The latest word

“Poems are made by fools like me, but only God can make a tree.”

— Joyce Kilmer

April is National Poetry Month, and Asheville has long been known for its support of poets and their work. It would, of course, be impossible in such a limited space to recognize all the local bards.

Poets bring to the rest of us the “little civilities” a society must have to remind itself that its citizens are more than mere automatons in an industrial world. I submit that there is no more difficult form of writing than poetry — any writer who’s given it a serious try knows that’s true.

In a poem, so much must be accomplished in such a short span — every word must count, images must be evoked, moods struck, whole stories told — often in 12 lines or less. A good poem catches in the heart — a great one leaves you breathless.

Reduced to its simplest form, poems are just collections of words, like every other kind of writing. But put in the right order, the words become magnificent. And before I use up too many of my own words, let me proffer some standout examples of local work.

For a fine lesson in the use of metaphor, one need look no further than the poem “Brace’s Rock” by Keith Flynn (founder and editor of the Asheville Poetry Review). This one can be found in his collection The Lost Sea (Iris Press, 2000): “At high tide I stumble/out into the sun, watch the cars/put an end to tourist season,/speeding inland toward the mountains/where the hawks circle leisurely,/not like here in the tricky heat/where the gulls are crying and diving/and pluck fish like eyebrows/from the cloudy face of the sea.” Among his other achievements, Flynn won the Sandburg Prize for Poetry in 1985.

The rhythm of youthful rage can be heard in Asheville poet Damion “DaDa” Bailey’s “Could This Be My Excuse,” from his collection Often Thoughts (Prophetic Publications, 2002): “He lynched me with not enough/attention, as if his biological being/paraded the status conviction./Don’t spread the common burden of/fatherhood across your guilt feeling/fingertips and rub it into your palms now./I am grown now.”

Allan Wolf, founder of Poetry Alive!, lays down words like a jazz musician lays down tracks and riffs. His “The Other Creek,” from his collection Turn to the Index (Nightingale Press, 1996), is as good as anything I’ve read recently: “And so, that spring, Jesus Christ washed his hands/of us and settled down to farm a plot/of low-rent Kansas dirt. And so he found a piece of land./And to this day he lives off cans of apple butter/stockpiled in the cellar by a bag of fertilizer./This time his rugged burdens are wired to blow.” Some lines down, this mayhem of mind continues: “And on that day, Christ became a survivalist./He bent down to the lowly dog, and holding out the cat, He said,/Take this in remembrance of me.”

It would be hard to ignore another local poet, Nancy Dillingham, whose poems and short stories about the folks of Appalachia are consistently stitched with a fine, dark thread that never lets the reader forget the weight of mountain blood. In her latest collection of short stories and poems, The Ambiguity of Morning (World Comm, 2001), we find “Do Not Disturb”: “And when/it is time/to die/we lie/in the rushing dark/and cry to a god of self-love/that is sleeping now/with a do-not-disturb sign/on the door.”

Poetry’s voice is without silence. In that voice can be found the self — and the certainty that there is at large a beauty that cannot be tampered with.

[Bill Brooks teaches the Blue Ridge Writers Program. He is the author of 10 novels. For a complete list of local author events, see Xpress‘ weekly arts & entertainment calendar.]

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