a maturity belying her red ponytail. Others become head cheerleaders, like Stephanie, a short Italian girl who’s been with her boyfriend since seventh grade. Tall, smart Danika and shy Janet become friends. Allan, who’s been homeschooled most of his life, starts coming out of his shell. Jay, the quietest boy in the group, starts questioning whether he should go to work or college after graduation.

In second period that year, eighteen to twenty sophomores cram into the circle of chairs in my classroom. The students and I have no history of tension between us, like I do with the seniors. The sophomores’ history is with each other, not me. But I am fond of them, too, and begin building relationships.

These kids have all grown up in Wake Forest. Some live on farms, and some live in McMansions in neighborhoods I drive through when I need some architectural eye-candy. Most haven’t traveled farther than Raleigh. Without exception, they all love Bojangles chicken. We have very little in common.

We’re reading Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, the novel I’ve chosen for this World Literature class. It’s simple, easy to read, yet still full of metaphor and themes rich for discussion. We talk about heroes and antiheroes and about the fall of man, as depicted by the main character, Okonkwo.

We’re talking about Nigeria when Jeffrey, an overactive and undisciplined kid who grew up on a farm in what even these kids call “the boonies,” turns to Daniel, the kid behind him, and makes a comment behind his hand. My hearing’s terrific, legendary to my previous students, and I hear him say: “Why do we always need to read stories about niggers?”

“What did you say, Mr. Jeffrey?” I call out sharply.

The girls in Jeffrey’s vicinity gasp. The class falls silent.

For almost ten minutes, Jeffrey and I talk about what it meant to live in the Igbo culture. Him vs. me. The rest of the students stare as I bear down on him, trying to deal with his racism by

77 N C L R ONLINE Flashbacks: Echoes of Past Issues

discussing the book’s themes rather than directly addressing the comment I wasn’t supposed to hear.

“The Igbo culture was in place long before slavers started bringing people to America. They had a civilization there. A monarchy. Rules and laws. You realize that, Jeffrey?”

“They should’ve left those ni – Black people there,” he responds.

Amanda, the girl next to him, whispers something. Jeffrey’s eyebrows shoot up, and without asking permission, he walks over to my desk in the back of the room. He stands by my chair so he can look at the photos on my desktop. For a long moment, he’s silent, and so is the class.

“I didn’t know you were married to a Black man,” he says. He’s embarrassed. He might be racist, but his family taught him to respect his teachers.

“Would that have made a difference?” I ask.

He can’t answer me at that moment, but a week later, I overhear the girls talking at lunch about how much he’s changed. “He apologized for making fun of my hair,” says one of the ninth graders, a bubbly Black girl who’s always at the center of a small clique.


Throughout the third and fourth weeks of the semester, we read Michael Cunningham’s The Hours. Somewhere in the middle of that novel, I spot a couple of relationships blossoming. Sara and Mario, the class clown, officially become the first interracial relationship in the school. In my other classes, both girls and boys are coming out to their classmates as gay. The sophomore class becomes a hotbed of gender-bending issues.

When we start Lippincott’s Mr. Dalloway, my senior AP students understand Woolf’s life story and the various relationships she had – both male and female. They are titillated by that lifestyle, and when they discover Lippincott’s life mirrors Woolf’s, they pay closer attention to his novel.

his wife, his life, and his questions about his own sexuality. Seeing Richard “from the inside out” instead of from Woolf’s point of view brings up more questions of the stream of consciousness style of writing. Miranda, a mature girl with serious eyes, points out the differences in the way women and men write.

Jacob, a basketball player with dreams of going into the military, regularly terms anything he finds weird as “gay.” I spend an inordinate amount of time trying to correct him, but I understand why he does it. He’s uncomfortable with homosexuality, and his comments while we’re reading the novel usually revolve around the book’s undercurrent of sexuality.

When a discussion arises among the students about Richard Dalloway’s homosexuality and Lippincott’s use of stream of consciousness to reveal the character’s mindset, a teaching moment arises. I’m ecstatic that the students feel they can talk about the subject matter in a safe space.

Jacob listens quietly. A big guy, he barely fits into the desk chair. I remind myself he’s only eighteen. After Nancy, Sara, and Miranda finish a rousing discussion of the ways the characters intersect, Jacob leans forward. “I just hated that scene, you know the one where Richard talks about his brother’s suicide? Man, I couldn’t do that. I mean, gay or not, it sucks when something like that happens.”

I remain silent, knowing he’ll be moved by the film version of Cunningham’s The Hours where that Richard chooses to end his own AIDS-stricken life by falling out a window.

Two days later, I’m called to the principal’s office. With a thin-lipped determination, he holds a copy of Lippincott’s book in his hands. “Are you teaching this?” He opens the book to page sixtyone, points his long index finger at the page. “I’m hearing complaints about this.”

What he’s pointing to is a painful and pivotal scene in the novel, one which students who have siblings can identify: young Richard and his brother are exploring each other’s bodies.

“The book isn’t all that one scene. There’s much more to the story than this.” My stomach churns with anxiety. “Woolf’s book is a classic, and the

Lippincott’s novel follows Richard, Clarissa Dalloway’s husband, during the same period as Woolf’s story about Clarissa. The narrative exposes my students to the thoughts Richard has about “I DIDN’T KNOW YOU WERE MARRIED TO A BLACK MAN,” HE SAYS. HE’S EMBARRASSED. HE MIGHT BE RACIST, BUT HIS FAMILY TAUGHT HIM TO RESPECT HIS TEACHERS.


other two are literary masterpieces. My intention was for the kids to learn about the literature.”

I hustle up my explanation, fueled by my own passion for the stories, as well as for my seniors. “I chose the three books because they’re all about the same characters, though the authors are different. The kids are loving this. And we’ve got one of the authors – Robin Lippincott – on the calendar for a discussion when we’re done. They’re doing a phenomenal job with the analysis. Really understanding the literary terms.”

“I understand your reasoning,” he says with as stern a manner as he can muster. “But I’ve got other instructors and parents to deal with who don’t understand. You’re going to have to find something else to read for the rest of the semester.”

I call Robin Lippincott. We commiserate about what would have been a wonderful learning experience for the kids.

“It’s sad, but I understand your agony all too well,” he says.

That comment breaks my heart.


My day begins late, because we haven’t had hot water at my house all weekend. I haven’t washed my hair, and I’ve lost precious time. I get to school at 7:15 a.m., feeling rushed, and am instantly called to an impromptu faculty meeting. I dump


my coat, give some quick journal prompts to Jacob, who is the first one in, so he can write them on the board for the other AP students.

“You showing a PowerPoint today, Mrs. L? You’re the PowerPoint queen,” he says as I shake my head, grabbing my cup of coffee before heading out the door.

The faculty lounge is full. I find my friend Janene, the speech instructor who shares a classroom space with me.

“What’s going on?” I ask her.

She shrugs her shoulders. Kristi, the school’s guidance counselor, asks for everyone’s attention.

“I don’t know how to say this – I’ll just dive in. We got a call this morning – ” Her hands shake, as does her voice. “One of our students committed suicide at two o’clock this morning.”

Everyone gasps. I catch Janene’s eye. She grabs for my hand.

Kristi continues, “It’s Graham Johnson.”

Janene starts to sob and moves to the corner near the copy machine. Kristi, her face gray, keeps talking about meeting with the student body during fourth period, but we shouldn’t let the students know until then. My stomach feels like stone. My head throbs.

Graham, the tenth grader in my World Lit class who smiles constantly, jokes during class, never has a problem with taking on a dramatic reading.

79 N C L R ONLINE Flashbacks: Echoes of Past Issues
COURTESY OF THE ARTIST White Butterflies (mixed media photo collage, acrylic and spray paints, prismacolor pencil, gold powder, polyurethane, 24x24) by E. Vincent Martinez

The braces-clad, lanky kid whose unruly hair flips out at the side making him look slightly goofy and always lovable. Graham who asked long and erudite questions when we discussed Buddhism last week.

How the hell would we hide our emotions for the next three hours?

By the time fourth period rolls around, whispers fly through the school. Seniors come to me asking what’s going on. Kids speculate that the school is going to close, that faculty are getting fired, that we are going to get dismissed for any number of reasons.

All of us shocked faculty members follow the students to the auditorium, trying to maintain composure as the principal delivers the news. We have lost a precious fifteen-year-old boy, and we now worry about other kids who are on the edge and could easily make the same horrible choice.

We are broken.

Somehow, we limp through the wake where most people wait a minimum of three hours before viewing Graham. His parents choose not to cover up the fact that Graham made a horrible mistake. The visual keeps me awake that night, and the only thing that soothes me is to dump my feelings into the composition notebook I keep in my briefcase. It’s dawn when I write the last sentence.

The funeral is standing room only. We try to get back to some sort of normal school day during the following week, but for the next month, the school is at its darkest. In our shared classroom, Janene and I often comment on each other’s swollen eyelids.

One day, I see Nancy and Sara picking up one of the tenth-grade girls from where she slumps against her locker in the hallway. They cuddle her, offering warmth and understanding. They cry. I leave them alone.

Nancy’s sister, one of Graham’s best friends, no longer leads with laughter when she comes into a building. My World Lit class talks and talks and talks about the pain they feel, yet nothing seems to make it better. Graham’s circle of friends is inconsolable. Homework isn’t done. Fights start. Students end up in therapy.

The seniors take on the responsibility of creating events that bring students together. They talk to me about their own grief, though theirs isn’t as amplified as the tenth graders’. Still. Still.

My seniors have now been pallbearers, grief counselors, and mourners. Four months before graduation, they are suddenly adults.


Metamorphosis / Colorful Shadows (mixed media photo collage, acrylic and spray paints, prismacolor pencil, gold powder, polyurethane, 24x24) by E. Vincent Martinez COURTESY OF THE ARTIST


“Let’s do something fun for the end of the year.” I’ve drawn the twenty-four seniors together after school for a meeting. “You’ve been stressed long enough. Senior projects, applications for college, final exams. How about we have a tea party?”

“A tea party?” Jacob says. “That’s pretty ga –uh, pretty strange.” He smiles at me, knowing that I’ll catch that he corrected himself.

“No, it’s not strange. It’s pretty much what all the British authors we’ve read find to be very normal. Part of their culture. Here’s what I’m thinking. I’ll let the AP class create all of the plans for the party itself, but I’d like everyone to choose an English author, preferably someone we didn’t study, and take on that author’s persona for the event.”

“Persona? What does that mean?” Mario fistbumps Jacob, congratulating himself on being the first to ask a question.

“Pretend to be that person. Dress like they would, talk that way, and give a presentation about ‘your’ work.”

Katie, a blue-eyed blonde I always count on for interesting questions, and Sarah, a dark-haired, cheery girl who’ll be a lawyer, both start talking at once, excited about who they’ll choose.

“I want to pick first!” Katie says.

“Who are our choices? I want to be someone fun,” Sarah chimes in.

“Abbey’ll be great at that,” Nancy says, giving the girl who acts in every play the school has held, a little bump on her arm. Everyone thinks Abbey will end up back at the school someday teaching acting (and they’re right).

We schedule the tea for the last week of class. All twenty-four students gather in my classroom for the formal occasion. The AP students have rearranged the tables, topped them with linen tablecloths, porcelain teapots and teacups, crystal glasses, and fresh flowers.

As each guest arrives, Jacob, dressed in a tux, formally greets them at the door. Nancy, Stephanie, and Melissa wait on their fellow students, delivering hot tea, cookies, tiny cakes, crumpets. Miranda and Caitlin tease each other about being properly British. Everyone concentrates on their manners, as if they know that’s the way they should act for a proper tea party.

Each of the twenty-four takes the podium once everyone finishes their tea. One by one, they tell the others about “their” work.

“I’m Ken Follett,” Scott says, and he surprises us all by offering his presentation without notes. John, a tall skinny boy with a heart condition, presents his paper on Alexander Pope in such a polished fashion that I’m wondering how much he has practiced. Mike, in a striped shirt and khakis, surprises me with his dedication to the project –and his author, T.S. Eliot. Jeremy, whose driving ambition is to be a farmer, is Charles Dickens. Mary Kathryn wears a straw bonnet and reads a verse by her author, Beatrix Potter.

We sit, enthralled with the presentations for over an hour.

After the students finish, the six AP students – Jacob, Melissa, Caitlin, Nancy, Sarah, and Stephanie – gather at the podium, holding a vase full of yellow flowers, all eyes on me.

Sarah begins: “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.”

My breath catches in my throat. The first line of Mrs. Dalloway. I barely hear the rest of what she says, but when Nancy starts telling me about the bouquet they’ve chosen – the exact flowers Clarissa Dalloway carried across that street in the first scene – and about their feelings for me, I realize I’m going to love these kids for the rest of my life.

They hand me the flowers and a white lace scrapbook including pictures of each student. That night, I sat at my kitchen table and wrote about each of them, filling that book with their stories. n

81 N C L R ONLINE Flashbacks: Echoes of Past Issues


a review by Jon Kesler

Julia Nunnally Duncan. All We Have Loved. Finishing Line Press, 2023.

