by Sherry Cook Stanforth
|Bottom Dog Press, 2015
Reviewed by Anthony Otten
Anyone who has seen Diane Sawyer’s documentary A Hidden America: Children of the Mountains will understand that Appalachian culture presents some excruciating paradoxes. Sherry Cook Stanforth’s new poetry collection Drone String actually rejoices in the themes of this region’s people, their fatalism and determination, their despair and humor. These poems vary their tunes as skillfully as a dulcimer in a trained hand, focusing on the lives of rural women who are at once proud and cornered by circumstance. Through the collection runs the biography of a woman with a fierce but tender self-consciousness of her heritage.
In an early poem, Stanforth launches a biting defense against prejudice: “My twang too educated for you? And my education / just doesn’t jive at all with your portrait of Rocky Top / You’ll Always Be a barefoot pregnant hilljack daughter…” The book provides a contradictory delight in the way it assails convention and humanizes its subjects even as it revels in confirming some of our cornpone assumptions about Appalachians—celebrating, for instance, the “chicken-chopping mama” whose daughter earns a doctorate.
Stanforth demonstrates an unwillingness to let the reader settle for a monochromatic picture of the futility or comedy of Appalachian life. With a bitter wink of defiance, she relays the story of a mother who kills a crow in her kitchen for fear of its deadly omen, and later tells a young girl to “set your mind to lose whatever you got/in this world.” Yet we find laughter in the same family. A gossipy aunt recounts “that wicked recurring dream / about her gynecologist” while a young daughter, frustrated with ironing, swears she “will buy / permanent press or nothing.”
The later poems display a refreshing boldness to force language past its usual contours, to speak of a storm that “sprayed us blind” or time “pooling into minutes.” These verses have a welcomed sobriety to them, which a few of the exuberant, breathless pieces earlier in the book are lacking; they also descend into the darker pockets of Appalachian life. The misery of an abusive, drug-dealing boyfriend resolves shockingly with the slash of a “lucky slice / of glass.” The “keenings” of coal miners echo in the hills where they perished, “reminding folks that / losing repeats itself stone by stone / acre by acre.”
A common thread among Stanforth’s works is their comfort with earthier realities—in particular, death—and their eagerness to challenge readers who shun them. The collection’s opening poem, about a woman discovering the shards of a skull “rippled gray / by water’s slick tongue” in a creek, foreshadows this concern. A little girl encounters the life cycle by watching a cicada struggle in a spider’s web. “Worms and wildflowers,” we hear, would make a better fate for a corpse than being “sealed up / neatly” in a coffin, “no hint / of decay.” The collection’s finest piece traces the history of a knife from its discovery near a murder scene to the moment it was first given as a gift, a play on chronology that achieves a deep pathos.
Stanforth writes at her best in spare narrative poems like the latter. The occasional nostalgic ode to tough grandmothers, whether they are decapitating poultry or beating raccoons with a hoe, could have benefitted from a lighter dose of sentiment. Altogether, though, the collection steers away from romanticizing these hardscrabble lives.
In Drone String the reader will find a seasoned and sassy personality, assertive of her roots yet unencumbered by illusion. “Go ahead and roll your eyes,” she dares, “at the way I wrap my / mountain identity around me like a crazy quilt forged / stitch by stich by some withered up sooth-saying holler / witch.” At the same time we meet a writer willing to uncover “everything you refuse to see” about a culture plagued with social problems and endowed with a generous heart.