Burning Bright

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Burning Bright”: The Language and Storytelling of Appalachia and the Poetry and Prose of Ron Rash

By Sylvia Bailey Shurbutt

I dream them shaking dirt off strange new forms / Gathered for the last harvest.” “Good Friday, 1995, Driving Westward” from Among the Believers (2000)

The long ridge of adamantine that stretches from the foothills of Alabama to Nova Scotia and then under the sea to Scotland, Ireland, and Wales stands as a sentinel marking the Appalachians. The Scots, Irish, and Welch who settled the area were unique in the culture and traditions they brought to the mountains of North America—from the music they played to the language spoken and the stories they told—and while those traditions are sadly dying, there are still artists and storytellers whose words attempt to keep them alive: Ron Rash is one of these artists. If one could distill Rash’s rich and varied work—poetry, short stories, and novels—into a single common element, it would be his earnest desire to give voice to the people of the mountains in order to keep those traditions alive, at least in the pages of his works. Matthew Boyleston has written in his essay “Wild Boar in these Woods” about the connection between Rash and Irish poet Seamus Heaney, who like Rash understands “that one’s speech is a marker of one’s identity and that to truly capture a people in verse, one must trace the very words they use and their patterns of pronunciation” (17). Indeed, Rash’s books have given us an Appalachian voice that is what Boyleston calls “the bluegrass beyond the bagpipes—the bourbon born out of the peat and pot-stills” (17).

Ron Rash is fond of quoting Eudora Welty who said, “One place understood helps us understand all other places better” (“The Importance of Place” 1). Great regional literature can be universal literature, as Rash has written: “The best regional writers are like farmers drilling for water; if they bore deep and true enough into that particular place, beyond the surface of local color, they tap into the universal correspondences, what Jung called the collective unconscious.” Joyce once claimed, notes Rash, “that if Dublin were destroyed, it could be recreated by reading Ulysses” (“The Importance of Place” 1-2). As the mountains are leveled to supply our energy needs, as the trees are cut to make way for new housing developments, as the language of mountain people becomes homogenized, as their art and music are incorporated into main-stream culture, as their history is relegated to the classroom and the library, there are still writers like Rash to make the stories of the past continue to live for us . . . and to blend those stories with our present time in order to give them greater relevance. The Poetry Foundation webpage piece on Rash references Georgia Review writer Gilbert Allen, who commends Rash for giving us “memorable voices and a host of unforgettable images” that will keep the region alive long after we’ve dammed the rivers and locked our gated mountain communities (1). Along with this accomplishment, however, Rash’s eloquent prose and exquisite poetry also help us to make sense of our own complex world, whether we are from these green valleys or another place on the blue planet.

What are those themes and ideas that mark Rash’s work, as he attempts to give voice to the characters that people the pages of his poetry and story collections? His works tell us about redemption and judgment, about finding or reconciling with our fathers, about the connections between past and present and the importance of understanding ours and others’ histories in order to mitigate injustice, about our human tendency toward violence, including violence against the landscape and each other, a condition that always hovers beneath the surface of human action that makes possible a Rwanda or Nazi Germany, and most important about the complexity of good and evil and that awful and fearful symmetry that is likely at the heart of the Universe. All of these ideas emanate from and yet transcend the region of the country that Rash writes about—Madison, Watauga, and Buncombe Counties in western North Carolina and Oconee County, South Carolina. These places are immensely important in making Rash the writer that he is. Rash has used the words of Sherwood Anderson to explain the prominence of place in his work—when Anderson told Faulkner: “All you’ve got is this little postage stamp of land in north Mississippi. . . . if you write about that well enough and true enough, you’ll never exhaust it” (Neufeld 8). For example, Rash told Rob Neufeld in a 2006 interview that growing up Southern Baptist has helped to shape him as a writer: “I’m a Southern Baptist. I’ve been immersed,” he says. “Growing up Southern Baptist, and being brought up in that world, that contradiction that you get living in a fallen world, yet at the same time, people striving for redemption, certainly that’s marked me” (4). Going to church twice each Sunday and most Wednesdays, going to revivals, “becoming familiar with the Bible has had a big influence in my work—interestingly enough, more the Old Testament than the New” (5). Consequently, Rash’s stories and poems are filled with biblical allusions, names, and references. However, his work is likewise influenced by Celtic spirituality and lore, coming from his Welsh heritage. These two sources for Rash’s spirituality are unique to Appalachia, where deep religious faith, often fundamentalism, and the folklore of Scot-Irish traditions rest comfortably together. Rash remembers as a child “going to decoration day, where you would go out to the cemetery and clean up the graveyard . . . and being told about your relatives, the ones that were in their graves, . . . stories about them” (7). He writes in “Decoration Day” in Among the Believers about those extraordinary kinfolk who are brought back to life as relatives clean and trace their graves—long dead folk who see again, through our eyes, the dogwoods, ash trees, and oaks, swift flowing creeks, narrow skies, peaks and coves in memory mapped so deep not even heaven could wish them from looking back. (lines 7-12) All their stories have planted themselves firmly in his imagination to unfold as narrative poems, short stories, and the novels that have brought Ron Rash to national and international prominence today.