Captivating. Engaging. Memory inducing. In her recent memoir, All We Have Loved, Julia Nunnally Duncan brings her family, past and present, to life in a conversational style that authentically draws the reader to her inner circle. One can easily envision sitting around a campfire with her exchanging stories about childhood memories and accounts of family history passed down through the generations.

On those snowy days, the kids in my McDowell County neighborhood congregated to slide down our icy street on makeshift sleds and splatter each other in snowball free-for-alls. Sometimes our parents joined in the fun. But besides playing in the snow, I looked forward to a treat that came with the wintry weather: my mother’s snow cream. . . .

JON KESLER is an organization development consultant, retired Air Force Officer, and aspiring author working on his first novel, based loosely on the letters his father wrote to his mother during World War II.

JULIA NUNNALLY DUNCAN is an award-winning author of twelve books of prose and poetry, including a new poetry collection When Time Was Suspended (Redhawk Publications, 2024) An alumnus of Warren Wilson College, she taught English and Humanities at McDowell Technical Community College for nearly forty years. Retired now from teaching, she lives in Marion, NC, with her husband, Steve.

In All We Have Loved, Duncan captures the essence of familial storytelling. In so doing, she provides a service to her family and to her broader audience of readers. For her family, she documents the words of her ancestors, words that would otherwise be lost with the passage of time. Who among us does not have at least one flash of a memory we wish we could recall in greater detail, something we heard one of our parents or grandparents say about one of their elders? In addition to the pure enjoyment of reading her stories, perhaps Duncan’s book may serve as the impetus for others to put pen to paper and document some stories of their own. Therein lies an ancillary service Duncan provides to her broader audience, over and above the enjoyment of her storytelling.

Duncan’s writing presents the reader with a vivid portrayal of rural and smalltown life in western North Carolina during her own childhood years in the 1960s, as well as the childhoods of her ancestors. In passages like the following, she shares the innocence and joys of that life and demonstrates how she has carried those early influences into adulthood:

“I wouldn’t eat too much,” my mother cautioned. “It might give you a sore throat.” She always issued this warning when she made snow cream for us. . . . And I don’t recall getting a sore throat from eating snow –either in my mother’s snow cream or in the handfuls I’d scoop from the yard to sample.

The last snow cream I remember my mother making was in mid-March 1993, after a blizzard that dumped eighteen inches of snow on Marion and kept us trapped inside our houses for a week. My husband . . . oil lamps for light. . . .

When the highway was passable, Steve drove me in his Dodge Dakota to my parents’ house, where I grew up. The power in their area, closer to town than ours, had been restored, and I looked forward to getting to their house and the comfort it promised.

My mother’s dining room . . . While I sat at her table, she brought me a tall glass filled with snow cream and an iced tea spoon to eat it with.

“I hoped you’d make some snow cream,” I said. I believe she made it especially for me.

It was the tastiest snow cream I’d ever eaten on one of the most memorable days of my life. I had missed seeing my parents, now in their seventies, and had worried about their safety during the blizzard. And frankly I felt like I’d been released from captivity after a week of isolation.

“This is so good,” I said as I spooned the icy treat into my mouth and savored the sweet vanilla flavor.

“I hope it don’t give you a sore throat,” my mother said. (17–18)


This excerpt exemplifies many of the things I found enjoyable about Duncan’s writing. She gives a realistic sense of the enjoyment she felt as a child relishing a snow day with friends, as well as sharing a special time with her mother in the making and eating of snow cream. In between her words the reader can get a glowing picture of a rosy cheeked little girl fetching a dishpan full of snow, helping her mother with the mixing, and then sitting down to taste the fruit of her labor. Fast forwarding to adulthood, one can again envision Duncan sitting in the same chair, eating the last batch of snow cream her mother made, enjoying every bite, and most likely chuckling inside at her mother’s caution about getting a sore throat. Without ever saying so, Duncan demonstrates the timeless love shared between mother and daughter.

Duncan’s use of plain language helps the reader develop vivid mental images of her

experiences and gives a sense of who her family members really were. Throughout the book, she uses the words of others as they were spoken, including instances of incorrect grammar, which may reflect levels of education or possibly the colloquialisms of western North Carolina in that era, bringing her characters to life.

In another recollection, Duncan reveals family history that might now be considered cringe-worthy behavior. Her uncle and aunt formed a duet, The Cherokee Sweethearts, and played at the Cherokee Indian Reservation on a small, illuminated stage, near a teepee, with a back display of hanging ornamental quilts.

When Louis spotted us in the audience, his face lit up. Dressed like an Indian chief in tan buckskin trousers, vest, and moccasins and a white shirt and white-feathered headdress, he stood and took the microphone from its stand.

“I’d like to welcome our family who’ve come here from Marion,” he announced and pointed in our direction, his husky voice booming in the balmy air. Helen, wearing a white fringed buckskin skirt and sleeveless top and matching beaded headband and moccasins, grinned shyly as her husband made the announcement.

In reality, Helen and Louis were no more Native American than the rest of our family, whose roots were more Scotch-Irish than anything. (36)

This reviewer appreciates that Duncan stayed true to her authentic style, not sanding and varnishing any rough edges off her family stories.

Through her writing –and perhaps being similar in age to Julia and her husband, Steve –I feel a kinship with them. Reading “The Wampus Kitty,” I could see myself replacing Steve’s trail bike with the snowmobile of my northern Wisconsin youth, regaling innocent children and unsuspecting tourists with tales of our local demon, the snow snake, a pink-eyed snake of indelible proportions, bearing a naturally fluffy coat of white ermine-like fur. Seeing oneself in another’s writing is a pleasurable experience; providing that experience for the reader reflects masterful storytelling.

Duncan caps off All We Have Loved with “Her Clinchfield Childhood,” a story in which she again relies on her conversational tone and use of authentic language to engage the reader in a conversation with her mother. This reviewer truly got the sense of being in the room with Madeline Davis Nunnally, taking in her firsthand account of growing up in the Clinchfield cotton mill village. And again, this gave me a sense of kinship with the author, too, as our mothers grew up in a similar era, under similar conditions, albeit in very different parts of the country.

For her documentation of these family stories, Duncan’s children and all their children after them, as well as those of us in the broader reading audience, should be eternally grateful. n

83 N C L R ONLINE Flashbacks: Echoes of Past Issues
COURTESY OF JULIA NUNNALLY DUNCAN. ABOVE Julia Nunnally with her brother Steve, father Otto, mother Madeline, and sister-in-law, Mary at the author’s childhood home, Christmas 1964

Words & Music is Philip Gerard’s musician’s-musician memoir about the writing, recording, and launching of his fifteen-song album American Anthem – a true, paired tour de force.


a review by Bland Simpson

Philip Gerard. Words & Music: An Album of a Life in Story and Song. Beach Glass Books, 2023.

BLAND SIMPSON, a long-time contributor to NCLR , is Kenan Distinguished Professor of English & Creative Writing at UNC Chapel Hill where he has taught since 1982. He is the pianist and composer of the Tony Award-winning string band The Red Clay Ramblers. His numerous awards and honors include the North Carolina Award for Fine Arts and induction into the North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame. Read more about him in the induction story published in NCLR Online Winter 2023.

PHILIP GERARD (1955–2022) was the 2019 North Carolina Award for Literature recipient (read about that award in NCLR Online 2020 ). From 1989 until his death, Gerard taught at UNC Wilmington in the Department of Creative Writing, where he founded the MFA program. Read more about him in the remembrance published in NCLR Online Winter 2023

First came the album, wherein the renowned multi-genre author and multi-instrumentalist Gerard delivers with his clear warm baritone (a fine band backing him) such a rich set of narratives, his passionate, selfdescribed “crazy quilt” of songs about rambling, tramping, sailing, railroading, about loving home and away from home, a remarkable achievement, a childhood dream come true. He so movingly sings of moments and characters from throughout our history: the Revolutionary War’s beginning, the Civil War’s ending (taking off from Stonewall Jackson’s last words), bluesman Robert Johnson’s deal with the Devil, aviator Amelia Earhart’s mythic flight around the world. Then, with Words & Music, comes Gerard’s inspired life story, woven throughout this phenomenally revelatory book about the album, its songs, and so very much more.

Nothing about American Anthem or its accompanying memoir suggests that Philip Gerard wrote either of these with swansong in mind. Indeed, he seemed at the very top of his amazing multiform expressiveness when he died in November 2022, and his pen went still, his guitar silent. We can only wonder at what all else Gerard would have given us had he

been spared for another twenty years, and we must be grateful for the large dramatic output this truly genuine and singular spirit has left us with.

Nothing shocked me more than hearing from Jill McCorkle that Philip was gone. He and I had just a few weeks earlier collaborated (I played piano on his voter-turnout song “Book the Vote!”) shortly before his death, and I had every reason to expect we would do more. And nothing would have pleased this great, Whitmanesque largerthan-life man more than knowing he helped to find the votes that will keep American democracy safe. In an over-arching way, his love of country was his lifelong song, as American Anthem and Words & Music together show so well.

Philip Gerard was a sailor, rambler, musician, teacher, and he was deservedly celebrated for his many books: for his 1994 novel Cape Fear Rising (1994), a daring text that helped open the door on public examination of Wilmington’s longsuppressed story of the 1898 white supremacy riot and coup, and for so much more: for filmscripts, such as the one for the PBS program he did with James Leutze on the Cape Fear River, presaging Gerard’s terrific, adventurous natural history Down the Wild Cape Fear (2013); for a creative nonfiction textbook; for sixteen books in all, one of my favorites being his early novel Hatteras Light (1986). While the North Carolina


coast during World War II has gotten significant attention, far less notice has been given to our coast’s World War I experiences; one need only look to this Gerard novel for a compelling portrait of loneliness, lust, and maritime combat on the Outer Banks during the late 1910s.

Not only did Philip Gerard understand the high value of the word, he understood its value in so many different ways, including, simply, the spoken word. How well I recall his meeting Brent McKee’s and my UNC “Changing Coasts of Carolina” class on the Wilmington side of Memorial Bridge in October 2022 to speak with them (calling out powerfully over the loud clanking bridge-plates above) at the Dram Street Boat Ramp about how heavily engineered this river was and had long been, and how often it was out of its banks these days and onto downtown streets (“Sunny-day flooding,” he laughed ironically at the glib downplaying phrase for sea-level rise and increased basin-wide run-off). And then he joined the class in a kayak float up Lee’s Cut and into the central marsh of Harbor Island over at Wrightsville Beach, speaking about the very high high tide that was allowing us to see for miles out over the marsh grasses. He stayed on for lunch with our class and Tracy Skrabl (North Carolina Coastal Federation then-Senior Scientist) to discuss coastal policies and activism (the Stop Titan Action Network, which had successfully opposed Titan Cements’s envi-

ronmentally disastrous megaplant proposal for the Northeast Cape Fear). Our students were dazzled – here was an orator, here was a force

This was the very marrow of Philip Gerard’s being: he was in for everything, the writing, the reading of his students’ and his friends’ works, the thoroughgoing study and acquired knowledge of his adopted state, the singing, the sailing, the all of it. He had the high-level passion for life ascribed to artists like Michaelangelo and Thomas Wolfe, the great globe strider taking note of everything and more. Though there is nothing intentionally valedictory about Words & Music, still there it stands, at the close of this remarkable man’s grand career and life, showing us such dedication and commitment and striving. I spent enough time

with him and in communication with him to know from his energies and his wit and his ways that he truly thought anything was possible in life, the arts, friendship, and love.

Ultimately that is what Philip’s Words & Music is all about, his letting us in on all the life that went into the songs, the rambles, the music that he never stopped hearing, writing, playing, and singing with family, friends, and students. If we listen to all the heart on the album and get close to all the heart that comes through in Words & Music, we will not only get to know a terrific artist far better, we will know without any doubt that, with all his passions and works, all his words and music, that the authentic American anthem we are regarding is this fine, amazing man in full: Philip Gerard himself. n

85 N C L R ONLINE Flashbacks: Echoes of Past Issues
ABOVE Philip Gerard, “sailer, rambler, muscian, teacher, . . . orator,” and writer,

Hear Thunder, Seek to Include: A Remembrance of Ronald H. Bayes

previously published as the introduction to The Collected Poems of Ronald H. Bayes, edited by Joseph Bathanti and Ted Wojtasik (St. Andrews University Press, 2015); adapted minimally for NCLR style; title from Ezra Pound’s Canto XCIX

When I first arrived in Charlotte in 1976, there was a place and a person that became for me synonymous with writing in North Carolina. That place was St. Andrews Presbyterian College – in the town of Laurinburg in the flat, arid county of Scotland, settled in the eighteenth century by Scots-Irish and Scottish Highlanders. Arrowhead-shaped, and just as flinty, Scotland County perches at the bottom middle of North Carolina, conjoining with Marlboro County, South Carolina, where the Piedmont irrevocably gives way to the sand hills. Swampy coastal plain burbles invisibly beneath the scorched blacktop, interminable staggers of pine spread in every direction, and the vague scent of saltwater hangs in the ether.

