Still: The Journal invited poet Diane Gilliam to share several new poems with us after we heard her read some of them at the 2014 Appalachian Writers Workshop. Readers familiar with her 2004 collection Kettle Bottom will be happy to hear the voices of Pearlie Webb and Edith Mae Chapman again in these current poems. Below is Diane's artistic statement about the poems featuring the brave voices of two young girls who first made their memorable appearances in Kettle Bottom, set during the 1920s West Virginia mine wars.
Pearlie’s and Edith Mae’s poems are part of a new work which is taking shape as a young adult novel-in-poems. I want their stories to speak to how complicated the lives of young people really are, how much they already know and how brave they are called on to be—especially in times, then as now, when even the adults they count on find it difficult or impossible to navigate the world. I feel the influence of fairy tales in the girls’ stories, in the way their families break apart and re-form, and in the way elements of their world—people, animals, the earth itself—circle around the girls to tell them what they need to know to bridge the gaps and make the necessary passages.
This is one of two books I’m writing during my Gift of Freedom period, the working title for the poetry collection is The Blackbirds Too. In both books my basic question is about how we get to be who we are. It seems my most basic answer is, through breakage. Breakdown of what we’ve been taught—marriage or education, God himself or whatever else—will make us a place in the world. Who we thought we were, should be, could be—all this fails at river’s edge, at those moments when the ground beneath our feet disappears and no story that we’ve been told about ourselves serves to get us across. These are the moments when we make ourselves.
As I am making myself, yet again, in the stories of Pearlie and Edith Mae, calling on what they know and how clearly they name and face it. Calling too on the wisdom of all the mothers who step into the spaces in the girls’ lives that have broken open. I hope to be braver and truer, like them, by the time I’m done.
Message in a Mason Jar
I’m just tired, is what Mama says
when I ask her what’s wrong.
I’m just tired, and she looks off
whichever way is away from me,
at nothing at all. You’re just a child,
Pearlie, is what Daddy says. There’s lots
of things you don’t know.
It ain’t right, I told him.
She ain’t right, but even I
can’t say it out loud. So took him
out back to the lean-to kitchen
where Mama’s been canning
and showed him the jars, all washed
clean and sealed up tight and set out
in rows—ten jars with one dried
shucky bean inside of each, eight
quart jars with BLACKBERRIES
wrote on a slip of paper inside,
and one pint-sized jelly jar
half-full of broken bits
of Grandma Sweet’s blue plates.
Four days now since Grandpa Sweet
come and got Mama and took her
back up to the farm. I was packing up too
when Daddy come in my room
and just stood there looking at the floor.
That’s how I knew. “I’m sorry, Sugar,
I’m so sorry,” he said, all the time
looking from the floorboards to the door.
Me all the time thinking how he don’t
hardly ever call me Sugar no more.
“Your mama’s got to rest and I got
to have some help here. You already
been helping Mama you know
how to do. I’ll make Jake
be good and mind, it won’t be so bad.
You can do that, can’t you, Sugar?”
“Daddy, I can’t” I said.
“But I will.”
But Jakey is only eight and he
run out of good and minding
before the end of the second day.
And he was crying on the way to school
cause I didn’t make up his dinner bucket
just how Mama did. Them Stokes boys
and that Buddy Cantrell started in
on him about “cry-baby, cry-baby,
tied to his crazy mama’s apron strings.”
I’ll tell you what. I turned on them.
I told them all about their sorry selves
and their mama and their daddy
and the mule they rode in on.
I showed them crazy. Stupid boys.
They got no idea what it means
to be all tied up in apron strings.
Daddy’s been talking to Mrs. Chapman
about me. I know cause I seen them
outside the store and I seen her look
back toward our house then turn around
and talk some more. “Pearlie Webb,”
she says to me next day, “Saturday
me and Edith Mae is fixing to bake.
How about you send your daddy and Jakey
off fishing or hunting or whatever up the hill
and you come on over for a day with us girls?”
I said, “Yes, Ma’am,” as I been taught,
and I thought, Well good, Daddy’s not
been talking, he’s just tired of eggs
and fried potatoes and beans and he’s got
Mrs. Chapman to teach me some things.
So Saturday morning I took Mama’s apron
of the hook where she left it and I took off
down the road to Chapmans.
Edith Mae was all happy and bouncing around,
“Blackberry pies, Pearlie!” she says
and Mrs. Chapman has to tell her to settle down.
She had me push a chair over and get her big bowl
off the shelf, and two pie tins with curvy sides
which we set over on the stove—this is one
of her secrets, she says, to let the tins get hot.
Edith Mae sifts the flour and Mrs. Chapman
shows me how to spoon it into the cup
and take a knife to level it off. She shows me
how to cut the lard into little chunks
and press it into the flour making little
flakes with my fingers. Edith Mae
is talking all along about picking berries
and briars and snakes and crows.
I am hearing but I don’t much listen
cause I am starving too. Not for berries but for
something to do with how Mrs. Chapman’s shoulders
look while she’s standing there working
in her apron, and how her arms and hands move
while her fingers are making them little
floury flakes, and her telling me
“Now do this, Pearlie, do it just like this.”
We have a painting in our house which Mama tore from a Bible Story book. This was after Granny Chapman died and the name of the painting is The Dead in Christ Shall Rise First. It is a big green grassy graveyard and where the sun should be it is Jesus coming up. All the people are rising out of their graves in church clothes with their hair all brushed and they are reaching for Jesus with their arms unless they are a child they are reaching for their mama, or a old person they are reaching for the angels that helps them climb out of their graves. Now this is what it will really look like. But since you told us a painting can show how you want it to look or how it feels or how you could dream it, I would paint this as it was in the dream I had when Granny Chapman died.