Rash’s awards include the General Electric Young Writers Award (1987), The Sherwood Anderson Prize (1996), the Appalachian Book of the Year and Novello Literary Award for One Foot in Eden (2002), the Southern Book Critics Circle Award, the Southeastern Booksellers Fiction Book of the Year, and the Weatherford Award for Best Novel for Saints at the River (2004), the O. Henry Prize for “Speckled Trout” (2005) which would be expanded into his third novel The World Made Straight, a PEN/Faulkner finalist for Serena (2009), the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Prize for “Burning Bright” (2010), the SIBA Book Award for the Burning Bright collection (2011), and the West Virginia Humanities Council and Shepherd University Foundation 2011 Appalachian Heritage Writer’s Award. These honors have come neither suddenly nor serendipitously, as Rash, like fellow Appalachian writers Fred Chappell and Robert Morgan, has been a studied, carefully evolving poet and fiction writer.

Ron Rash was born in Chester, South Carolina in 1953, where his parents, James Hubert and Sue Holder Rash, as well as his grandparents, James Moody and Mary Lee Miller Rash, lived while working at the Eureka Textile Mill. Both Rash’s mother and father went to school while working at the mill—his mother eventually becoming a public school teacher and his father, who began his studies by getting his GED, eventually receiving his Master’s degree at Gardner-Webb University, where he taught art and where his son would later go to school as well. Rash’s first published volume of poetry, Eureka Mill (1998) records what life was like in the first half of the Twentieth Century for his family and those like them who left their farms in the mountains for the vastly different world of mill life. Though the epigram that opens the book makes clear the darker side of working at the mill, Rash typically portrays the workers’ lives without sentiment or social agenda. While the mill offered his grandparents steady paychecks and freedom from “the hardscrabble farm / where a workday as long bought no guarantee / of money come fall,” certainly here “was no place for illumination / the cotton dust thick window-strained light. / . . . my grandfather thinking This is my life” (lines 1-12, 1-2, 6). Farmers like James Moody Rash gave up meager lives eked from the small tobacco and subsistence farms of the mountains to become part of the “out-migration” from Appalachia, in this case western North Carolina, where the Rash family had lived since the mid-1700s. The speaker in Rash’s poem “Tobacco” says that when “the fence laws passed and taxes rose / We needed money crops to keep our farms” (lines 9-10). So the lure of mill life, with the promise of a house and a regular paycheck, was strong—as “Hand-bill Distributed in Buncomb County, North Carolina: 1915” makes clear—and many an Appalachian farmer “left crop rows for rows of steel” (“In a Dry Time” line 19). However, the mill village never lived up to the advertisement on the hand-bill, as the speaker of the dramatic monologue “Mill Village” laments: Everytime your neighbors had a fight, then made up in bed as couples do, came home drunk, played the radio, you knew, whether or not you wanted to.