The person I allude to is Ronald H. Bayes, St. Andrews’s Writerin-Residence and Distinguished Professor of English; founder of St. Andrews Press, St. Andrews Review, and the Saint Andrews Writers Forum; the man I have unabashedly called my literary godfather for nearly forty years.

Laurinburg, in 1976, and perhaps, even now, was one of those little outposts east of Charlotte where on the way to the Atlantic you could catch a meal and bed down at the Pine Acres Motel – your key attached to a plastic maroon fob with the room number decaled on it – watch a little TV on the black and white portable with rabbit ears, and gather some of the biggest pine cones in the state. Or you might simply stop along US 74, the Andrew Jackson Highway, to buy peaches, boiled peanuts, or hoop cheese at a weathered roadside stand manned by a Lumbee truck farmer.

That’s what poetry’s all about: action. It’s kind of a cross between a grange meeting and a seminar.

Former Poet Laureate of North Carolina JOSEPH BATHANTI teaches at Appalachian State University in Boone, NC. The author of several books of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction, he received a BA and an MA in English literature from the University of Pittsburgh, and an MFA in creative writing from Warren Wilson College. His honors include the North Carolina Award for Literature, and he will be inducted into the North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame in 2024.

In 1985, when I was a North Carolina Visiting Artist at then Anson Technical College, headquartered in its storefront Community Services Division in downtown Wadesboro, I one day received a letter – Ron’s parochial penmanship swirling across St. Andrews Press stationary – inviting me to read my work at St. Andrews Writers Forum, a series that boasted an unbroken record of hosting writers every Thursday evening for forty-five years – the likes of Tom Wolfe, William Stafford, Gwendolyn Brooks, Richard Wilbur, James Laughlin, Leslie Fiedler, John Barth, Carolyn Kizer, Robert Bly, James Dickey, but also beat cops, the profoundly disabled, and all manner and stripe of versifier. Ron Bayes invented the democratization of poetry in North Carolina before the word democratization even existed.

ABOVE Ronald Bayes

One sweltering late-August evening (the fall term had just begun), Joan and I pointed our gold Madza two counties east on 74 and raced the logging trucks to Laurinburg, a town we had only passed through on our way to the Atlantic Ocean. We crossed the Hardison Bridge over the Pee Dee and burned through Richmond County, then footled through tiny Hamlet, the birthplace of iconic John Coltrane and Tom Wicker (whose account of the 1971 riot at Attica Prison, A Time to Die [1975], remains for me the manifesto of the shackle in America). Then we entered Scotland County, brick pillars on either side of the four lanes – no sign, just the symbolic imprimatur – the only county I know of in North Carolina with a portal, however modest and kudzu-swarmed, announcing it.

Our initial destination was Ron’s house on 308 Homer Street, a small cheery brick ranch, a block off from the American Legion Field on the main line leading into downtown Laurinburg. Homer Street’s name is purportedly inspired by the literal four-baggers that rocketed from home plate into the neighborhood. I prefer, however, to think the street was christened after Ron whose middle name is Homer – I like to think after the Greek bard, Homer, the greatest poet of the ancient world. A kind of hyperbole attends any recollection of that first Homeric evening in Laurinburg and, by extension, Ron, the bard of Laurinburg. A man of large idiom and heart and even cigars (to wit, “the roller of big cigars”), he was ultimately inscrutable – like his verse – yet no less present for that, though his modesty is unfathomable. It bears mentioning, as well, that he is a patriot and a statesman, a United States Army veteran, and a man of singular monasticism, culled from East and West. Not incidentally, Saint Ronald was a warrior chieftain in the Orkney Islands, Scotland who built the The Cathedral of Saint Magnus at Kirkwall –a clear allegory for Ron’s inspired literary vision. In Bayes’s economy, the Muse is always at work.

We entered Ron’s house through the kitchen, the optimal threshold into any home and there they were – seated around the kitchen table, slumped like Beats in the doorjambs, lounging against stove and fridge, slovenly and glorious – the Hall of Famers I have enshrined in my psyche as the burnished and still thrumming pulse of the St. Andrews literary tradition: beautiful, timeless Grace Gibson; Dick Prust and W.D. White (leagued here because they were ministers as well as St. Andrews professors); Neil Bushoven; Carl Walters, referred to exclusively that night, as Carlos (he might’ve been a preacher as well); June Milby; Bill and Edna Anne Loftus (their troth, according to Ron, struck right there in that kitchen some years back). And, of course, all of them wrote poetry.

87 N C L R ONLINE Flashbacks: Echoes of Past Issues

And Ron, looking a tad like Don Corleone, sporting a white, ruffled Guayabera, cracking wise like Bogey in a film noir, yet with the charm and allusive rapier wit and invective of William Powell, a smoldering cigar the size of a riot baton in his mouth, as if he’d just leapt off a skiff from Havana – Jack Daniels, if you please, in lieu of rum. We loved him instantly. The soul of hospitality, he had me seated in a trice with shot and beer. He knew I was from Pittsburgh and was conversant in the lore of boilermakers. “Toddies,” he affectionately dubbed all libations in his gravelly, charming, sea shanty voice. He might have kissed Joan’s hand. At any rate, it was love at first sight, all around.

In a corner off the kitchen hulked one of those crazy oldfashioned steam cabinets, the troglodyte forerunner of the modern sauna – white, boxy like a washing machine – out of which cartoon characters or Oliver Hardy emerged dwindled to a nub, the kind Brutus would cram Popeye into until Popeye dosed himself with spinach and busted out like Hercules unchained. A giant oil of Yukio Mishima, naked torso and head in profile, spare black and white, haunting – Mishima in his sacrificial archetypal pre-crucifixion reverie – hung on a wall in the adjacent living room. Ron would one day tell me that Mishima was the “the only person [he] would ever have died for,” that they “were both interested in blood and night and death” – which would have spooked me that first night in Laurinburg, but which I strangely understood three years later when Ron revealed this in my home in Old Fort.1 Tacked to the wall, beneath the kitchen light switch, was Black Mountain College legend Charles Olson’s “The Port Of,” four lines of iambic pentameter, handwritten on a postcard addressed to Ron by Olson himself, the postmark: Gloucester.

The bottle of Jack Daniels – perhaps the second, maybe the third – swung around the table and another shot and beer miraculously appeared before me. The Scotland County sun still throttled –good god, it stays bright and blazing there until ten of a late summer night – and the birds dipped out of the pines. The first thock of a baseball off a barrel of boned ash sounded, and I hoped to hear that homer clatter off Ron’s roof. Maybe someone’s stomach growled – dinner was in the offing, though plenty of time, gracious plenty, for another toddy, Ron assured us – or perhaps it was the coquettish catbirds calling to Thorstein (named after the social theorist, Veblen), Ron’s savant copper tabby, sitting presciently in Joan’s lap, his paws on the table, awaiting the next round, and ready to throw a hand of Stud. And, yes, the kitty was a poet as well.

At any rate, rather than all of us thronging for Fong’s or New China restaurants, someone picked up the phone and ordered 1

Politics, Teaching, Magic, Mysticism,
Black Mountain and Other Particulars,” Arts Journal 14.3 (1988): 5; subsequently cited parenthetically.
Joseph Bathanti, “‘It All Gets Back to the Great Chain of Being’: Ron Bayes on Poetry,
Mishima, Pound, Olson,
ABOVE Ron Bayes with the Bathantis’ baby, Jacob COURTESY OF JOSEPH BATHANTI

delivery. The tradition was Chinese on Forum nights, a nod to Brother Ezra (as Ron called Pound) and Li Po. Chinese food was closest kin to Ron’s beloved Japanese. I was relieved. This kind of tippling before a reading was not my style, but the merriment was high, and no one seemed worried. I was in the middle of a tutorial for June Milby on how to say the rosary when I chanced a look at the kitchen clock: ten minutes before the eight o’clock reading. Suddenly Ron proclaimed, “Under the banner of Lenin,” and we all rushed out to the cars just as Fong’s pulled up with the food. “Just throw it on the kitchen table,” Ron called to the driver. “We’ll eat it when we get back.”

Ron navigated from the Mazda’s back seat, Joan riding shotgun, his cigar like a compass needle pushing us campus-ward. Dogwood Mile, the approach to St. Andrews, rolled out like a wedding crash. God only knows how many dogwood trees lined that road. Come spring, they bloomed in white ecclesiastical splendor. Past St. Andrews Lake House where, a year or so later, Joan and I would have dinner with Ezra Pound’s grandson, Sizzo, his wife Brigitta, and their children on sabbatical from their Brunnenberg castle in the province of South Tyrol. We crossed the bridge over Lake Ansley Moore. Local men and women and their little ones fished over the rails. The lake was placid, adorned with lily pads, cedars and cypresses submerged to their haunches, mirroring themselves on the burnished lake surface in the oblique streams of sun. Ducks waddled the beach; others flapped like whirligigs above. In the center of campus, lacy pink clouds furled over McKay Bell Tower on Chapel Island. I swear I heard bagpipes.

Over the years, I’ve never hesitated to say that my favorite place to give a reading, period, is St. Andrews. I am fond of superlatives, and my oeuvre in this piece is unapologetic exaggeration – which is, of course, the language of nostalgia. Nevertheless, I stand by that pronouncement – St. Andrews is my very favorite place to read –dictated entirely by my initial appearance there that night in 1985. I read in the lobby of Orange Dormitory, now The Ron Bayes Writers Forum Lounge.

We barged in, from opposite lobby entrances at eight on the dot – the entire lot from Ron’s kitchen like G-men raiding a speakeasy. The place was jammed: students; faculty; town folk; and wheelies, the name affectionately given St. Andrews disabled students (six percent of the student body to mirror the percentage of disabled citizens in the United States), literally in wheelchairs, a few on gurneys. All the way back in April, 1959 – when the first spade broke ground for the new college, years before handicap accessibility became a legal mandate – St. Andrews was clairvoyantly designed barrier-free to accommodate young men and women who would have otherwise never had the opportunity to attend college.

Ron introduced me as the evening’s reader and those folks applauded as I stood before them. It seems plain that verisimilitude

89 N C L R ONLINE Flashbacks: Echoes of Past Issues

took a powder, as I promised, long ago in this essay, so let me declare that I was shrouded as I stood at the podium and read my poems in a miasma of plentitude – or at least a “gothic seizure,” as Olson might have yawped it.

Inexplicably, during the Old Fort interview with Ron, all the way back in 1988, we chatted some about Ron’s eventual Collected Poems. He had already amassed enough work for such a volume, and talk surfaced periodically about assembling it. The dedication to the Collected Poems, if it comes out,” he confided, will be

To the Lady whom the destroyer never destroys and to the friends, then and now I believe in people from other lives and times being just as potent as, and often more potent than, the people that we have daily doings with. I think that the benign aspect of this is greatly ignored, but I absolutely believe in things like guardian angels, The Muse. I’m getting to the point – and I used to apologize for it – where I want to put it up front. I don’t think we can survive without these Realities. Capital R. Italicized. (Bathanti 4)

Twenty-seven years after that conversation, I herald not the concept, but the very real, invaluable trove and archive we now have, thank God, between two covers: The Collected Poems of Ronald H. Bayes

In his Collected Poems, Ron Bayes, with the characteristic wit and aplomb of the Mandarin, lays claim to the entire world in all its ineffability. Of North Carolina poets, he remained for a half-century the most linguistically inventive and experimental. His stature in that realm looms well beyond our state’s borders. Ron’s Collected Poems is a “happening” in the true spirit of Black Mountain: coffee and whiskey, multimedia and silence, the pyrotechnics of modernity and postmodernity, improvisation of breathtaking dimensions rolled into one big exploding cigar. But the central metaphor of Bayes’s literary obsession resounds: “Death / and night / and blood.”2 What follows is the first stanza of “Mme DeSade’s Bingo Parlor”:

If it had been a razor, Dear, my hand and pen hastening on to underline that kiss-off line of yours would have left me a pointer finger poorer and blood all over these pages. (584)

2015) 620;
2 Joseph Bathanti and Ted Wojtasik, editors. The Collected Poems of Ronald H. Bayes (St. Andrews University Press, subsequently cited parenthetically.

It’s Bayes’s “blood all over these pages.” He opens again and again the proverbial vein, inviting the reader, in his poem, “A Chainsong for the Muse,” to “See the calm headsman? / See the job done? / See the axe-finished corpse? / There at the base of the cliff” (653).

Most remarkable is Ron’s refusal to turn away not only from what he is observing, but also what he is feeling. His intuition is magnificent. When the speaker in “So What Else Is New?” utters in the poem’s last two lines, “You fool romantics dwell / in painful, passionate ends” (600), Bayes is talking about himself. He is the quintessential romantic, his poems exemplifying what Shelley called in “Defence of Poetry,” “the before unapprehended relation of things.” In fact, Bayes’s digressive, large-canvas collage style – even though the individual poems themselves tend to be not long at all – can be dizzying. If Eliot’s “The Waste Land” “returned us to the classroom,” as William Carlos Williams famously put it, Ron’s poems on that score rightly claim kin with Eliot (the poet he exalts even beyond his venerated Pound). Bayes is devilishly allusive, Talmudic, enigmatic. He says himself, through his characteristically manic speaker in “GUISES: A Laurinburg Litany,” “I wish I could be clear” (620).