On one side of my painting is one side of Stepp Mountain. It is spring and dogwood time. All the dogwoods is flowered, but if you look close you will see that some has only one flower up near the top. It is very dark and shadowy and close under the trees. Tug River is at the bottom of the mountain down the middle of my painting, it is green and ripply and wide. On the other side of the river it is not Jesus but only the ordinary sun and sky, and where there would be angels coming down, there is none, there is only lots of clotheslines full of wet white sheets and ladies in their aprons with clothespins in their mouth. The ladies maybe they are singing Victory in Jesus, but they are thinking about something else and smiling a little around the clothespins. Then you look back at the mountain and you see that them dogwoods with one flower is not trees at all, but men, they are the men of the ladies with the clothespins. They have come right up out of the mountain like the trees and the one white flower on their forehead is right where their lamp was set before they died and got left in the mountain, but they have not died anymore they are going home. They have to cross the river to get home and Granny Chapman is sitting by the river on the ladies side and she has a basket piled with big white sheets and when a man comes down the hill she shakes out one of them sheets over the river and she says “Come on now” and that is their bridge.
I would name my painting Granny Chapman’s Basket, and I would fold it up and put it in the Bible to look at and hear in my head Granny Chapman saying “Come on now, Edith Mae” whenever I am worried and don’t hardly know what to do.
I reckon I’m about to find out if it is true what Mama and Daddy has said, that they would never read in my little book for I am about to tell you, Dear Diary, something they would not like—I have made a secret friend down by the railroad tracks. It is secret because, first off, Mama don’t like me down by the tracks if I can help it. Second off, Daddy don’t hold with being friendly with no crows.
I was just walking home from school, thinking about what Jakey Webb was telling—how if you put a little piece of scrip on the railroad track and let the train run over it, it would make it all big and flat. First I was wishing I had a piece of scrip or a penny to try it with, then I started thinking how mad Daddy would be if he knew what them boys was being so wasteful and how happy Mama would be if I just happened to find a piece of scrip on my way home. So I was walking and looking ahead on down the track far as I could, and that’s when I seen something. Three little acorns sitting together on the track. When I got close and bent down to see about them, a big old crow started hollering at me from the big tree there across from Stokes’s house. He even flew at me and scared me so I almost didn’t hear the train coming, but he heard, and flew back up in the tree. The train cracked up the acorns and spit them off into the gravel alongside the track and when it was gone, that crow come down and had him a little acorn party—but all the time with one eye on me, like he was saying Them’s my acorns and don’t you forget it. So next day, before school I found some acorns and put them on the track and went back after school for the acorn party. Next day, too, and the next, till now Crowy—that’s his name, Crowy—don’t holler at me when he sees me coming and lets me set a little ways away while he has his acorns. Then he flies back up in the big tree and before he flies off he looks back over his shoulder, how they do, and he caws back at me. Every day he tells me something which is not in words, but I know what it means all the same. It’s about flying, and all you want to eat, and tomorrow.
How Crowy Crow Got His Black Black Feathers
A Just So Story by Edith Mae Chapman
Way back when, oh honey bunny sweetie darling pies, when the people and the animals still lived in the old old ways, the crows in West Virginia was not black. They was blue like the sky in summertime, and white like the snow in wintertime. And they didn’t go traipsing around the railroad track and roads because there wasn’t none. They stayed in their nest with their mama till their mama said to them, Go on now and try out your wings, but don’t go too far, don’t go anywhere I can’t see you.
But then, oh honey bunny sweetie darling pies, then there come roads and railroad tracks and tipples, and company stores and people all around and them baby crows started thinking Hmmm. One of them little crows was named Crowy. He liked to think things, his Granny said she could see by his eyes he was always thinking something. It was cold, cold winter and his white white feathers wasn’t doing such a good job keeping him warm. He thought, I see some smoke coming off the slag pile, I’ll just fly around up over that little fire and get warm and since I’m a crow and got wings, I won’t even have to set down and burn my feet. He thought, Mama won’t know, because oh honey bunny sweetie darling pies, mamas do not like slag piles. So he told all the little crows his plan and they told their friends and before too long all the little crows in West Virginia was flying around up over slag piles to keep warm. Their mamas didn’t know because like all mamas they were very busy and had many things to fuss about.
Then Crowy looked at the chimneys in the camp and he thought Hmmm. And he told all the little crows and they told their friends, Go sit around the chimneys of the houses in the coal camp instead and you won’t even have to get your wings all tired flying up and around. Well, honey bunny sweetie darling pies, everybody except crows knows that coal smoke won’t hardly wash clean and pretty soon all the little crows was black as tar from sitting there in the coal smoke keeping warm and fooling their mamas who were not fooled for long. All the mamas got all fussed up and some even cried seeing how dirty their little ones was and it too late to do a thing about it, but pretty soon they all got used to it. By the time that cold, cold winter was over, the mamas had took to the chimney tops too and all the crows in West Virginia was black because oh honey bunny sweetie darling pies, warm and black is ever so much better than white as shivery snow.
Diane Gilliam is the author of three collections of poetry: Kettle Bottom, One of Everything and Recipe for Blackberry Cake (chapbook). She is a graduate of Warren Wilson and is currently writing full-time as the most recent recipient of the Gift of Freedom from the A Room of Her Own Foundation.