So I bought a dimestore picture, a country scene, built a frame and nailed it on the wall, no people in it, just a lot of land, stretching out behind an empty barn. (lines 5-12)

Indeed, when spring planting season came, men like Rash’s grandfather “would get more careless on the job / and have that far-away look in their eyes. / You’d know they were behind a mule and plow” (“Spring Fever” lines 2-4). While there was brown lung disease (“Brown Lung”) and the traditional friction between the union’s attempting to establish a foothold at the mill and the “strikebreakers,” even occasional violence (“The Ballad of Ella Mae Wiggnis”)—more often than not worker frustration was sublimated, as in “Fighting Gamecocks,” or even mischievously benign, as in “Breaking the Whistle,” where Eureka workers disengaged the whistle blowing them to work, necessitating “supervisors going door to door” (line 26). The “heroes” who broke the whistle were called “linthead Robin Hoods, / who stole time from the rich to give the poor” (31-32). Yet the mill owner, Colonel Springs, notes that “when the union leaders came / and promised everything they could, then more, / my workers stuck with me” and “Eureka ran / when other mills shut down” (lines 12-16)—a true detail that Rash’s grandmother recalled and her grandson remembered (Asfoxseesit Interview 3). Rash’s portrayal of the mill-time in South Carolina is rich, multi-sided and multi-voiced, and captures what he calls the “mystery” of good writing. He explains in a 2010 interview: “We always want things to be black and white. But it is the role of the artist to deepen the mystery, to explore the lack of certainties in character no matter the station, high or low” (Asfoxseesit 4).

Rash’s grandparents were extraordinary influences on him as a young child, both when growing up in Chester and later when his parents had moved back to North Carolina. His grandfather Rash was illiterate, yet he had an unusual gift for language and storytelling. Rash credits his grandfather with making him want to be a storyteller. In “The Importance of Place,” Rash recalls a summer evening as a child when he asked his grandfather, still dressed in his mill clothes and smoking a Camel, to read his Cat in the Hat book. He “did not offer any excuse,” Rash remembers, “not even the most obvious one. Instead, he laid the open book on the table before us, peering over my shoulder as he turned the pages with his work-and-nicotine stained fingers.” In lieu of the catchy poetic phrases of the text, his grandfather settled into a narrative that sounded familiar and did more to capture the boy’s attention and imagination than the Seuss text. “The effectiveness of my grandfather’s performance was verified by my begging him to read The Cat and the Hat again the following Sunday. His story was different this time, the cat got into more trouble, and out of it less easily. It was as if the words on the page had scrambled around and rearranged themselves” (1). Thereafter, whenever he had the opportunity, young Rash asked his grandfather to “read” his Appalachian version of the tale, infinitely more interesting and always different. “How could I not grow up believing words were magical?” Rash writes. “How could I not want to be a writer?” (1) Even when Ron went to school and learned the joy of reading for himself, he longed for another version of Dick and Jane: “In my version Dick and Jane said ‘you all,’ and ‘pecan,’ and’ yes’m.’ They ate fried okra, grits, red-eye gravy and cat-head biscuits and drank sweetened ice tea and ‘co-colas.’ I changed Jane’s name to Sarah Jane, and (since my father would not allow me to have one) gave Dick a Marlin .22 rifle” (1). His version of those iconic school books of the 1950’s were set in the “place” that Rash knew best and that he loved.