What I regard as the most prescient and useful take on Ron’s poetry is Fred Chappell’s “‘Murmuring Bits’: Ron Bayes’ Umapine Books,” published in Pembroke Magazine in 1985. Chappell observes that Ron’s verse is Poetry not merely as a figuration of words upon a page but as an attitude, a continual reception and transmission, experience relentlessly becoming poetry because the poet’s mind is trained to perceive and express every scrap of raw material as poetry, a wide wild net nylon-strong and gossamer-light which nothing escapes. . . . There is no ‘plot,’ no linear progression of events; we simply observe the poet’s mind reacting to, commenting upon, current and ancient history, memories, impressions, reading material, and anything else that crosses his mind’s-eye line of sight.3

While these dead-on-target observations are particular to the Umapine Tetralogy, they can be generalized to Bayes’ entire body of work. David Rigsbee, in “The Geography of Love: Ron Bayes and the Life of Poetry,” likewise observes: “Bayes is a meaning-maker, tying together disparate locations and persons, anecdotes that time would have otherwise blown away.”4

3 Fred Chappell, “‘Murmuring Bits’: Ron Bayes’ Umapine Books,” Pembroke Magazine 17 (1985): 7–8.

4 David Rigsbee, “The Geography of Love: Ron Bayes and the Life of Poetry,” Not Alone in My Dancing, Ed. Diane Goettel (Black Lawrence Press, 2016) 29.

91 N C L R ONLINE Flashbacks: Echoes of Past Issues

Ron Bayes, one dazzling – and funny – elocutionist, talked like he wrote and wrote like he talked. To be in his company was a clinic in epigrammatic genius. He prefigured spoken word decades ago; he ran the dozens with the best of them. Bayes is not beholden to narrative, but on the steadfast insistence on the syllable as a unit of sound. Once, when I confessed to Ron that I was struggling with Robert Creeley, he said, “You have to hear him to get him.” He was right. Likewise, you have to hear Ron Bayes, a poet of profound sonic accomplishment, not so much to “get him,” but to hear the music scored into his poems. Above all, Bayes is a poet who invests in magic, in the Muse, and what he calls the “Great Chain of Being.” He leaves nothing out or, more to the point, he puts everything in.

That inaugural night at St. Andrews has been remanded to lore, the quicksilver of memory. So God only knows what really happened. I think my true life as a writer might have ignited that night. I know for certain that Joan and I were admitted to a rarified community that we’ve returned to again and again – the center of which, and around whom all orbit, is still Ron Bayes. In the Frostian vein, “way [led] onto way.” Two years after that night, I was teaching at St. Andrews and working, unbelievably, in its Development Office as the Director of Corporate and Foundation Affairs (the latter a post I have successfully repressed). Ron would hand me Martin Duberman’s Black Mountain: An Exploration in Community, and nothing, for me, would ever be the same.5

St. Andrews was the reliquary of Black Mountain College, where its still-beating heart was for a while preserved, like a saint’s, in paraffin. In 1974 (when Black Mountain was an especially well-kept secret), St. Andrews hosted, precisely because of Ron’s proximity to and intimacy with the Black Mountain poets, a festival that featured John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Robert Creeley, Edward Dorn, Martin Duberman, Buckminster Fuller, and Joel Oppenheimer. Fielding Dawson, Jonathan Williams, and Mary Caroline Richards were in residence at St. Andrews the very next year. Simply astonishing feats.

5 Martin Duberman, Black Mountain: An Exploration in Community (Dutton, 1972). ABOVE Professor Bayes teaching at St. Andrews PHOTOGRAPH BY ROONEY COFFMAN; COURTESY OF ST. ANDREWS UNIVERSITY
“He has been our, by-God, Whitman, who time and again taught us what it is to be a writer and statesman, to peer so deeply, so unflinchingly, into the core and coil.”

Ron and St. Andrews exemplified the soul of the North Carolina Literary Community: grace, generosity, courage, and the vested belief that writing (and reading) is the province of all, regardless of stature and critical appraisal. Ron’s kindness to me over the years, as a writer and a friend (and to Joan), was humbling and unforgettable. His profound and lasting influence for forty-five years, teaching a couple generations of Saint Andrews students – launching dozens who would make names for themselves as writers – is legendary (and this, I pledge, is not exaggeration but understatement), selfless in the mien of sainthood. He was North Carolina’s high Modernist – our Pound and Williams and Eliot, our Hilda Dolittle and Marianne Moore; our Beat – our Ginsberg and Kerouac. He has been the living breath of Black Mountain College – Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, Ed Dorn, Joel Oppenheimer, Fielding Dawson; our conduit to the avant garde, our throwback to the great literary traditions. He has been our, by-God, Whitman, who time and again taught us what it is to be a writer and statesman, to peer so deeply, so unflinchingly, into the core and coil. Ron Bayes, wholly an original, last of a breed – a writer and teacher who comes along but once in a lifetime. He gave his life to the state of North Carolina, to the state of poetry in North Carolina, and made North Carolina the state of poetry. n

93 N C L R ONLINE Flashbacks: Echoes of Past Issues


a review by Catherine Carter

Kathryn Kirkpatrick. The Fisher Queen: New and Selected Poems. Salmon Publishing Ltd., 2019.

When I first began reading Kathryn Kirkpatrick’s The Fisher Queen, it soon became apparent that I’d have to renew my acquaintance with its formative allusion to the legend of the Fisher King, the strange, variable, multivalent story from Arthurian legend, in which the knight Parzival, or Perceval, encounters a king who has been rendered impotent by a wound to the groin or thigh, who is often the guardian of the Holy Grail, but whose wound has made his kingdom barren. Parzival can only heal the king by asking the right question. In some versions, Parzival must visit the Grail castle more than once, with numerous adventures in between, before he is capable of asking the question.

the Grail castle grounds / with my solar oven and organic greens.” Although the tone is wry and a bit self-deprecating (how many of us seek out organic vegetables, in the effort to reduce our complicity with corporate agriculture?), this positions the Fisher Queen solidly in Kirkpatrick’s home realm of ecofeminism.

The Fisher Queen, then, kept “knocking at the door of the written page / with my herbs and my stories,” but she’s not some archetypal nature girl. She was always open to hypertext, to shuffling the narrative, ready to turn my face to each reader like a sunflower tracking the sun.

CATHERINE CARTER ’s most recent poetry collections are Larvae of the Nearest Stars (Louisiana State University Press, 2019) and Good Morning, Unseen (Jacar Press, 2023). She and Brian Gastle have produced the only complete verse translation of John Gower’s thirtythree-thousand-line medieval poem The Lover’s Confession (Medieval Institute Press, 2024). Carter’s poetry has appeared in Best American Poetry, Orion, Poetry, Ploughshares, Tar River Poetry, Ecotone , and NCLR, among others. She is a Professor of English at Western Carolina University.

KATHRYN KIRKPATRICK is a Professor of English at Appalachian State University. She is award-winning author of six prior collections of poetry, most recently Her Small Hands Were Not Beautiful ( Clemson University Press, 2018), and of numerous scholarly essays on ecofeminist poetics, animal studies, and Irish literature. She is a three-time winner of the North Carolina Poetry Society’s Brockman-Campbell Award.

The answer to the question varies with the source, but in Kirkpatrick’s version (following that of the thirteenth-century Wolfram von Eschenbach), the question is, “What ails you, sir?” or “How were you wounded?” The question is central to our era of climate change, sea level rise, and species loss, in a land well on its way to being as barren as the Fisher King’s. This volume makes it clear that to be healed, we have to face and acknowledge how we were wounded. The wound is the ecological devastation of uncontrolled population growth and unregulated late-stage capitalism and consumption.

The Fisher Queen is the wounded king’s wife, whom Kirkpatrick has added to the original legend’s cast of characters. In the initial poem, the Fisher Queen identifies herself as being, “beyond the usual margins, / in the hinterland of the old text / camping out on

In swift acknowledgment of the patriarchal nature of most early literature, the Fisher Queen adds that, “Given how the other women fared, / I’m probably best out of that version.” Her role in the story, then? When Perceval returned to the castle to ask his fateful question, she dosed him with herbs, “skullcap and valerian, / herbs of forgetfulness, so he’d ask / his question as if for the first time.” This positions forgetfulness, perhaps of old stories which no longer serve us well, as a necessary pathway to the right question. That question is asked in the white space between stanzas, leaving the Queen to explain what’s most important in the present:

I wanted the land alive again as much as anyone, the wounds healed, including my own.

I tell you this now because you’ve got your own wasteland and you’ll need help from unexpected quarters, new pages for the story.


What are these “unexpected quarters”? The book offers a range of possible answers: new or rewritten stories from the historically silenced. Women’s voices. The wild. The work of art, restoration, creation, and re-creation. Truthful, nuanced answers to the question, “What ails us?” And, most immediately, this author’s body of prior work collected here.

Lacking space to give all selections the attention they so richly deserve and discuss how they so richly reward the reader, we might consider those selections primarily in light of their reenvisioned place in the new poems’ frame tale of the Fisher Queen. One of the most remarkable aspects of this New and Selected is how seamlessly the question “What ails you?” and a woman poet’s many responses to it unite selections from six prior collections, weaving them into a more beautifully coherent whole than most of us can claim for a body of work that spans decades. The volume feels as though most of its contents have all been tending toward the same place, the barren land, and the as-yet-unasked question.

The first of the new poems is “The Fisher Queen at 30,000 Feet.” The Fisher Queen who, in the reconceived version, has helped to bring the land to life, has been transmuted into someone more like Kirkpatrick herself, a human woman in flight, “the old wounds aching again.” This speaker meditates on having left behind the earth, which is her grounding in every sense, to ask, “What’s ordinary now?” in the era of climate change, and “how do you heal a wound / by wounding again?” She recognizes that she’s “not myself this far / from the ground, but what if / there’s no ground?”

What, indeed? And this new poem, this perhaps unanswerable question, leads the speaker into the past from which present and future are born and borne. It takes her first back to the reckoning

with the fraught memory of parents, to “Vietnam, Again” through the never-over effects of Agent Orange and dioxin, as her ghost-father returns, healed and whole, to make her “plexiglass ceiling” into a boat turned “east,” toward the wounds of that war, with “a heart that takes to the task of righting.” It takes her to the craft of cleaning and repair, as she recalls (in “Shine”) her younger self polishing shoes “until each pair, restored, stood equal / to the world it was to meet.” Here, work is both meditation and “stay against the sadness” in “the feeling of the task so surely done / it sounds a tuning in your bones.” Her memory of a taciturn father is fused with her recognition of past mistakes on a cultural, global scale, and by the very nature of the work – repair, restoration. In context of the Fisher Queen poems, it seems clear that this steady, mindful work can be not only a “spare delight” and an escape from self, but also a possible template for the restoration of the world as well as the shoes.

These questions and answers form a kind of ecological web, which stretches through the “green ripeness” of an avocado associated with a child’s hunger for a father’s love; the canned peach grown with pesticides that ends up wasted, smashed into a child’s face in a moment of paternal anger; the repurposing and unbraiding of the father’s handmade whips into indigenous crafts and fencing for a vegan garden; the poems connecting a mother’s growing dementia to climate change and species loss (“the bees gone and going” and “how shall I write /. . . / redemption as the weather shifts?” (in “Mother, Ireland”). Particularly pragmatic and poetic is the paean to watermelon rind pickles’ use of

. . . what’s left, after the swell, the need sated, the glare of the rim bitten clean?


. . what the slave brought in the secret seed, view to a future, however bleak. . . . (“Watermelon Rind Preserves”)

Those concerns culminate in the final new poem of the section, “The Fisher Queen’s Question.” In these verses, the making of the very paper on which the poem is printed has exposed the reader to dangerous pollution. The Fisher King’s groin wound becomes the loss of a breast to a cancer, very possibly caused by environmental contamination. Readers learn that, “Finding the

95 N C L R ONLINE Flashbacks: Echoes of Past Issues

Grail is learning / another beauty from a changing land that speaks. / Why not fathom the language of earthworms, / sing notes of jasmine, chant rhythms of light.” The poem ends on the question the Fisher Queen now asks of the reader and the world: “What is it, friend, that ails you?”

This section opens into the selections from the six prior books, beginning in 1996 with The Body’s Horizon. “Sigune to Parzival: Discourse on Grief” makes it clear that the poet has been thinking about the Fisher King mythos for many years. The poem associates Sigune, Parzival’s cousin and sometimes problematic guide with Medusa, a symbol of fraught female power, of whom she tells Parzival, “winged horses rose from her blood.” Parzival keeps asking for direction, but Sigune tells him, “my voice is ruined with lamentation.” Likewise, in “Holding Tight,” an elegy for a friend who has died of HIV, the Fisher myth reappears in the final line, where the dead man’s friends “refus[e]” (a powerful choice of verb) “to ask the right question.” It seems likely that even in this much earlier poem, that question was the question to which no one dared seek the true answer: “what ails you?”

