Hillbilly Madonna, Sara Moore Wagner’s first of two full-length collections debuting this year (Wagner won the 2021 Cider Press Review Editor’s Prize for Swan Wife), uses achingly beautiful words to paint the landscapes of our traumas. Wagner describes childhoods full of “neon orange fingernail polish / and candy cigarettes,” adolescence spent concocting ghost stories and hanging out near train trestles, adult years struggling to come to terms with grief and isolation, the kind where “You’ll know / what the world looks like, how / sometimes nothing is watching you / slip away.” Yet amid all of the bleakness and heartache, she shows us there is hope on the other side. Wagner’s hope is hard-won though, anchored more in tough-girl Appalachian grit than forgiveness or healing, but it cradles a future nonetheless.
Wagner expertly uses several threads to move through the speaker’s life stages in Hillbilly Madonna, weaving them together as one’s experiences weave together a life. Femininity, particularly how it’s embodied, is one of several strong themes that tie this collection together. Through examining girlhood blossoming into womanhood and then motherhood, Wagner illustrates both the internal growing pains that women endure as well as the external pressures of the patriarchy and women’s expected performance for the male gaze. In a refreshing and empathetic way, Wagner then knots these issues to another theme: heroin.
Heroin use, and substance abuse more broadly, which many of us in Appalachia know all too well in one way or another, take on new significance under Wagner’s pen. Rather than viewing substance abuse as a single-noded problem, when taken simultaneously with issues of patriarchy and femininity, the reader is able to see how substance abuse is utilized to counter the many traumas that coincide with being feminine in a patriarchal society. It’s a salve that is turned to when one is tired of being “vessels carrying in the next / dawn, and the next” or when the roles we must play force us to “shave / the holler from our limbs like scraping / paint off an old truck.” Wagner’s portrayal of her sister and others like her who make similar choices to cope with societal pressures offers a unique and understanding outlook, a much-needed antivenom to the demonizing opinions we so often see in the comment sections of our local newspaper’s Facebook page.
Wagner’s work give[s] every reader a powerful female figure to lean on, whether she’s a hard-as-nails grandma who cuts into “the most bruised tomatoes,” Persephone enjoying her pomegranate seeds, or the speaker herself, who refuses to continue intergenerational traumas and becomes her own heroine.
Jessica Cory teaches at Western Carolina University and is a PhD candidate specializing in Native American, African American, and environmental literature at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro. She is the editor of Mountains Piled upon Mountains: Appalachian Nature Writing in the Anthropocene (WVU Press, 2019) and the co-editor (with Laura Wright) of Appalachian Ecocriticism and the Paradox of Place (UGA Press, forthcoming 2023). Her creative and scholarly writings have been published in the North Carolina Literary Review, North Dakota Quarterly, Northern Appalachia Review, and other fine publications. Originally from southeastern Ohio, she currently lives in Sylva, North Carolina.