Rash tells of two other circumstances of growing up that helped shape him as a writer. When he was about four or five years old, his family noticed that he had a speech impediment; this resulted in his spending more time listening than talking. The listening made him cognizant of language and the power of words. This quiet, pensive child seldom spoke but was acutely alive to language. Rash remembers: “I think that was a real advantage to me because it made me pay attention to the way language was used, and maybe that wouldn’t have happened otherwise” (Neufeld 9). Thus it is not surprising that the “voice” provided for his characters is so central to his writing. The other central issue in his work is the “prominence of place.” When Ron Rash was eight years old, his father and mother left Chester, SC, and the mill to return to North Carolina, where they lived in Boiling Springs, near Shelby. There Rash’s father finished his degree at Gardner Webb and began teaching, at the same university where his son would graduate with an English degree fifteen years later. Rash says of these years, “I grew up in the foothills [Boiling Springs], but I actually spent so much of my time at my grandmother’s [Ethel Mae Holder’s] farm, . . . in the mountains” near Boone (Neufeld 7). Rash recalls that his maternal grandmother at this time was a widow, and while all her children had grown up and moved away, older relatives and her own contemporaries would congregate at her home to visit and share their lives and stories with her. Rash recalls this time in his life: “. . . this is a cliché, but it’s true, I grew up listening to people tell stories on the front porch” (qtd. in Baldwin). His grandmother’s 20-acre farm bordered the Smoky Mountain Parkway, so there were miles to wander and explore when he visited. Rash says, “I can remember being twelve and waking up, eating a big breakfast. My grandmother would fix me a sandwich to take with me—I’d put it in my fishing vest—and a coke or something. I would leave eight o’clock in the morning and come back about six and, essentially, I wouldn’t see another human being” (Neufeld 8). At the farm, there was no television, no car or truck; he was often with older relatives, who, he recalls, “were all great story tellers. I grew up hearing an Appalachian dialect that you don’t often hear today” (Zacharias 3). Rash was in a world where he could think, fish, explore, and wander wherever he wished. “It was,” he says, “a wonderful experience because I got to know the landscape so well” (Neufeld 7). Once he remembers finding a lone grave in the middle of the forest, no signs of a homestead or connection to anyone, just a lonely grave. This kind of solitude and the potential to conjure a story or to hear family legends were like grist in the mill of young Ron Rash’s imagination, and today such experiences are clearly important in having shaped him as a writer. Learning to appreciate and listen to the natural world and to language itself are apparent in Rash’s work in the extraordinary way he utilizes language in his poetry and prose. Rash says: “That is one thing I really try to work hard at . . . to make the language as vivid, striking, and resonant as possible—so that people would read the descriptions of a natural world and say, ‘Well, yeah, I’ve seen that. He got that right’” (Neufeld 11).

Rash’s father died when Ron was still a young man, and the void in his life was filled by uncles and cousins, most of whom he would see at his grandmother’s farm near Boone. The male members of his family initiated him into hunting and other woods sports, though he confessed that fishing was his favorite outdoor activity. After graduation from Gardner Webb, Rash taught in a small rural Oconee Country high school “in the Southern Carolina mountains, near where One Foot in Eden is set” (Birnbaum 9). Rash also taught in the South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts. At Clemson University, he worked on his Masters degree in English, eschewing the traditional MFA degree to study English literature. For seventeen years Rash taught at the Tri-County Technical College, with teaching stints at schools such as Clemson and Queens College. Particularly beneficial, he says, was his teaching at the technical college. “A lot of my students,” he says, “were lower middle class, middle class first generation [college students]” (Birnbaum 9). He taught every type of student—from welders to nurses—and he taught everything from freshman composition to British literature surveys, from Beowulf to Seamus Heaney. Such models were perhaps far more beneficial than learning to write in that rarified environment provided in MFA programs. Along the way he married, and he and his wife Ann, who live in Clemson, South Carolina, have two children Caroline and James. When Karen Zacharias asked Rash if he ever worried about living the writer’s life and becoming “too self-absorbed” as writers often are, he replied: “That’s why we have families and children. . . . They won’t allow us to do that, at least too much” (2). Today, Rash divides his time between his home in Clemson and his work at Western Carolina University in Cullowee, North Carolina, serving as John A. and Dorothy Luxton Parris Distinguished Professor of Appalachian Cultural Studies. “I spend half the week at Clemson,” he told Robert Birnbaum, “and half the week in North Carolina” (9).

Despite the heavy teaching load of past years and his responsibilities today at Western Carolina, Rash continues to manage a regular routine of writing, even when he is on book tours after the publication of a new novel, fiction collection, or poetry volume. Taking time to write each day is important for a writer, as he has told interviewer Pam Kingsbury: “I worry about the danger of getting away from writing. I travel with a laptop and try to work two to three hours every morning because I don’t want to get out of the rhythm of writing” (2). Asked how he balances work, family, and a steady stream of publication, Rash responds modestly that one must “read as much as possible and read widely.” Also, he talks about the importance of perseverance in honing the writing craft. “Too many good writers,” he says, “give up too quickly. Perseverance is underrated in Creative Writing. For most of us, who are not Shakespeare or Keats, it takes work” (Kingsbury 3). Asked what writers he teaches today and who his mentors are, Rash is quick to say: “Lee Smith and Robert Morgan have been supportive and their work important to me. They are both exceptional writers and exceptional human beings” (Kingsbury 3). In his work as an Appalachian Studies director at Western Carolina, Rash teaches both Smith and Morgan, as well as Fred Chappell, Silas House, Pam Duncan, James Still, Harriet Arnow, and Jeff Daniel Marion. Other writers who have influenced him, whom he admires, or whose work is apparent in his writing are Seamus Heaney, Geoffrey Hill, and Derek Walcott, and one can also see in his work echoes of Gerard Manley Hopkins, Dylan Thomas, Robert Frost, Robert Browning, Flannery O’Connor, Faulkner, and Joyce; however, perhaps the strongest influence, particularly on his poetry, comes from Celtic and Anglo Saxon verse.