The links between the Fisher Queen and Kirkpatrick’s Beyond Reason (2004) aren’t as direct as those in her The Body’s Horizon, but in the selections from her Out of the Garden (2007), they glimmer through again, particularly in the connections these poems weave between patriarchy and damage done to women, animals, and landscape. For instance, in “The Deer,” the speaker is able to rescue a lost fawn from her dogs but recognizes her own presence as equally deadly “as the rifle’s sights might yet be.” In “First Mammogram,” which reveals a mass which isn’t cancer (yet) but a scar left by a belt buckle, wielded by the father, the

speaker dreams of a woman with a scarred chest, a “female Parzival / in a wasteland.” When she dreams this, “I know a man is dangerous.”

The next book, chronologically, is Unaccountable Weather (2011) In this volume, though, it comes after Our Held Animal Breath (2012). This switch makes sense because Our Held Animal Breath provides such a perfect bridge between the prior volumes’ developing themes of ecofeminism, the coming cancer documented in Unaccountable Weather, and even the chronologically-stillto-come Fisher King and Fisher Queen, whose wounds make the whole land barren with the cancer-like devastation of global warming.

In the first poem from Our Held Animal Breath, “A Friend Visits the Sites of Vanished Civilizations,” we are told of the Hopi flood legend, “the leaders / had stopped talking to the spirits / of the land, and the people, / the people let them.” Poems llike “At the Turkey Farm,” “Trackless,” and “Strange Meeting” mark the beginning of explicit, consistent connections between human consumption, including the literal consumption of animals, and human and nonhuman misery and death. In “Strange Meeting,” for example, the speaker identifies men who judge women only in terms of their sexuality – or their level of potential threat – via

the slit throat of the cow in the leather shoe

the poisons deep in the soil where the cotton grew

the felled trees of the papers stacked

the mountains leveled in the electric hum of light and heat where we sat.

In Our Held Animal Breath, the world is steadfastly, repeatedly recognized and described as dying and emptying of animals, of parents, of friends lost to murder or stroke, of women’s voices misattributed to men. Its final (and title) poem offers a moment of hope in a context of concrete, something like Black Elk’s one small rain cloud, a literal vision of a rabbit on an exit ramp in a city street. The speaker and those with her “gasp”: “and wait to see how on earth / it lives here, between wheels and exhaust, // as if watching whatever is left / of our warm and vulnerable selves.” When


the rabbit disappears into a flower bed, the watchers cheer, “because, for the moment, escape, / survival in the common release / . . . / of our held animal breath.” Unaccountable Weather refers, of course, to global warming. Here, though, climate changes fuse with the earlier books’ foreshadowing of breast cancer as that cancer manifests in “Every Small Death.” Global warming’s too-early blooms become the “unwelcome bloom in my breast,” “chaos of green / on my hill,” “my body’s unruly / cells.”

These poems illuminate the connections between violence against animals, against ecosystems, against other humans, and against our living bodies – violence which, in the latter case, may well be the inevitable result of expanding ecological catastrophe. Cancer isn’t just a personal tragedy or struggle; it’s part of the larger pattern of pollution and climate change. A series of poems to other women who have also lost breasts to cancer documents – and sometimes celebrates – their handling of chemotherapy, the mastectomies, the prosthetics, and the perceptions of others.

Glenda gardens bare-chested after her bilateral mastectomy and does not back down when the police are called for her “Indecent exposure.” Donna, dancing, throws her lover the prosthetics from her “Dolly Parton bra” because “it’s all makebelieve now, like Dolly’s hair.”

The women’s independence and celebration in the midst of loss neither undo nor are undone by the eco-anxiety pervading the later collections. Rather, they happen specifically in context of that anxiety and

change, like the rabbit’s survival in an artificially constructed flowerbed. In a world where violence against ecosystems and nonhuman life is intimately connected to violence against women, moments of celebration are also resistance. The Fisher Queen is a book of both/and, of nuance and complication. Its interconnections reflect those of ecological networks, linking multiple, interacting causes with long-term effects that too often go unnoticed.

The book ends with cave paintings, perhaps at Lascaux, in which the speaker links humankind’s original relations with animals with their ability to create art, here where it is easier to

. . . find that other self, that knows as the animal knows . . .

. . . so that daughters of Adam, sons of Eve, took up what the bears laid down, dark claw on limestone, and drew.

Throughout Out of the Garden, the speaker seeks to “make something wholly new / from the dripstone of another life,” in a place where human art and animal parts become one. The final section is excerpted from 2014’s Her Small Hands Were Not Beautiful, a book deeply engaged with Irish history, Irish legend, and the interactions of William Butler Yeats and his muse, the Irish nationalist Maud Gonne. While this volume also offers reflections on power dynamics in marriage and in love and landscape and on what it means to be ”really an artist,” the volume ends with “The Fisher Queen Listens,” reminding the reader how the prior selections are strung on the

thread of the Fisher Queen; she might almost be a weaver queen rather than a fisher queen, especially in context of the author’s commitment to veganism. Now, “Suddenly all the stories were wrong. / Some of the origin tales collapsed.” Eve makes love with the serpent.

It was long past time for everything to change, but for many the sadness was large. After all, they had the old stories by heart.

The sadness, indeed, is very large. But with “The Fisher Queen Listens,” the volume ends where it begins, with a suggestion of hope and change – if humankind is able to pay attention. What’s left of the old stories? What can we find in the new stories? The Fisher Queen, listening. What does she hear? A coyote’s howl, the call of crows. Kirkpatrick’s choice of animals is deliberate and well informed. Both coyotes and crows are generalists, adaptive to life in a world of constant human encroachment; crows are famously intelligent and creative, and coyotes, likewise, are returning to Appalachia where the wolves were driven out by human activity. Both are also trickster figures in many traditions, including Indigenous ones. The crow is associated with death, but also with humor, pranks, and, in some cases, creation. In some versions, crows and coyotes created the whole world. Their voices, perhaps, come from the “unexpected quarters” of the first poem. What do they say? We don’t know yet, but the Fisher Queen “just keep[s] listening.” This book is well worth listening to; in it, the listening is the point. n

97 N C L R ONLINE Flashbacks: Echoes of Past Issues


Chinaberry Tree

Here in this retreat were rest and cool and shelter. . . . The Chinaberry Tree became a temple.—Jessie Redmon Fauset i

It’s fallen from favor here, from the days when landscapers extolled its easy growth –leaves, shade, delicate flowers for family lawns. Now, the experts say it’s best removed, like expunging names from country club lists.

Some fearful tribes proclaimed it the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, its alluring purple flowers, bitter bark, tender leaves its berry wine. Killing and uprooting the source seemed best. ii Rumors lived imbedded in its branches, its bark, its fronds. Michaux planted Chinaberries by Charleston paths-lush, leafy, not too tall, shading walkers from the heat. The “pride of India” was at home in Southern soil.

JOYCE COMPTON BROWN is a native of Iredell County, NC. After graduate studies, she taught at Gardner-Webb University for a number of years. She has won several regional poetry prizes and has published four collections: Bequest (Finishing Line, 2015), Singing with Jarred Edges (Main St. Rag, 2018), Standing on the Outcrop (RedHawk Publications, 2021), and Hard-Packed Clay (Redhawk Publications, 2022). For the 2023 James Applewhite Poetry Prize contest, she had two finalists; read the other one in NCLR Online Winter 2024.


Our home sat in the midst of Chinaberry trees, thick and lush. We named them umbrella trees for their soft rounded tops, their arms, their fingery leaves. I hid in a Chinaberry bower, climbed Chinaberry limbs, swung from a Chinaberry tree.

Once, my mother walked me into the shade, carefully parted the deep green fronds like arched bouquets, warning me not to touch the soft blue cheeping thing nesting there. “Don’t ever disturb them. The mother might leave,” she warned. “Just know they’re there.”

Once upon a time bluebirds flew drunken, swaggering, swaying. They swung and swooped tipsy on Chinaberry wine, sailing on bird-joy highs – fluffing drunken feathers on a spring day of nesting, feasting on green and gold.

KIMBERLEE MASELLI lives in Cary, NC. She is the author of four books, including the best-selling Painting North Carolina series. Her books and paintings have been featured in museums and galleries throughout the state, including the Greenville Museum of Art, Asheville Art Museum, and the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. Her paintings are regularly juried into national and international competitions and have received numerous awards. Her works are in the corporate collections of Duke Raleigh Hospital, Capital Bank, and UNC Hospitals, among others. In 2022, she was Inducted into the National Association of Women Artists in New York.

99 N C L R ONLINE Flashbacks: Echoes of Past Issues
Exuberant (oil on canvas, 48x48) by Kimberlee Maselli


a review by Jim Clark

Sam Barbee. Apertures of Voluptuous Force. Redhawk Publishing, 2022.

Michael Loderstedt. Why We Fished. Redhawk Publishing, 2023.

Here are two books of poems that provide a nice contrast. The first, Why We Fished, is by Michael Loderstedt, a relative newcomer to the North Carolina poetry scene although, importantly for the subject matter of his book, he grew up on the North Carolina barrier island of Bogue Banks. This is his first book of poems. The second, Apertures of Voluptuous Force, is by Sam Barbee, an active and well-known poet who has served as President of the North Carolina Poetry Society and was a founder of the popular poetry initiative Poetry in Plain Sight. This is his fourth book of poems.

the North Carolina Literary Review’s 2021 James Applewhite Poetry Prize and is a good example of his style.* The poem begins with a vivid, detailed catalog of items in a boy’s tacklebox which sits in a corner of his room:

Leaden sinkers, bankers, pyramids stamped with ones, twos, and threes fours for heavy gales. Jerk Jiggers, Mirrolures, Hopkins some wire leaders, snap swivels, waiting –ready to go. . . .

JIM CLARK is Professor Emeritus of English at Barton College in Wilson, NC, where he was the Elizabeth H. Jordan Professor of Southern Literature at Barton College from 2007 until 2019. He also served as Dean of the School of Humanities. His honors include the Randall Jarell Scholarship, the Hariette Simpson Arnow Short Story Award, and the Merril Moore Writing Award. He was also the President of the South Atlantic Modern Language Association in 2015 and of the North Carolina Writers Conference in 2017.

SAM BARBEE grew up in Wilmington, NC, and studied creative writing at UNC Wilmington. His poems have been published in The Best of the Asheville Poetry Review, Crucible, The Southern Poetry Anthology VII: North Carolina, St. Andrews Review, Main Street Rag, Pembroke Magazine, and NCLR, among others. His previous collections include The Rain that We Needed (Press 53, 2016; reviewed in NCLR Online 2017).

Loderstedt is a visual artist, as well as a poet, and Why We Fished contains twenty-five black-and-white photographs that complement his poems giving the book a documentary feel, a sort of illustrated poetic memoir. As a poet, Loderstedt’s strengths are narrative and imagistic; the language is carefully crafted, but in the service of the vivid image and the poignant story. The language in Barbee’s poems, on the other hand, calls attention to itself. Alliteration, rhyme, and allusion are but a few of the devices Barbee deploys to craft poems that often veer toward the surreal and the carnivalesque. These poets do share some thematic concerns, however, particularly ecological ones.

The title poem of Michael Loderstedt’s Why We Fished, also the book’s final poem, won

The first strophe ends with an image of “your pole leaned / in corner, two-pieced / to fit in back of car.” These lines exemplify Loderstedt’s conscious minimalist style with their omission of unnecessary words such as articles. Also, the poem’s use of pronouns is interesting – the poem begins with a generic character, “every boy,” but then the character becomes more specific with “your pole,” before settling on the first-person

plural “we,” a common choice in memoirs of place to represent the collective voice of the

* With his performance of this poem, Loderstedt also won honorable mention in NCLR’s premiere Jaki Shelton Green Performance Poetry Prize contest in 2023. Watch it on our YouTube Channel.


townspeople, which begins each of the final four strophes.

The second strophe cleverly employs pop culture references, in the form of 1960s television comedies such as Gilligan’s Island and The Beverly Hillbillies, to evoke a sense of ambivalence toward smalltown life: “the kinfolk said / move away from there. / But we never did, instead / we fished.” The third strophe begins with a celebration of the kinds of narratives small, intimate communities tend to generate: “We fished for the stories.” What follows are three briefly summarized stories, all involving fishing, one featuring albacore, one a heron, and one a “doormat / flounder.” This strophe ends with a wry acknowledgement of fishermen’s penchant for exaggeration: “your / lies stretching out across / the sand and back / under the waves,” with “lies” perhaps intentionally causing the reader to think of “lines,” as in fishing lines.

The fourth strophe focuses on the domestic, beginning with an image of “our mothers” dredging fish in “cornmeal, egg wash” to fry for a meal, and everyone marked by “the smell you can / never truly wash away.” The final lines of this strophe show Loderstedt at his best, fitting domestic imagery to nautical metaphors for excellent effect:

Your red hands, two mullets folded under a pillow each night, the bed moving slowly back and forth shells tumbling along.

