A high school poetry teacher recently described to me how difficult it had become to obtain enough copies of Tennessee Landscape With Blighted Pine (2011) to create a classroom library set for his students. Such scarcity suggested to both of us that those who own a copy rarely let it go. Jesse Graves is the Poet in Residence at East Tennessee State University and has published four full length collections including two Weatherford Award-winning volumes, and a collection of essays entitled Said Songs. His newly reprinted first book, Tennessee Landscape with Blighted Pine, 10th Anniversary Expanded Edition, functions as an opening bell and firmly established his voice among the most prominent place poets in contemporary American literature. This expanded 10th Anniversary printing does well to recognize the role his work has played in giving voice to rural Tennessee valley people while simultaneously shaping the next generation of poetic discourse. The book describes Graves’ “own private Ithaca” as he states in the newly included poem “An Exile,” and many of these poems reveal Sharps Chapel, Tennessee as the centermost place of his familial history and personal imagination, the magnetic pole upon which the author’s globe rotates.
Readers familiar with Jesse Graves’ work will find many of his more anthologized poems included, such as “Eulogy for a Hay Rake,” “Digging the Pond,” and the longer title poem “Tennessee Landscape with Blighted Pine.” In “The Road into the Lake,” Graves reminds his readers of the long and enduring cost of the TVA lakes, the damming of entire valleys and the removal of their communities including his own family’s farm. He describes fishing for bluegill in the reservoir that covered their old homeplace, writing:
My line never went far enough, but it was
the casting that mattered, the being small there
with my father and my uncles, standing as near
as we could to land we would never inherit.
Similar to the author’s Homeric Appalachian travel epic Specter Mountain (cowritten with William Wright), poems like “Facing West from Cumberland Gap” remind the reader of the region’s wilderness history prior to European settlement. He writes “[t]he land existed outside all / money and accounts, no ledger / except time’s steady deduction. // The Motherland of the forest / calls some of us still.” Here and throughout the book, Graves argues for greater awareness of the cost of poor land ethics on his hometown and any number of places across the South. Such pieces come sprinkled between examinations of family photographs like “Field Portrait,” the retelling of a wily uncle’s tall tales in the new poem “Some of His Stories Were True,” and descriptions of refinishing a ‘69 Camaro in “Detroit Muscle” before taking the car on a roaring afternoon tear. Placed beside one another, these poems offer a reader the sense of living among old memories while still remaining firmly planted in contemporary Appalachia.
“Does it not bother you,” she asked, “how our viewon the quiet meadow, where the deer maketheir beddings, and where foxes come down fromhigh dens to drink, will be blocked by a fence?”
Jesse Graves, Tennessee Landscape with Blighted Pine
“Does it not bother you,” she asked, “how our viewon the quiet meadow, where the deer maketheir beddings, and where foxes come down fromhigh dens to drink, will be blocked by a fence?” (9-12).
Micah Daniel McCrotty lives near Piedmont, Tennessee with his wife Katherine. His poetry has previously appeared in The Midwest Quarterly, Louisiana Literature, Storm Cellar, Sycamore Review, The Hopper, and The James Dickey Review among others.