Mountain Redemption. Nick McRae. Black Laurence Press. Pittsburgh, PA. 2013.
"Miracles can't save us from our fears - " says Nick McRae in the poem 'Pessimists Guide to Miracles'. But perhaps poetry can help us understand the relationships that govern our congress.
McRae just sounds so true.
These poems read like sermons dispatched from some higher plain, yet McRae is never speaking down to his readers. That's some fine juggling.
That's some fine poetry.
When Ottis Wilkins lost his arm,
he burned his tiny sawmill down
then sold his long-dead in-laws' farm
and moved his family into town.
He opened a barber shop
and hired his sons to sweep and mop
the place each day and brew coffee
for the men who came to see
the one-armed barber. Inch by inch,
the fresh-barbed rose up from the seat
like sinners from the mourners' bench.
Petunia Eckert's heart was broken
down and blown out like a tire.
The skinny girl she loved had taken
all Petunia's pluck and fire
and moved to Blue Ridge. Petie took
to church and, Sundays, wailed and shook
and made the preacher smile. That summer
Pete got work as a part-time plumber.
In basements she would flail her wrench
and watch rats, terror-maddened, clamber
like sinners to the mourner's bench.
Old Jackie Raburn didn't hold
with killing. Even the mice and snakes
that shimmied nightly over the cold
stones of Jackie's floors caught breaks
no other man would care to give them.
He had a shotgun, though, one trimmed
with etched brass plates. Some days he'd haul
the thing outside and discharge all
his shells at the ground and blast a trench
in it, then wait for silence to fall
like sinners to the mourner's bench.
Whenever Sheriff Biggers drank,
and that was often, he revved his Chevy's
engine up, sped past the bank
and dingy Main Street shops with a heavy
foot and siren wailing just
to see the townsfolk gawk as the rust-
and dirt-stained cruiser barreled by.
Once, he had to shoot a guy
to death. He watched the man's jaw clench,
his dead eyes lifted to the sky
like sinner's from the mourner's bench.
Preacher Greene, a handsome man,
a widower of just a year,
made all the married women fan
themselves and smile from ear to ear
when he preached of David's lustful pride
or the spear that pierced the Savior's side.
At home, the phone set off the hook,
he's open to his favorite book--
Song of Songs--then feel the pinch
of chaste Paul's thorn as his fingers shook
like sinners on the mourner's bench.
And mountain people--hard as limestone,
rich as black silt, deep as clay--
dreamed each night of valley towns
where valley cornstalks stood up tall
like sinners from the mourner's bench.
McRae's mountain landscapes and people would almost seem to be carved out of another time and sensibility. McRae's great gift, one of many, is that he bridges the gap between rural mountain understanding and those of us in the valleys with fierce candor.
These narrative poems echo.
Five men smoke outside the convenience store
that doesn't exactly have a name. Over the door
hangs a sign: COLD BEER CHEAP GAS.
The men smell of hay and cow and hot skin.
Two perch on a tailgate, their boots
barely scraping the gravel.
One wears a damp red hat and he lifts it
to wipe sweat from his balding skull with a rag.
The one in the white t-shirt swears
and says, hell hath no fury like a woman's scorn,
that's what the Bible says, and the one
beside him disagrees, reckons it's not even in the Bible.
The hell it ain't, the other says, because he knows
it's a good one and all the good ones
come from the Bible. The sun pours out wet heat
like a steam engine and the ground
radiates and the hood of the truck shines dully,
reflecting in the eyes of a hound
whose tongue lolls and who hogs
the only bit of shadow cast by an old turnkey
Coke machine. The older one get to explaining
how that ain't necessarily so when high above
in the hot sky a jet breaks the sound barrier
with a jarring crack and the five men and the dog
crane their necks upward to figure out
where exactly it's flying to. I bet that sumbitch
is headed to Warner Robbins, one of them says.
Naw that's north it's headed, says another,
I betcha it's headed to Chattanooga,
and the shirtless one with the stubbled jowl
who has until now been silent
figures it's about damn time they talked about
something else besides women.
There is much dramatic tension in Nick McRae's Mountain Redemption. It is a dark and cold world that does not favor the weak. This narrative is about hard people in hard situations having to make hard choices. But there is also a sense of hope. McRae shows a sense of optimism as he hammers out Christian myths on the unrelenting anvil of the mountains.
Orpheus in Huntsville, Alabama
My mama, godly as she was,
never forgave my daddy for quitting
the church. For politics. She couldn't.
She'd always wanted to marry a preacher,
and married one, but then he ran
for mayor and won. The king of Huntsville.
Years later, when her mind was gone,
she told me how he'd lay her down,
his fingers circling her bellybutton,
breathe the scripture into her neck--
Thy navel is like a round goblet
which wanteth not liquor--and take her
with biblical authority.
She said that, once he'd shed the cloth
his touch no longer felt the same.
How could it? He forsook the Spirit.
Now both of them are long buried.
But daddy taught me the fiddle, and mama
sang her hymns so sweet they shimmied
out her throat and into mine.
Nick McRae illuminates the world these poems exist in from within with a language both borrowed from and steeped in the past - he does this in a thoroughly modern way. Seamlessly.
There is no evidence of a white collar around McRae's neck but make no mistake, this Biblical diction comes from a broader sermon. McRae gives body and depth to all his assertions by providing unanswered questions to ponder.
What is basic goodness? Community?
Mountain Redemption is a surging voice, a choir, attempting to illuminate a vanishing space and time. These are noble poems.
ABOUT THE AUTHORNick McRae is the author of Mountain Redemption, winner of the Fall 2011 Black River Chapbook Competition, as well the De Novo Prize-winning full-length The Name Museum (C&R Press, 2013). He is the editor of the anthology Gathered: Contemporary Quaker Poets (Sundress Publications, 2013). His poems, reviews, and translations appear in Cincinnati Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Linebreak, The Southern Review, Third Coast, and elsewhere. He serves as associate editor for 32 Poems, poetry coordinator for the annual Best of the Net anthology, and is a member of the Sewanee Writers’ Conference staff. Born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and raised in the Northwest Georgia foothills, Nick earned an M.F.A. in creative writing at The Ohio State University and is currently a Robert B. Toulouse Doctoral Fellow in English at the University of North Texas.
"In Nick McRae's splendid Mountain Redemption, the contradictions of family and faith are hard to hold in balance. They are the fulcrum of a teeter totter that tips back and forth between passion and violence. But as he meditates on growing up in Georgia and the complexities of the faith he was born into, the poet himself is balanced, thoughtful, judicious--and loving. As he struggles to sustain that love, McRae sometimes borrows the cadences--large, passionate, and elegiac--of the prophets he knows so well: "Where, O Lord, is the home I only almost had--/mythic, bloody as a psalm in the mouths/of old and dying men who will take it/ with them wholly when they go?"
Andrew Hudgins, author of American Rendering: New and Selected Poems
"These rich and strange but familiar and American poems remind us that the roots of the American language are in Jacobean English, the English codified in the King James Authorized Version of the Bible--a text often quoted in this book. In every mark of dialect, in every turn of a country phrase, we still hear a language that Shakespeare and Jonson would have recognized. But the experience--what would they have made of that? It is familiar to us, it is authentic, and this latest rendering reminds us that our language originally redeemed the heart and soul of English. Nick McRae's book prods us with the memory of that redemption. It is one to treasure.",
Mark Jarman, author of Bone Fires: New and Selected Poems
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