The final strophe begins with the fatalistic declaration, “We fished because we / had to,” and continues with the explanatory “our lives grown / too big for our little / houses.” Loderstedt’s photographs provide several examples of this forlorn image – small, dingy weatherboard houses looking out onto an immensity of water. “[W]e fished to be away,” the poem continues, emphasizing the claustrophobia a sailor might feel when too long confined in a small, domestic space, “to feel each bump / and guess, scratching / for something larger than / this place, this lot.” The poem ends on the ambiguous word “lot,” which could mean the small plot of land a house is built on, which works well with the domestic imagery of these “little houses,” but which could also open out into the more expansive but still fatalistic meaning of one’s “lot in life,” as in one’s assigned role, or duty.

Other poems in this collection do an excellent job of exploring and developing the themes laid out in “Why We Fished.” “Things I Know about My Father,” “The

Pirate’s Sister,” “Seen & Heard,” “The Eye,” “Calling My Stepfather, One Year after Mom Died,” and “The Colander” explore the domestic and familial, while “Divining Rod,” “The Crown,” “Spanish,” “Bluefish Run,” “Night Sailing,” “13 Ways to Eat an Oyster,” and “Memory of Whales” develop aspects of fishing, sailing, and the nautical life. All in all, Why We Fished is an impressive first book of poems, and an unusual and successful synthesis of poetry and photography.

Turning now to Sam Barbee’s collection Apertures of Voluptuous Force, let’s look at an almost-title poem – “The Apogee of Voluptuous Force.” The poem begins with what appears to be a rather broad claim –“Our society of faux-apologists – ” appears to be because the words comprise only a phrase, rather than a statement. A list then follows the dash: “Evangelists, Quacks and Duck Hunters, Politicians,” presumably representative examples of these “faux-apologists.” Various elements of this poem seem to argue for a satirical reading – a surrealistic satire of contemporary politics, perhaps, or at least of contemporary culture. Indeed, we do find popular evangelists increasingly involved in politics in one way or another. “Quacks?” Well, conspiracy theorists abound. “Duck Hunters?” Yes, they, too, reigned over their own political dynasty fairly recently. “Politicians?” That’s the easy one. These “would-be” and

101 N C L R ONLINE Flashbacks: Echoes of Past Issues
MICHAEL LODERSTEDT is Professor Emeritus of Kent State University where he was the Interim Director of the School of Art. He earned his BFA in Printmaking from East Carolina University in 1981 and his MFA from Kent State University in 1985. His visual art is in the Cleveland Museum of Art, Progressive Insurance, and the Cleveland Clinic Foundation. His written work is published by Muleskinner Journal, Bangalore Review and Musepaper, and NCLR, which included his photography with his poetry. ABOVE AND OPPOSITE Photographs by Michael Loderstedt, featured in his collection, Why We Fished COURTESY OF REDHAWK PUBLISHING

“has-been” characters quickly become so much “noise and nostalgia,” each with their own agenda, “Boosted / and braced, proud in the vanguard / of rhetorical shock, living to provoke / our touchy mishmash of culture.” This is impressive writing, from the nice parallelism of “would-be” and “has been,” to the verbal music supplied by the alliteration of “noise and nostalgia,” and “Boosted / and braced,” to the larger allusion to Macbeth’s “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing” operating in the background.

The poem’s second stanza begins with an allusion to modern art, comparing the surreal carnivalesque of contemporary American culture to Picasso’s cubism:

Like a cascade of Picassos –voluptuous force framed by brushstrokes, cube by cube, pulsing pigment onto slanted faces gleaming with divine perspiration – the caffeine of America.

This grotesque, hyped-up critique of American culture bears considerable resemblance to the similar critique in the second section of Ezra Pound’s Hugh Selwyn Mauberly, which begins, “The age demanded an image / Of its accelerated grimace.” Barbee continues his effective use of alliteration with “cube by cube, pulsing pigment” and “diversions parched / and fetishes parsed word by word.”

The poem’s ending phrase – “glycerin / to lubricate the feast” – suggests, powerfully but revoltingly, the necessity of a purging of these unhealthful cultural elements to reestablish “hygiene.” It’s a tour de force, with the powerful language counterpoised with the powerful imagery.

The poem “Good Men and Glory” is a good example of Barbee’s ecological concerns, focusing on the devastating process of fracking. Barbee again employs alliteration, along with slant rhyme and other devices, to vividly evoke the sights and sounds of extractive industry:

Thrust into bedrock, the H-piles wring a robotic pulse, punch sandstone stratum, stroke by stroke, droning with fracking what remains of the knoll, chiming with the strain in the knell.

The imagery, as well as the energy, evoked in the poem’s opening is reminiscent of the paintings of the early twentiethcentury Futurist painters, with their gleaming machines and powerful, intricate mechanisms.

The second stanza presents a wasteland “stumped by destruction, / stunned red earth banks scraped open, / roots, stripped out into slopes,” and “the rabbit and the weasel, / the wren and the rat” are warned “to // flee this crime scene” with “no / relevant witness stepping forward.” The only agents operating in this nightmarish scene are mechanical, “Diesel and dump trucks the only / harbingers to blame,” who only defer to “benchmarks, and their // bastard map pinned over a subterranean / atlas.” The last line of the fifth stanza ironically presents the industrial fracking site in religious terms as “some gleaming city, erect on a hill.” The final stanza shows the natural elements – “velvet moss and / blinding blue granite facades” – surrendering to “the hammer’s peal” and “our simple ecology sealed in the fist.” The inexorable industrial devastation visited upon defenseless nature in this poem, and the energetic, creative language in which it is rendered, is reminiscent of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s early poem of ecological devastation “Binsey Poplars,” with its cri de coeur, “O if we but knew what we do / When we delve or hew – / Hack and rack the growing green!”

Apertures of Voluptuous Force shows a talented, sophisticated poet at the height of his powers, but also still dutifully honing his craft. These two very different poets, Michael Loderstedt and Sam Barbee, exemplify the variety and the capaciousness of the North Carolina poetry scene. n


Sam Barbee at Scuppernong Books for the Kakalak reading, Greensboro, NC, 23 Apr. 2023


Investing in Literary and Visual Artists

Congratulations to two new NCLR poets, both selected for honorable mention by final judge Meg Day, and to the writers reviewed here, on their new books. And thank you to all of the visual artists who have allowed us to feature their work to complement the creative writing throughout this issue.

We close the premiere spring issue with the reminder that we are able to provide honoraria to artists and writers, thanks to our collaborators: the North Carolina Writers’ Network, the North Carolina Poetry Society, and our founding organization, the North Carolina Literary and Historical Association. In these times of emphasis upon measuring a program’s value via its “Return on Investment” (ROI), allow me to remind you that there is a very significant return on your investment in these organizations (including NCLR) via memberships, subscriptions, and donations, all of which allows us to continue what we do to promote the literary and visual artists of this state.

And finally, writers and publishers, please take note: beginning this year, NCLR is managing the state’s book awards for “Lit & Hist.” Look for more about this transition and the new nomination submission guidelines on our website n

104 The House Is a Wreck a poem by S.L. Cockerille art by Katy Mixon

106 Blue Light a poem by Melanie Tafejian art by Sujal Manohar

108 They’re Doing Everything They Can, Everything They Know to Do a review by Heather Bell Adams

n Meagan Lucas, Here in the Dark

110 Finding the Place a review by Jamie Tews

n Kristine Langley Mahler, Curing Season

112 More True than Slant a review by David E. Poston

n Christie Collins, The Art of Coming Undone

n Ross White, Charm Offensive


6 n North Carolina Disability Literature poetry, creative nonfiction, and book reviews

24 n Flashbacks: Echoes of Past Issues poetry, creative nonfiction, and book reviews



The House Is a Wreck

Another argument with the Lord and I bet

I’m not the only one.

Which crazy lady is this, saith the Lord, another obtuse critic, all flash, no cash. Lettered and sealed and degreed and decreed, the lovers and revelers and rebels who folded and molded, scold and worship at the feet of exclusive and elusive, drunk on hallowed willingness and virtuous longing –armchairing and opining, calling in favors lapping up smooth stories and backroom deals. Flaming and framing with blame, shame, and shade. Something’s about to give – the levy, the bulkhead, the sandbags holding back the waters, the fences holding back the squatters, the floodgates, the buttresses, the last straw, the final thread, the dam

that will swallow this village whole. Rock bottom, she’s coming.

The last crystal of the façade will melt. Behind the mirage, a vapor. There’ll be a deluge, alright. A pouring forth, a downpour, a showstopper, a headliner, a twister, an epic catastrophe. This will be no high church sprinkle, but instead, an immersion – the baptism of all baptisms –an involuntary release of resistance, the dying breath of a noble effort, the closing argument in the trial of the century, certain surrender to a lost cause.

S.L. COCKERILLE is a recipient of the North Carolina Writers’ Network’s Randall Jarrell Poetry prize, the North Carolina Poetry Society’s Thomas H. McDill Award, and other prizes and publication from the North Carolina Poetry Society, Kakalak, The Carteret Writers, and more. She began writing poetry in college while pursuing a degree in architecture from Virginia Tech. Born in Charlottesville, VA, she has been living in New Bern, NC, since the late 1980s.


There will be no more forever of whatever it is that fuels this engine. Stop everything to listen. This place where a yard is called a lawn with no buttercups, no clover, no dandelions to make a wish on.

Another dusty ficus tree in another dusty lobby, a graveyard of comfort, of people do it all the time, of glances and chances and handshakes and hideouts while the devil beats his wife.

It’s the inconvenience of awfulness and no one knows the hour.

The pain, the grief, the guts, the tears, the years will empty out like a spent gutter. Pull the car over, resolve is about to give. Land the plane in a cotton field, send me to the wing down the inflatable slide. Throw me a life ring, pull me off the stage with a shepherd’s crook, set me in a soft chair to collect myself while I watch.

Let the people say Amen.

KATY MIXON earned an MFA from UNC Chapel Hill and a BA at Davidson College, where she is an Adjunct Professor of Painting. Select exhibition venues include the Gibbes Museum of Art in Charleston, SC; The Painting Center in New York City; and in North Carolina, the Ackland Art Museum, the North Carolina Museum of Art, the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art, Hodges Taylor Gallery, and the Green Hill Center for NC Art. Her honors include a Griffith-Reyburn Award, South Carolina Arts Commission Grant, South Arts Grant, and the Ruth and Harold Chenven Foundation Award. She was a finalist for the William and Dorothy Yeck Young Painters Award and the VCUarts Fountainhead Fellowship. Her residencies include the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts; the Hambidge Center in Georgia, and the Byrdcliffe Arts Colony in New York.

105 N C L R ONLINE North Carolina Miscellany
Wildfire, 2019 (carved oil on panel, 30x33) by Katy Mixon


Blue Light

We can adjust the light on all the screens. Softer for eyes, easier for sleep. Like me, hellebores thrive in shade. Still in the dark their purple faces tilt upward toward the light. Oyster shells

feed the soil. You’ll find them on the coast ground down in gardens. Iridescent

pearls tossed in with the dirt. In California my grandfather dove for abalones, he lifted the grilled white meat to my mother’s small mouth.

Every year the abalone diminish. Now, we use the shells for soap dishes.

As a child when I couldn’t sleep my mother read me Goodnight Moon.

MELANIE TAFEJIAN is a writer from the Pacific Northwest. She was awarded first place in the 2021 Atlanta Review International Poetry Contest and has work in The Atlanta Review, Georgia Review, The Los Angeles Review, Poetry Northwest, and Willow Springs , among other journals. She lives in Raleigh, NC, and lectures in the first-year writing program at NC State University.


Years later I learned the way the woman who wrote the book died. She kicked

her leg skyward post-surgery. Said, Look how good I’m doing!

And a blood clot slipped straight to her heart.

Everything that makes the world beautiful is turning blue around us. Every time

I scrub my hands, the rainbow shell foams with white suds. When I can’t sleep

I scroll small pictures of our world. The light glows up my little room.

SUJAL MANOHAR earned a BS in Neuroscience and a BA in Visual Arts at Duke University. She is a medical student at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, TX. She has designed collaborative murals with patients, taught photography to a young patient with cancer, and led art gallery tours for adults with dementia. She has served as a Hart Fellow and AmeriCorps Artist in Residence at Imagine Art, an art studio for people with disabilities. Her work has been displayed at the Texas State Fair, Duke Wellness Center, and the Keohane-Kenan Gallery at Duke University.

107 N C L R ONLINE North Carolina Miscellany
Polluted Hands Holding the Sea (photography, 17x24) by Sujal Manohar

Meagan Lucas. Here in the Dark Shotgun Honey Books, 2023.

