Book Review

poems by Kari Gunter-Seymour
Sheila-Na-Gig Editions, 2020


Appalachia is often used as the scapegoat for America’s political and cultural ills, and many journalists have come searching for ways to place blame upon its inhabitants. This poetry collection by 2020 Ohio Poet of the Year, Kari Gunter-Seymour, strikes back at the narrative of problematic Appalachian people and a region in peril. Even the book’s title makes clear that Appalachia is a part of America, not some “other” to be ostracized, and that the true Appalachia is a place that “can’t be seen,” as it’s far deeper than any journalists’ eyes have pried. The author also calls southeastern Ohio home, an area not frequently realized as Appalachia, even by Appalachian folks, giving yet another layer of meaning to the title.

The collection is divided into two parts; the first section speaks to histories, and the second section exists more in the present life of the speaker. The backstory provided by the first sixteen poems helps to place the reader in the speaker’s life, allowing a deeper appreciation for the latter half of the book. Throughout this incredible collection, the Appalachia that “can’t be seen” is revealed in details of the landscape that a photographer’s camera might miss, in the relationships between family and friends, and in the connections made between the speaker’s home in Appalachia and the world at large. 

The collection’s first poem is a near-echo of the title. In “I Come From A Place So Deep Inside America It Can’t Be Seen,” the speaker makes the reader privy to the “real Appalachia,” a place where magic happens, where “A moth presses wings / thin as paper against my window, / more beautiful than I could ever be,” where “Everything alive aches for more.” The details of the Appalachian landscape however, don’t just stop at the external. The reader is also given a glimpse into the speaker’s own internal landscape, a space in which “my cousins / called me ugly, enough to make it last.” This juxtaposition of external and internal ecologies spread like kudzu throughout the pages of Gunter-Seymour’s work. 

Much like the Appalachian landscape aches beneath mining and fracking and commercial farming, readers are shown a speaker who aches along with it, burdened with the loss of passed-down “mountains ways,” “piles of feathers and angel bones,” and “all the things our grandmothers buried.” This pain, however, also radiates outward, forging the previously mentioned connections with family and friends. In “Because The Need To See Your Daughter Overcame All Sense Of Reason,” the speaker depicts this incredibly difficult situation involving her son:

You fresh out of the VA hospital,
your story untold so long it re-booted
old terrors—brittle photos
of mortar fire and keening mothers.
Me the tightrope mother who rides
her unicycle along the edges
of our sunny avenue, parade waving
to the crowds, trying to blink
the red out of swollen eyes, the overbite
of my jaw scraping my lower lip. 

So often, military service is admired without critique of its potential to do long-lasting damage, even if members survive their service. Gunter-Seymour pulls no punches and provides an unabashed look at what the horrors of war can do to a mother, her child, and the larger community.

This motherly pain also weeps from the pages of “Trigger Warning,” which begins, “November is the month my son dreads. / Too many dead in November, he says” and ends, “Guilt comes the same way, / unreeling from our darkest places, / the awful wait for the agonal breath.” These poems that examine the relationship between the speaker and her son go far beyond the typical family-based poem and explore the role that the military plays in American and, particularly, Appalachian life. So often, military service is admired without critique of its potential to do long-lasting damage, even if members survive their service. Gunter-Seymour pulls no punches and provides an unabashed look at what the horrors of war can do to a mother, her child, and the larger community. 

Beyond the poems examining the speaker’s relationship with her son, readers are also gifted insight into the speaker’s relationship with her own parents. Poems such as “When You Meet My Mama,” “Ruby May,” and “Heartland Hospice” allow readers to make a sort of comparison between the parenting modeled for our speaker and the parenting and grandparenting our speaker engages in with her child and grandchildren. We also see some humorous concessions. For example, “Ruby May” begins, “My mama hates children and dogs” and yet the collection begins with an image of the author, her mother, and Kippie, the family dog. 

Because so many of the pronouns are clear in Gunter-Seymour’s work, often referring to particular family members, when the “you” is less evident in the poem, the effect is a bit jarring. In “I Knew Bad News Had Come,” the subject seems consistent, yet vague, and we never really know what is meant by “your daughter” or when Gunter-Seymour writes, “I looked for you in the sky.” In the poem immediately following, “To The Bone,” the language is beautiful and furthers the Appalachian landscape imagery mentioned earlier with its “glacial brine, trees flexing / and knotting their bodies.” The penultimate line though, “but tonight I remember how you loved” leaves the reader wanting to know more about this person who loved the speaker “to the bone.” These two poems, however, are the only two in the entire collection that include vague pronouns, so they really don’t detract from the collection, even if they briefly remove the reader from the poem. 

A Place So Deep Inside America It Can’t Be Seen does what journalists and J.D. Vance failed to do: it provides an intimate look at a landscape and family from within Appalachia while recognizing that one story does not the region make. That said, the connections Kari Gunter-Seymour creates throughout her book weave the Appalachian and American together, providing a rare glimpse of what unity might look like. 

Jessica Cory is a lecturer in the English Department at Western Carolina University and a PhD student in English at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. She is the editor of Mountains Piled upon Mountains: Appalachian Nature Writing in the Anthropocene (WVU Press, 2019). Her scholarly and creative work has appeared in North Carolina Literary Review, A Poetry Congeries, …ellipsis, and other fine journals. Originally from Appalachian Ohio, she now lives in the southern Appalachians, calling the mountains of western North Carolina home.

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