Book Review

Seth Grindstaff on
poetry by Bill King
Mercer University Press, 2023


I remember reading Dylan Thomas’ famous poem “Do not go gentle into that good night” and my teacher asking whether we would rather our loved ones “go gentle” or “rage, rage.” The question has stuck with me, and I could not help but be reminded of it as I read Bill King’s poetry.

Bloodroot is Bill King’s first full collection, published posthumously.* 

It is a book of place, set among the Blue Ridge and Appalachian Mountains—a narrative of experiences within Appalachia. King’s speaker wanders about his beloved wooded patches, vegetable gardens, and stripped mined mountains like a ghost, praising and protesting nature’s life cycles, questioning where he fits into them. King reminds us in his poem “Even the Wild Iris” that “there is a price / for flight,” whether the “price” be growing up, mountaintop removal, or even our own transience.

Much of King’s collection revolves around the speaker’s awareness of his mortality. In the poem “This World Should Be Enough” the title itself hints that a single life is indeed not enough, especially one shortened by illness. Within the poem the speaker has one of his many out-of-body experiences, even switching from first to third person: “I rise / above a man with everything to lose: / he’s looking downriver at a thin thread / lit like a slow-burning fuse.” The nature loving “grown boy” at the beginning of the book remembers his childhood, then protests the destruction of his beloved outdoor sanctuary, and finally confronts life’s final question: what happens next? 

The standout poem from Bloodroot is King’s multi-genre piece “How to Destroy a Mountain.” King skillfully juxtaposes an educational lesson plan titled “Cookie Monster’s Delight: Grades 3-5” with “a collection of oral history interviews about mountaintop removal…in Appalachia.” These two pieces, the lesson plan and the interview, act as two voices in conversation. 

This work is no gimmick. “How to Destroy a Mountain” deserves to be anthologized widely as it presents readers a clear picture of mining’s effects on communities. King takes risks with this three page poem,
and they pay off. 

The interviewee speaks of facing stereotypes and fighting over land disputes, but most of all describes how mining changes the land: “everywhere / you looked there was life. Now you put me on the same / ground where I walked…No life, just dust.” The heart of the poem involves having children “mine” a cookie for chocolate chips, again, combined with the interviewee’s replies (in italics): 

“Give each student a toothpick to mine their deposits. / Hear that quiet? / Have them just mine
ONE cookie first. /
You know they’re about to set off a shot / when they shut down the machines. /
Make a pile of chocolate chips and one pile of the cookie crumbs. /
I used to look up at the mountains. / Count coal deposits and record… / But now I look down on them.”

Multi-genre or “found” poems can often feel like a gimmick. This work is no gimmick. “How to Destroy a Mountain” deserves to be anthologized widely as it presents readers a clear picture of mining’s effects on communities. King takes risks with this three page poem, and they pay off.  

King’s poem “In the Waiting Room” weaves together two main mysteries from his book: the mystery of a human body coming to its end and nature’s Emersonian draw. As the speaker makes small talk with his nurse, he acknowledges that he is thinking “things you do not share: / how, at this hour, my garden is bathed in late May light and the song / sparrow trills.” The sharing of untold things are not dark secrets. Instead, they are light-filled memories of nature transcending into the speaker’s current health concern. In the midst of the hospital visit, awaiting the results: “I close my eyes in time to see the bird fly over the lawn into the maple / where he takes it up again, an / aubade so insistent mind and body / disarray.” King uses flight imagery to portray a sense of what makes life worth living, as the speaker looks at life outside the present moment through a bird’s eye view—contemplating past, present, and questioning the hereafter.  

Bill King does not avoid asking the big questions, especially in poems like “A Song for the Doe-Thief” as King writes “One could do worse, I think, than map the world / with nose and eye and tongue.” The book’s speaker desires to indeed map the physical world, but I would suggest his goal is to map the invisible from the visible. In poems like “The Pond,” the religious structures of the speaker’s childhood are slowly mixed with and replaced by the mystery found in nature. What King finds in nature is a mirror, nearly inseparable, from humanity. In this way, nature is as much a constant character throughout the book as the speaker. It is the speaker’s consistent, childlike curiosity that allows him to become transfixed at a pond’s surface reflecting the sky, in wonder about “everything / that was between here and there.” “Here” being the physical world, “there” being the spiritual or metaphysical. Readers are forced to ask themselves if we are set apart from the animal kingdom, merely a part of it, or a mix of both. 

Bill King’s speaker faces a question that is common for so many in our Appalachian region: What do people who have deconstructed their childhood faith do with the religious imagery that shaped them, with the narratives that still float in their heads? In poems like “Songbirds, Midwinter,” “Before Words,” and “Carp” the speaker’s experience with a familiar religion is clear, as he references “there’s a time to be silent and a time to speak” or “dear lord, for these and all our blessings.” Even the collection’s epigraph is from a translation of the book of Jeremiah, which mentions the mountains “wavering.” Reading the epigraph in context with the whole work, places the vision less as a prophecy and more as a foreshadowing of King’s dream state—the liminal space from which many of these poems stem: “wavering” lines between childhood and adulthood, between nature and humanity, and between faith and doubt. 

*Editor’s Note: Just a few weeks before the release of his poetry collection, Bloodroot, Bill King died after a long illness on July 15, 2023. He was a good friend and contributor to Still: The Journal.

Seth Grindstaff
teaches in Northeast Tennessee where he lives with his sun-loving wife and four children. His work has appeared in journals such as Appalachian Places, The Baltimore Review, Blue Earth Review, and James Dickey Review 

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