Following up on her debut novel, Songbirds and Stray Dogs (2019), North Carolina author Meagan Lucas has released a new short story collection, Here in the Dark. Lucas is a prolific writer who has published more than forty stories and essays in various literary journals. This collection is comprised of sixteen stories written over the span of several years and published in Still: The Journal, Pithead Chapel, Cowboy Jamboree, Storgy Magazine, and other journals and anthologies. Peter Farris, author of The Devil Himself (2022), calls Here in the Dark “honest and unflinching, elegant yet brutal.”*

HEATHER BELL ADAMS is the author of two novels, Maranatha Road (West Virginia University Press, 2017; reviewed in NCLR Online 2019), winner of the IPPY Gold Medal for the Southeast Region, and The Good Luck Stone (Haywire Books 2020; reviewed in NCLR Online Fall 2022), winner of the Next Generation Book Awards’ Best Historical Novel. Her work has won the Doris Betts Fiction Prize, Rose Post Creative Nonfiction Award, Carrie McCray Literary Award, and James Still Fiction Prize, and appears in Raleigh Review , Still: The Journal , The Thomas Wolfe Review, Atticus Review, Broad River Review, NCLR, and elsewhere. A lifelong North Carolinian, she has served as North Carolina’s 2022 Piedmont Laureate and South Carolina’s 2023 Pat Conroy Writer in Residence.

In these stories, Lucas pulls no punches. She is not afraid to delve into the gritty motivations of desperate criminals or probe the dark underbelly of modern society. Her protagonists, who range from law enforcement officials to prisoners, have at least one thing in common: they are women in difficult circumstances trying to do the best they can with the hand they’ve been dealt. For the most part, these women are down on their luck. They have suffered the loss of children, partners, and friends. In “Asylum,” a young mother who has come to the US from Honduras recalls “the pale skinned agents pulling babies from her arms as their family was separated, the babies’ eyes wide, their lips quivering against the stranger’s polyester

* This and other quotations by other readers are from the book blurbs on the publisher’s website

uniform” (85). They are struggling with addiction. The title story begins, “It had been three months since she’d had a drink. Twelve weeks since she’d pulled smoke into her lungs. Ninety days without a needle, or a pill, or a bump” (171). Her characters are dealing with financial insecurity, in some instances living paycheck to paycheck, and in others, scrambling to find food to feed their children. When confronted with one of her children who has ripped her pants, the protagonist in “Porch Light Salvation,” known only as “the mother,” tries not to show her annoyance: “More demands on her limited resources, the need to try to fix the pants, the inevitable need to ask him for money to buy new ones. She could feel his fingertips pressing into the tender flesh on the back of her arm as he asked why she needed more money” (139).

In “Picking the Carcass,” the main character is jealous of those who have gas in their car, clean clothes, food, and drugs. “She [can’t] remember the last time she drank a beer in a bar” (18). When she has a little extra money for once, she relishes using cash, instead of SNAP, at the Food Lion and feeds her daughters store-brand mac and cheese “with actual milk, not just margarine” (17).

Lucas keeps the metaphorical knife at her characters’ throats. She presses them to their limits, which keeps the


tension high and the reader turning the pages. J. Todd Scott, author of The Flock (2022), describes Lucas’s characters as “wounded but surviving.” If the subject matter sounds dark, rest assured that the writing is sophisticated and inventive. In “Picking the Carcass,” readers may be surprised at what the protagonist discovers inside the carcass of a raccoon. Throughout the collection, the clever plots ensure that these stories have the capacity to startle the reader in the best of ways. This works particularly well when, instead of resigned to passivity, the protagonists channel their anger at the world into some sort of action. For example, in “Glass Houses,” the narrator, despite being irritated with her judgmental neighbors, makes a profound decision to help their child. When the main character in “Molasses in Winter” is frustrated with strangers commenting about her body, she decides to “use this anger as fuel” (118).

Other characters are resigned to their circumstances or hiding from the truth. “The Only Comfort,” perhaps the most poignant story in the collection, explores the rawness of grief. From the beginning, Lucas sets the scene by placing the protagonist on the deck with snow up to her knees and her dead husband’s sleeping bag draped over her shoulders. By the story’s end, she is back on the deck where she started. But now she’s

huddled inside the sleeping bag – and she’s going to destroy a piece of evidence she wishes didn’t exist.

The narrator’s ultimate refusal to confront the real story behind her husband’s death leaves the reader to conclude that the lie of delusion is the only comfort she can find.

While the settings of the stories range from western North Carolina to Michigan, they are rooted in rural America. Lucas injects political commentary without interfering with the narrative flow. In “Voluntary Action,” the protagonist believes no one cares about “the poor drowning in their own vomit, or stroking out in their trailers” until “it’s a crisis because some kids with money, with daddies who wear white shirts and ties, kids with futures, are dying” (4). To put Here in the Dark in a larger context, Lucas is doing with the short story form what North Carolina author David Joy does in his novels, particularly When These Mountains Burn (2020). “Buttons,” one of the few stories told from a child’s per-

spective, is reminiscent of the chilling ending of Doris Betts’s “The Spider Gardens of Madagascar” (in Betts’s 1973 collection, Beasts of the Sothern Wild & other stories).

The last line of the first story in Lucas’s collection sets the tone: “I did everything I could, everything I knew to do” (10). With Here in the Dark, Lucas brings to life women who are trying desperately to save anything that is salvageable. Reiterating this theme, George Singleton describes the collection as featuring “strong, desperate, determined female protagonists, all fighting their good fights.” n

MEAGAN LUCAS is the author of the award-winning novel, Songbirds and Stray Dogs (Main Street Rag Press, 2019; reviewed in NCLR Online 2021), which was chosen to represent North Carolina in the Library of Congress 2022 Route 1 Reads program and won Best Debut at the 2020 Indie Book Awards. She has been nominated for the Pushcart, Best of the Net, Derringer, and Canadian Crime Writer’s Award of Excellence, and she won the 2017 Scythe Prize for Fiction. She teaches creative writing at Robert Morris University and in the Great Smokies Writing Program at UNC Asheville and is the

109 N C L R ONLINE North Carolina Miscellany
Editor-in-Chief of Reckon Review
she now lives in the mountains of western North Carolina.
. Born and raised on a small island in northern Ontario,
ABOVE Meagan Lucas with another North Carolina writer, Nathan Ballingrud at her book launch, Asheville, NC, Aug. 2023 PHOTOGRAPH BY CHRISTY ALEXANDER HALLBERG



Kristine Langley Mahler. Curing Season: Artifacts. West Virginia University Press, 2022.

JAMIE TEWS graduated from the MFA program at UNC Wilmington in 2022. She has taught writing classes at Roland Grise Middle School, the Loft Literary Center, and the Great Smokies Writing Program out of UNC Asheville. Her writing is published in The Shore, Eastern Iowa Review, and the Chestnut Review, among others.

KRISTINE LANGLEY MAHLER is the author of A Calendar is a Snakeskin (Autofocus Books, 2023). Her work has been supported by an Individual Artist Fellowship from the Nebraska Arts Council and a residency at Art at Cedar Point Biological Station. She was twice named Notable in Best American Essays, received the Rafael Torch Award from Crab Orchard Review, and won the Sundog Lit Collaboration Contest.

Whether it’s a childhood home, a college town, or a random place of temporary residence, many people have a place they are pining for. For Kristine Langley Mahler, it’s North Carolina, specifically Pitt County, which is where she spent four years of adolescence. Her family moved from Oregon to North Carolina when she was a child, and even though she was disenchanted with the place, it seems she can’t let it go. Curing Season: Artifacts is a collection of essays about feeling out of place and working toward a reconciliation of past and present self. The collection is titled after North Carolina’s tobacco season, the period in which the freshly picked tobacco is cured for use, and in these essays, Mahler puts herself through a curing season of sorts. In this exploration of self, she plays with various essay forms, experimenting with shape and image on the page.

“Club Pines,” the second essay in the collection, opens with an aptly recollected description of the climate in Eastern North Carolina: “August on the coastal plains of North Carolina is like being shushed, like being smothered into agreement, a thick heat so relentless no one can raise a ruckus” (5). Here, Mahler captures the feel of coastal heat while also alluding to the way the South has,

and does, shush people, how it has been hard at times to raise a ruckus. Throughout these essays, some more than others, Mahler articulates how it feels to question a past, how to question living in a place with a troubled, storied history. This opening line also seems to reflect how Mahler felt about being in North Carolina: shushed and smothered. Mahler takes the reader to and through the homes of different girls she was friends with in North Carolina. She names various details of the interiors and exteriors of these friends’ homes, and then she describes her relationship with each girl and how she felt around the girl’s family. The essay is divided into single-paragraph sections, and each section has a punchy opening like “A white cockatoo screaming from its cage in the corner, a baby brother


rug-burning his knees, parents sitting under their Christmaslights-strung gazebo in the backyard drinking cocktails and listening to Jimmy Buffett” (13), but they all work their way toward sentiment. Mahler uses her experiences in the girls’ homes to highlight differences she notices between the girls’ families and hers. And while being in and moving between different homes with different girls, she notices things about herself, too. This is a nostalgic, melancholic essay about Mahler as a young girl in a new place, and she uses these other girls, their homes, and their lives as a measuring stick of sorts, a way to figure out who she was beside and apart from them.

In all of the essays in the collection, there is an exploration of how the person Mahler is today makes sense of the girl she used to be. “I am trying to

bring everything into alignment,” she writes in “Alightment” (177). This essay opens with astrology and gemstones. The author reports that she is a Cancer sun with an Aquarian moon. She prefers the Old Testament to the New, and she likes ancient prayers, as they bring her back to the girl she used to be. Circling back to astrology, she explains her resonance with the signs, the ways in which her Cancer sun pulls people toward her and Aquarian moon pushes people away: “it feels good to know that I am born to push and pull” (180), which, again, succinctly sums up the work of the other essays. She has been and is wrestling with what North Carolina means to her, but she also knows how much it, and those years, mean. Mahler feels she belongs to North Carolina more now than she did when she

lived there because now she knows more about its history; now she is reckoning with the ways she has changed herself and the ways she has allowed herself to be changed. Overall, in this collection Mahler is questioning, contemplating, and remembering how she grew up and how the place, North Carolina, had a hand in her development. Near the end of “Alignment,” she asks, “will I still be circling around the sorrows of my life when I am 47?” (185).

Curing Season explores Pitt County, NC, and examines girlhood and loneliness. Mahler writes about carrying an assortment of sorrows with her throughout relationships and from place to place. Mahler starts and ends the collection with a porch. The final essay is called “Pull Me Through the Doorway,” and in the second paragraph, she writes: “I spent hours under the overhang of my front porch in North Carolina, watching the neighborhood from a spot where I could see but not be seen. I see myself on that porch all the time, a mnemonic for my self-positioning and how I believed someone would look deeper to find that girl selecting into her own loneliness by refusing to come into the light” (187). The reader can also see her on her porch, watching people pass and contemplating what they might be wondering about. This is a collection about memory, about how we can, to an extent, choose how to remember places and periods of our lives. n

111 N C L R ONLINE North Carolina Miscellany
ABOVE AND OPPOSITE Kristine Langley Mahler at her childhood home in Greenville, NC, circa 1993–95 COURTESY OF KRISTINE LANGLEY MAHLER


a review by David E. Poston

Christie Collins. The Art of Coming Undone. Black Spring Press Group/Maida Vale Publishing, 2023.

Ross White. Charm Offensive. Black Spring Press Group/ Eyewear Publishing, 2023.

These two books are the first full-length poetry collections from these authors, and both consistently engaged me with their non-solipsistic honesty and keen insight into the human condition. While Ross White employs a wider formal range, from ghazal to anaphora to a variety of stanza forms, Christie Collins writes from a tighter, rawer, and more vulnerable perspective, focusing on the process of recovery and renewal after the end of a marriage.

entirety: “At thirty I scream / ME TOO because at twenty / they said to whisper.” But (apologies to bell hooks) these blues are also everyone’s blues, informed by Collins’s own perspective and speaking from it to expand any reader’s perspective.

DAVID E. POSTON lives in Gastonia. He is the author of two poetry chapbooks and the full-length collection Slow of Study (Main Street Rag, 2015). His poetry, fiction, and reviews have appeared in Atlanta Review, Broad River Review, English Journal, Ibbetson Street, Pedestal, Pembroke Magazine , and others, including a poem in NCLR 2021 that received second place in NCLR ’s 2020 James Applewhite Poetry Prize contest. He has taught at UNC Charlotte, at Charlotte’s Young Writers’ Workshop and for thirty years in North Carolina public schools. He has led or facilitated writing workshops for Novant Health Hospice, the North Carolina Writers’ Network, and the North Carolina Poetry Society, among others. He is an editor at Kakalak

The Art of Coming Undone by Christie Collins is a collaborative effort with Dutch artist Erna Kuik, including eleven ekphrastic pairings among its thirty-three poems. The collection’s epigraphs identify the major themes of these poems and illustrations: love and loss, how to overcome loss, and how to become one’s truest self. Leslie Jamison’s words from her essay “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain” establish the emotional stance and tenor of the collection: “The wounded woman gets called a stereotype, and sometimes she is. But sometimes she’s just true.”* There is something telling about Collins’s felt need to argue for the relevance of female pain, which these poems explore with unflinching honesty and an admirable willingness to be vulnerable. These poems speak for voices too long marginalized. Here is the poem “Me Too” in its

In Kuik’s illustrations, the faces – particularly the eyes –demand attention. They may mislead us into thinking that the speakers and personae in the poems are wistful and naïve. True, there is a plaintiveness to the questions in “Law of Losing,” the opening poem: if the first law of thermodynamics is true, “knowing that energy cannot / be created or destroyed? // Where does love reemerge – after?” The collection has moments of longing, such as the dreamy “Summer Blues,” in which the narrator describes how she “traced the route to Albuquerque in coral lipstick.” She goes on to say, “I cried when I didn’t leave, threw each Kleenex, / each origami wad of despair to the blue paper sky. / I kept my sunglasses tight on the bridge of my nose / as my mother taught me to hide the tears, the circles.” That poem ends with the speaker describing the berries she eats as both bitter and sweet, filling her hands with them while “my mouth could only mutter: empty, empty, empty.” However, there is also wit and vivacity in these poems and in the appeal-


ing sass of the characters that inhabit them. For example, the rag doll in “Girl Talk”: “If I were you, she tells me, / I’d man up. / I’d stop pussy-footin’. / I’d seal the deal.” She lights a cigarette and pours herself a doll-sized tumbler of Scotch as the narrator asks, “How can you see the world clearly / with your crooked button eyes?” At the

end of the poem, the two trade places; the narrator’s “hands turn to cloth,” while it is the rag doll “who jumps down, steps into my jeans, / & grabs my keys on her way out the door.” She says she’s going to find him “& kiss him till it hurts.”

