Knowing the Terrain

Emily Jaeger
| Reviews


Believe What You Can by Marc Harshman (Vandalia Press, 2016).
Two Worlds Exist by Yehoshua November (Orison Books, 2016).
Arsonville by David Blair (Western Michigan University Press, 2016).

Embracing change in Appalachia. In his second full-length collection of poetry, Believe What You Can, Marc Harshman, poet laureate of West Virginia, witnesses the lives and landscape of contemporary Appalachia. The book opens with intimate sketches from the Appalachian community, ranging from humorous to tragic: John “reading his Bible, a joint / in one hand,” a girl learning to read, a farmer who “pulls the still calf / out of the blood-seared womb.” However, as the book unfolds, these sketches, combined with more lyrical pieces, lead toward Harshman’s personal reckoning with the proximity of death and the terrifying and revelatory element of change it signifies.

Harshman’s portraits of small-town life recall a long tradition of “local-color” writers such as Mark Twain, whose humorous renderings were aimed at curious outsiders. Modern regional authors, such as Appalachian writer Harry Caudill, continued this tradition with more serious political implications, bringing national attention to the impoverished conditions of the area in the 1960s. In “Coal Country,” Harshman explores both the environmental and psychological toll of coal mining on inhabitants of Appalachia:

The nightmares were salvific, our open hearts their kindling,
and the road ahead longer
than the histories to which we cling,
a hard road through these mountains
where lies have bred so long
even storytellers believe
the only magic still burning
lives in those wicked seams
next door to hell.

This text is certainly accessible to a wider literary audience; however, Harshman departs from many of his predecessors in that the primary audience for this lament seems to be the Appalachian community itself. Similarly, in “Learning to Read,” Harshman speaks directly to the subject of his poem, the student: “Take heart. This room was once yours, / and you were promised a key. It will be found.” At their best, these moments are a mirror for the Appalachian audience to hold up and reflect both upon its history and contemporary position.
One of the main tensions of the collection is the ever-looming presence of death. It is close at hand in the lives he records:

There would be storm and thunder, light-
ning, but there would be, as well, the familiar feel of her
body—call it love, this holding on to life within the dull
and predictable solemnities of death.

Harshman’s poetry also bears witness to death and disappearances both in the landscape and culture. While his poems are not nostalgic or romanticized, they are what Glenn Albrecht would call “solastalgic”: they grieve a vanishing landscape blighted by exploitation, economic stagnation, and mass migration. Harsh-man echoes the elegiac cadence of Ecclesiastes when he writes, “The barns are empty. / Even the nicker of the dead horse has vanished.”
Harshman’s preoccupation with death does not remain entirely elegiac. While there may be no escape, there is reinterpretation. Throughout the collection, he draws a connection between death and change. In “Carrion Chance,” Harshman writes of an old acquaintance,

Emily Jaeger is the author of the chapbook The Evolution of Parasites (Sibling Rivalry Press) illustrated by Robin Levine. Her poems have appeared in Four Way ReviewTriQuarterly, and The Offing among others. After completing her MFA at UMass Boston, Emily will be the 2017/2018 Olive B. O’Connor Fellow in Poetry at Colgate University. She has also received fellowships from Literary Lambda, TENT, the New York State Summer Writers Institute, and an Academy of American Poet’s Prize.

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