Saturday, May 24, 2014

"OUT OF PEEL TREE" by Laura Long: A Review

From the outside, the Appalachians look quaint or deprived or trapped or something else sociological and graphable.  But to themselves they must be like the stories in "Out of Peel Tree", just going along in their lives -- in and out of old houses, friendships, love affairs, jobs, prison, college, and -- wait now!  Here’s an assassin!  Are there assassins in West Virginia?  (Aren’t there assassins everywhere?)  

This is story shading into poems, acutely intricate, some short glimpses, some a little longer, until a town forms from the relationships and a meaning forms from the knitted metaphors.  There’s a kitten unraveling an afghan but it might be Penelope’s shroud or it might be Indra’s net.  No one will force you to see more than you want to.  It’s just that things go along through time and sometimes they’re a big surprise -- like the old lady who traps an intruder who tries to rob her.  Sometimes the story has a sharp niggling hook, like that assassin -- who can’t quite forget a twitch in the corner of his victim’s mouth, like an insect trying to get out.  Or maybe the last humanity of a person trying to be a blank.

If you’ve seen the documentary “Following Sean” you’ll remember how people sort of wandered along, searching for their thalwag on their way to the sea.  And that was in San Francisco, which is not like the Appalachians at ALL.  Isn’t that right?  The smoking, the fantasies, the little projects like gardens or knitting.  Events go along, developing inevitability like roots seeking water, or reaching towards something indescribable like branches spreading towards sunlight.  First thing you know you’ve got a tree.  Another metaphor.

There are a lot of blurbs in the front of this book -- after all, it’s a slender book and you’ll want to make sure you get your money’s worth.  Not to worry.  But Sara Pritchard nails it when she says that for her the recurrent word was “tenderness.”  I see that the blurbs are mostly by other writers, which is a phenomenon we’re all used to, but I begin to see something behind it besides sharing and sympathy, etc.  When a person is reaching into the deep aquifers of memory and distilling it for writing, there’s a kind of trance that forms, a dome over a virtual world, a sensibility the reader can enter and that becomes realer than real.  You could say “immersive,” but in this case it’s not just suspense or the slam of extremes that pulls you in.  Nor is it as banal as having tea on a shaded porch with a nice new friend.  It’s more like feeling a pulse: warm, intimate, and steady.

People pass in and out of houses, grad school programs, marriages, childhood, jobs, prison and affairs.  They discover so many surprises and you’d think some of them would change everything, but not so much after all.  The material culture is what we know: grandma’s teapot, a kitchen linoleum pattern, bedding.  Some people will get a sheet of paper and map out the relationships, make a time-line, but I’m learning not to do that -- just to let the stories unfold like a flower blooming so as to pay attention to the scent.  Not that it’s all pretty and nice, neatened up, tied with a bow.

How does a person learn to write like this?  Laura Long sent me a chapbook of poems along with the stories.  “The Eye of Caroline Herschel: a Life in Poems” is based on a real person, a female astronomer who discovered comets and planets. One of the “rules” about writing is supposed to be that one must “show -- not tell.”  What Herschel “did” was mostly sit in the cold dark and peer through a telescope at the galaxies far far away.  But Long knows how to inhabit such a woman, so what we realize is that there is a sociological web of rules trying to prevent her from doing this quiet, private thing, but that she manages to slip through them in various ways, and the small blips of light have huge implications, even for the mad King George III who takes a kind of hallucinatory sci-fi approach with his entourage of near-alien females.

Here’s a poem for Herschel’s nephew, whom -- like the telescope -- she borrowed from her brother.


Rocking you, I invent new words
to old lullabies while five in the morning
turns to six.  Any minute now the world

will pause, pushed to a brink by your eyes,
where every face becomes a field
of possibilities, a guiltless geometry.

A thrush sings the day into light
as a thrush sang a thousand years ago.
The day rubs the dark off its hands.

Rocking a baby and singing is a “showing” more than a telling, but what is pushing a world to the brink by your eyes?  A thrush sings, but does the day have hands, much less rub dark off them?  Of course.  Long inhabits several worlds at once and gives us access.

This poetic ability is what she brings to the narrative in “Out of Peel Tree.”  The book begins with a dream about a returning lover (there are several in these stories) who brings a burlap sack:  a sack of winds?  Pandora’s box made fabric?  “The trace of longing that remains after hope disappears.”  The lover in the dream says, “I don’t want you here.”  I had to read that six times to make sure I read it right.

Here’s the whole plot of the sum of the short stories:  “She was crazy for a man who could repair broken-down objects.  She had grown up in the middle of West Virginia with close to nothing after her dad died, when she was eight.  She had a sweet kid brother, but she grew up with a soused, screwball mom whose second marriage brought twin sisters that she, Corina, took care of.”

Each chapter notes which character is the center of that particular story just then, but at the end of the book Corina is still taking care, this time returning from the funeral of her grandmother Essie, one of the best episodes.  As a writer myself, I always pay a lot of attention to the last paragraph of a book.  Here’s this one:

“Now a midnight wind cry-pries through a crack in the window and snarls my hair.  A ghost-memory of Essie brushes my cheek.  I want to drink coffee with Ruben in the morning and feel the spinning edge of being awake when I’m exhausted, the deep crash of kissing him when I feel cut through by a strange road.  I burn through the dark over an earth my grandma’s shell lies beneath.  My blood sings me forward, caught between the quick spin of a continent, slow burst of a star.”

This is the new religion of ordinary folks: neither pie nor Big Guy in the sky, but only the stars.  What makes it qualify as salvation, redemption, forgiveness of sins, is participation.  They were there together.  They were paying attention.  They are woven into it along Indra’s net, each a pearl, each a dewdrop.

Be awful keerful whut u dream.


Rebecca Clayton said...

Thanks for your review--I wasn't aware of this author. She sounds like someone who's avoided the "Our Southern Highlanders" mythology, without turning to the meth-cooking, oxycontin-snorting poverty genre either. I look forward to reading her.

Anne Felty said...

This is what happens when a poet writes a book. Lyrical.

Rebecca Clayton said...

If Blogger will let me send you a couple of links:

A review by a West Virginian poet:

The reviewer is an interesting writer, and her website is:

Mary Strachan Scriver said...

Crystal sounds uncomfortably like all the low-quantum Native American women who used to insist that everything had to be their way. But every writer has to accept reviews, whatever their agenda.

Prairie Mary

Rebecca Clayton said...

That's interesting. Ever since I discovered your blog, I've been struck by the parallels between your location and mine. Crystal's Appalachian identity is very different from Laura Long's--different social class, different "race"--but they're both from Appalachia "proper." Add in the people who think they're from Appalachia, but actually hail from an Ozark or Cumberland location, and they will all "insist that everything has to be their way."