In other poems, the speaker directly addresses depression (“Dear Depression”), medication

(“Dear Blue Pill”), and readers (“Dear Reader, Love Poet” and “Out of Date). In “First Love,” the speaker/poet begins,

Poem-of-mine, here we are parked at Make-Out Point. In the front seats

of my daddy’s red hot Firebird,

the summer burns on your breath[,]

and continues to describe the infatuated joy of beginning a new poem. The poem ends: “My heartbeat slows. / I nod, peck your cheek, // begin the lifelong drive / towards getting it right.”

Some of this collection’s poems overtly address hurt and healing, such as “How to Leave Your Husband,” while others, such as “Nesting” or “Honeybees,” employ various metaphors to explore those feelings. “Kintsugi,” appearing midway through the collection, is a benchmark for the healing process in these poems, again utilizing the language of thermodynamics. Though the speaker asserts that “like a split fruit, I will never be whole again,” she recognizes the physics of healing at work: “I stay in motion: breaking, willing / the parts back together, carrying / myself in my own arms as one / carries firewood to a furnace.”

CHRISTIE COLLINS was born in Asheville, NC, and raised in the South, and she has recently moved back to Starkville, MS, where she teaches writing and literature courses at Mississippi State University. Prior to her return home, she completed a PhD at Cardiff University and taught there and at Louisiana State University. Her critical and creative work has been published in Stirring, Phantom Drift, Kenyon Review Online, NCLR, Entropy, Cold Mountain Review, Appalachian Heritage, Poetry South, and Poetry Wales, among others. Her chapbook Along the Diminishing Stretch of Memory was published in 2014 by Dancing Girl Press.

113 N C L R ONLINE North Carolina Miscellany
ABOVE Art by Erna Kuik, one of the works paired with poetry in Christie Collins’s collection

Soon after that come two poems in which the speaker addresses herself. The first, “How to Build a Dock,” speaks of preparing for failure, “the kind you must / dive underwater to amend.” The next, “Glory,” uses its risqué premise to highlight a turning point, with the speaker asserting at the end, “You want to be someone else or the someone you really are.”

The sass of the rag doll in “Girl Talk” is echoed in “Eros the Wingman,” a poem in which the title character is an irresistible force, shamelessly making “everyone in the room open up, reveal / the desires they bury.” In the conclusion, the speaker acknowledges to herself that Eros is the one who “winks and takes your hand, spinning your body / like a top toward your next best bad idea.” In “Knight of Cups” (one of several poems set in New Orleans), the mystic on Chartres Street looks into his tea leaves:

He foretells a string of new chapters beyond the one I’m leaving, the one I’m already homesick for. You’re gonna be alright girl, he promises over and over until I almost believe him, a blend of sass and Southern on the tongue of this strange, kindred spirit.

In “The Art of Letting Go,” Collins returns to the questions of her opening poem. “Nothing is truly lost,” she says, and then asks, “what if we had / made the connection sooner?” Her answer comes in the poem’s conclusion: “Then, we would have known / that we never truly began, / never ended. That our story / lives on as it always has.” And in “Dear Reader, Love Poet,” she provides her ars poetica, her conception of what can happen when the work of a knowing poet finds a “prepared & passionate” reader.

Collins writes that “certainly any poem could be moving, which // is why I wish I could be there with you / now as you read this line to yourself.” She concludes the poem with these lines:

As I read, you would hear undercurrents, a brave passion. In all honesty, you might hear me slip or stammer on a word because that happens sometimes as do other truths

when I let go of this tight grip, when I let the robe slip off my shoulders, when it’s just me

and my voice in front of the stage lights, the audience waiting.

Ross White’s Charm Offensive, winner of the Sexton Prize for Poetry, begins with a more selfassured tone than The Art of Coming Undone, one which tradition has made it easier for male poets to muster. White announces in his opening list poem, “I Like Too Many Things,” that he is “unruined,” that his words are “laden with an unburdened appreciation of living.” That confidence is justified. White has a keen, wide-ranging eye and the mastery of craft to write with selfassurance about topics ranging from skunks to quahogs to divination. The next poem, “Junk Drawer,” establishes the fuller tonal range of the collection as it moves from mundane to nostalgic to self-deprecating to risqué to a sobering ending:

eventually we’ll be in the fossil record for scientists of a much older earth –

which will, to them, seem new & renewing –to rummage around in, regarding our strata for its clutter, its tires & smokestacks & bones.

In “Michelangelo’s David,” Ross acknowledges the venerable poetic admonition “to tell the truth slant” but asserts that the slant truths we tell ourselves often lead us to folly, to assuming that “God has not yet chosen / the instruments of our inevitable humiliation.” These poems explore dark, unflattering, occasionally even violent aspects of human nature; however, they also contain moments, particularly in the concluding section, of lyric beauty. A number of them explore how religion, myth, and folklore are central ways that we tell ourselves these slant truths. White, however, cautions us that these mythological and religious tropes sometimes tease out our most unpleasant tendencies. He declares in “Damned If You Do and Damned If You Do,”

The stories of salvation are boring –it’s all a lot of bread and dirt and daguerreotypes, a sort of heaven for great-grandparents. We’re taught early on to want what we do not want.


These poems suggest that religion and myth give us opportunities to imagine having the power we ostensibly want, and they suggest the frightening consequences of what we would become if we had it. “Bad News for Mortals in Forests,” for example, begins, “If I could be a god,” and proceeds to list the misbehaviors that would ensue. After a surrealistic twist on the birth of Athena, the poem ends with dissatisfaction and boredom. “Scorpion” employs fable as a commentary on the darkest aspect of human nature, the inexcusable ways that one might try to excuse hurting those who love and trust us.

Other poems are more sympathetic. The speaker in “Believer, Affix a Fish to Your SUV” gently tweaks those who do so for their motives as he himself asks for “an anti-lock, all-weather Christ” to keep him from harm. “Notes on the Oracle” catalogues a myriad of ways that divination is attempted, but remarks, “Bring coin to any. / Any will tell you what you want to hear. / And still the news is never good.” The poem presents us with the character of a child oracle, and ends by asking us to consider the toll suffered by that child: “And if the child Oracle does return to the doll, / how long will she love it for its human qualities?”

The human quality of seeking the unknowable is what leads to these desperate and exploitative efforts. Another character who evokes our sympathy for his supernatural burdens is the ferryman in “Past Perfect,” who must shield others from the reality of death, even though,

When the bereaved places a coin in his rough palm, the invented past dissipates, as if it were a vapor, a fog seared away: he sees clearly his ship’s frames as the ribs of a skeleton.

ROSS WHITE is Executive Director of Durham-based Bull City Press and the Director of Creative Writing at UNC Chapel Hill. He is the host of two podcasts, The Chapbook and Trivia Escape Pod In addition to Charm Offensive, winner of the 2019 Sexton Prize, he is the author of three chapbooks published by Unicorn Press: How We Came Upon the Colony (2014), The Polite Society (2017), and Valley of Want (2022). He earned his MFA in Creative Writing at Warren Wilson College and has received scholarships from the Bread Loaf Writers Conferences in Vermont and Sicily. His poems have appeared in American Poetry Review, New England Review, Ploughshares, Poetry Daily, Tin House, and The Southern Review, among others.

“Vs. World,” which concludes the opening section, is a wish-fulfillment fantasy with a dagger thrust in its conclusion. The speaker describes himself parading through New York City reveling in a surrealistic swirl of confetti, followed by wolves wearing velvet collars. “If the roses and rosepetals littered the streets behind me,” he says, “If all of Manhattan, made of rosepetal.” Then comes the knife-twist in the last two lines: “If I had no one to share it with. / If I had no one I had to share it with.”

The poems in later sections are kinder to both speaker and subject. “Statues of Women” is particularly touching, a subtly nuanced ghazal-like narrative of missed connections and sorrow over love that might have been. The concluding poem of the middle section, “Wonders Never Cease,” ends with lines that might sound cliched: “Each of us has only

ABOVE Ross White giving a reading at Oden Brewing Co. for Poetry on Tap in Greensboro, NC, 19 Nov. 2023

115 N C L R ONLINE North Carolina Miscellany

minutes left to live. // Ruin lies in rushing through.” These lines, however, are earned, informed by the strong, unflinchingly honest way White has looked into his own foibles and self-delusions.

White chooses to present his most vulnerable poems, including a series of love poems, in his concluding section, where he explores grief and pain before finding a resolution which includes, if not joy, at least some measure of contentment and self-acceptance. Its opening poem, “Ghazal,” seems bitterly masochistic, echoing the violence of “Expert Advice for Your Boxing Career” when it asks, “Please, beat me out of me.” The general movement of the section is much more positive, though. “Second Love” is a retrospective on past relationships and how the speaker evolved through each of them. In a similar vein is “Last Sonnet for My Beloveds,” in which the speaker says to a previous beloved, “Sweet invader, I was the wrong country.” “A Shoebox,” with its images of tenderly caring for an injured bird, ends with this description of the speaker’s current relationship:

& I know that our marriage bed is the shoebox she set up for me, & she will wait nights to see if I worsen, if I fall prey to small perils, just enough that she can keep me from returning to the wild.

The final poem, “The Old Gods,” is composed of a series of brief sections alternating between descriptions of a foggy mountain drive and statements that bring the arc of the collection to its conclusion:

“The past calls to us love, love and / the future calls to us come, come.” The speaker declares,

I don’t believe we are saved by facing our truths – though they are seldom behind us. All that is back there is the past, drafting its legislation, authoring its bibles, pouring its foundations over bone and primitive tool.

“Nostalgia is sweet in the ear,” he says, “but I have never wanted sweetness.” The old gods, capricious and dangerous to encounter, are not what we need to guide us.

Both these collections lead us through careful examination of our fears and misconceptions to what is ultimately both a more honest and a more hopeful perspective. Ross White leaves us in his final poem driving through fog, steady hands on the wheel, in the only moment we have. Christie Collins, after leading us through explorations of love lost, ends with a poem set in “St. Fagan’s Museum of Welsh Life,” where the speaker describes the beginning of a new relationship with someone who “makes me want / to pick flowers again to dry and to keep. / He makes me want to pack a blanket, savor / the new daffodils yielding to the spring wind.”

Her poems and her biography document that Collins has covered a great deal of ground geographically, and she and White have covered a lot of thematic ground as well. “I’m trying not to turn around,” says White. With the right person, says the well-traveled Collins, “anywhere and everywhere could be home.” n

Click the logo below to find our Bookshop affiliate listing of all the books reviewed in this issue.


Sir Walter Raleigh Award for Fiction n Roanoke-Chowan Award for Poetry n Ragan Old North State Award for Nonfiction n NC AAUW Young People’s Literature Award

Mail books to the NCLR office before July 15.

New nominations guidelines here

East Carolina University Department of English and Thomas Harriot College of Arts and Sciences North Carolina Literary and Historical Association

North Carolina Writers’ Network – Doris Betts Fiction Prize contest sponsor

North Carolina Poetry Society – Jaki Shelton Green Performance Poetry Prize contest sponsor Press 53 of Winston-Salem – John Ehle Prize sponsor UNC Chapel Hill Creative Writing Program – Randall Kenan Prize sponsor

Paul Green Foundation – Paul Green Prize sponsor

North Carolina Arts Council North Carolina Humanities

NORTH CAROLINA LITERARY REVIEW ONLINE WINTER 2024 PUBLISHED BY North Carolina Literary and Historical Association ISSN: 2165-1809 NC LR 2024 PRODUCTION NOTES Design Adobe Indesign CC 2024 on Macintosh computers Type Families Museo Sans, Adobe Caslon Pro HELP NCLR TODAY HOW MIGHT YOU Yes! I’d like to support another 30 years of this award-winning publication for North Carolina writers and readers everywhere. Click here to see a list of NCLR’s Friends. o
Issuu converts static files into: digital portfolios, online yearbooks, online catalogs, digital photo albums and more. Sign up and create your flipbook.