by Heather Mays
I can smell coal dust and freshly sawn pine boards, hear bacon sizzling and the laughter of children. I'm not in a coal camp; I'm reading Lenoir City author Connie Jordan Green's newest collection of poetry, Slow Children Playing ($14, Finishing Line Press), and if I were speaking instead of writing, my accent would be laced a with Southern lilt. The poems absolutely cannot be read without a Tennessee twang and a little Appalachian pride.
The collection's title is from Green's poem of the same name. The lack of punctuation is no mistake: the title is meant to read, Slow Children . Green's mother's joke at the common road sign, about â“the pity of all those slow children,â” was once the recipient of rolled eyes. Now, the joke is a sign of her mother's humor, of her quiet disregard for decorum, and Green's own adoption of that attitude.
The collection is subtly and cleverly disrespectful. Frequent references to religion are turned on their heads. In â“Mother's Songs,â” Green and her sisters are baptized with popular songs, music poured/ over our heads like holy oil . In â“Mother Goes to Heaven,â” Green's mother displays contempt for the virtues of heaven, preferring instead the mountain attitudes instilled in her. In heaven, she is not forgiving, but is instead sure to berate those who died early, those who took a too-easy exit .
All of this slight scorn is strangely normal for any Appalachian reader. In â“What I Learned From My Mother,â” Green shares no traditional moral breaktshroughs, but instead the importance of song, of providing for family, of not wearing hearts on sleeves. To Green, mountain virtues seem to have more importance than conventional moral standards, standards that seem to dictate eternal self-sacrifice. Green's aberrant virtues emphasize individuality and self-love as equal to love of others.
The joy and sorrow that partner with love are also important themes. â“Many of these poems are about my parents and my sisters, about my growing-up years. Near the end of the book, the poems move into the present with references to writing and to my grandchildren and to the richness of all that surrounds me. Someone once said that all poems are love poems, and I think that's true,â” Green explains.
A deep exploration of the tipsy scales of pain and pleasure, the collection centers on Green's childhood in mining towns in Kentucky and Tennessee. (Green presently resides in Lenoir City.) Do away with any mental presuppositions about the coal mining towns that once littered Appalachia. Green's poems are not bleak or dreary, but neither are they perky or cheery. Each poem strikes a balance between the ferocity of nature and the tenderness of the human spirit. The rhythms of everyday lifeâ"cooking, cleaning, children playingâ"are there, but underneath it all is the undercurrent of tragedy. In each poem, the sense of overwhelming sadness is just beyond the veil of words, never overtly stated but never fully hidden.
â“Giving Back,â” a tribute to Green's mother written after hearing Stanley Plumly's â“Say Summer/For My Mother,â” explores, at its simplest, the guilt of a child never able to repay a parent. Like a darker version of Billy Collins's â“The Lanyard,â” the poem asks what a child can give to a parent who has given her all. Even a life lived again cannot be enough: give you/ every breath, every close of an eyelid... give you love, never enough/ never too little .
Perhaps Green does feel guilt that her life can be spent in more luxury than her mother's or grandmother's. She can write poetry while her mother and grandmother worked to provide for children and grandchildren, suffering to carve a life out of the limestone of the mountains. But the cadence of her mother's footsteps and the repetition of her grandmother's canned fruit on shelves find their fulfillment in the rhythm of Green's poetry.
Through the memories of strong women like her mother and grandmother, Green discovers the power of a life lived well, a life lived as an Appalachian woman. In â“Worship,â” Green attends church at her kitchen sink, her scrubbing a prayer like the prayers of all those women/ who have gone before . But she is not, nor is any other woman, enslaved to this church and to a life of submission. Tomorrow brings another folded apron and more steps beyond kitchen walls . Tomorrow, we will see hands pressed together/ rising, rising .
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