My older kin always believed / in looking backward to explain / the here and now . . . And so I learned to see the world.” –“Signs” from Among the Believers (2000)

One of the more perceptive essays on Rash’s work, “’Incredible Eloquence’: How Ron Rash’s Novels Keep the Celtic Literary Tradition Alive,” by Kara Baldwin, explores the Celtic influence on his fiction. Baldwin talks about Rash’s work as a “modern example of how far the Celtic literary tradition has spread,” using specifically the work of Seamus Heaney and Patrick Kavanaugh as examples of authors exerting an influence on Rash. “Both Heaney and Kavanaugh represent,” according to Baldwin, “what Rash calls an ‘incredible eloquence’: a beauty of the language they choose to use to describe elements of place and its sacredness” (37). Baldwin notes that the “landscape” and “mythology” associated with such eloquence “play a major role in both the oral and literary Celtic traditions” as well as those traditions of Rash’s “southern Appalachia” (37). She details the historic connection between 19th-century Ulster Irish, Welsh, and Scottish immigrants and their Appalachian cousins, who carried with them into the mountains of Appalachia their folk tales (the “Jack” tales, for example), their songs and ballads, even their clachans, or kindred farms that would dot the coves in family clusters in the highlands of southern Appalachia (37-39). Likewise, Anthony Hecht, whose essay “A Gift Matched” introduces Rash’s 2000 poetry volume Among the Believers, has commented specifically on the Celtic influence on Rash’s verse. Hecht writes: “His family has lived in the southern Appalachian mountains since the mid-1700’s, and a knowledge and feel for this region, its folklore, faiths, superstitions, loyalties and culture, is an abiding presence in his poems” (xiii). While Hecht, as well as Rash himself, notes the source for Rash’s poetics, a medieval Welsh manuscript dated from 1060 to 1200, which draws on a collection of eleven prose stories called The Mabinogion, he goes on to praise the “rich density of language and dignity of utterance” that are unveiled in Rash’s dramatic monologues and exquisite seven-syllable lines (xv). Certainly, anyone familiar with the poetry of Welch poet Dylan Thomas or the “sprung rhythm” of Gerard Manley Hopkins will recognize the unique metrical form and rich imagery that Rash employs in his poetry. While Rash’s poetry, like Robert Morgan’s, relies teleologically on this use of imagery, with its Hopkinesque potential for “instress” and “inscape” (which connect the world of things to the spiritual world), Rash employs to an even greater extent than Morgan many of the sound and music devices of Hopkins’ “sprung rhythm,” which derives its dynamic musical invention from Hopkins’ study of medieval English verse before the French introduction of end rhyme to Middle English poetics. Rash’s poetry is characterized by its clever internal rhymes, alliteration, assonance and consonance, and deliberate use of enjambment and caesura. Both the striking images and rich music of Rash’s poetry provide the reader’s pleasure, with the focus being on the poetic line itself, usually a 7-syllable line with a fairly regular use of accents on either side of a caesura or rest, either specifically delineated or suggested in the line. The effect is similar to, though not precisely the same as, the Welch Cynghanedd, a poetic form that employs a fundamental sound arrangement within each line, using stressed syllables, alliteration and internal rhyme. The Poet’s Graves Workshops explain the four forms of Cynghanedd as follows: 1) Cynghanedd groes and 2) Cynghanedd draws (cross harmonies) with the consonants around the stressed syllable repeated after the caesura—“Of the

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