It touches a nerve for me and nearly had me in tears by the end of the 7 minutes. Like Elaine McMillion, I feel complicit in the exodus of young people from my home state and therefore complicit in West Virginia's mire. I left for college in 1999 and have only been back once or twice each year since to see family. I've lived in North Carolina, Wisconsin, Michigan and Vermont, yet West Virginia still feels most like home.
But I (and thousands of others) may never return there, for lack of opportunity. Why fight an uphill battle when life in Vermont affords me a similarly spectacular mountain landscape, a forward-minded community, and a satisfying job that simply doesn't exist there? Still, West Virginia tugs at my heart and heels, like a friend in need. Or family. I can't just turn my back on it. And in truth I'm deeply thankful my family is still rooted there, so I have plenty of cause to return.
It's a place to break your heart and in countless ways: its magnificent waves of blue mountains, the thickets of laurels and rhododendrons, the senseless self destruction of the coal industry and regressive politics. Beauty and destruction abound in this complicated place. And being not-there has been definitive for me.
Though I may not ever live there again, I often turn to poetry, much as McMillion (who lives in Boston but grew up in the coal country of southern WV) turns to documentary film and photography, in order to remain rooted to this place that will always be home. By the end of the summer, I'm aiming to have completed the manuscript for my first full-length collection (tentatively dubbed North Fork, South Branch) which centers on the complexity of Appalachia.
Here's an early poem, first published in Green Mountains Review:
In the Frame of Innings, Pendleton County, W.Va.
Remember it shin-deep, that coppery, sulphuric hue:
the North Fork of the South Branch –
the way it caught the summer glow
and threw it back to us tarnished?
We cruised those towns along the shallow ribbon:
Petersburg, Moorefield. Wampler farms. August heat.
The summer’s sweet promise grown over-ripe,
scudding away downstream where eagles once nested
in the high-eaved banks. Bruised stink of poultry on the air.
Our fathers’ work shirts crumpled on the bedroom floors
in a sweaty heap; twenty years old and nowhere to go.
Just get ahold of what you can and swing like hell, Dad said. D’ya hear me?
We were young men, old boys grown too old from work,
the Guard, the low empty skies of our homes.
Sundays we gathered at the ballpark by the swale,
at the edge of hairy cornfields, where crows swarmed
and the river’s dog-legged riffles kept the beers cold.
Filling into our bodies roughly, abundantly,
we were ready to put order to the green frenzy, our randy lives
with ball and bat, the smack of knuckles on leather palms,
the hey-nana-nana of pop and fling, gulping
our fleeting youth in the frame of innings.
Around there it all floats down the Potomac, on to Washington,
someplace else. The jobs, the college-bound, the new corridor
they had to run so many off to lay—a gash
in the ridgeline marks the route—
Eminent domain, the government called it.
Farm lines redrawn. Mountains thrust aside and scarred.
Big chugging trucks headed out of state. Loss arriving
in rehearsal for departure, hauling out the pieces.
So when someone like Travis Harper
could manage to rear back and uncoil
from some sweet sovereignty of motion
a slider that swept in from the knees
and bit the heart out of the plate, you bet
I dropped my shoulder, held my stare
and followed through with all I had.
It left me slack-jawed, glazed, then smiling.
What else to do but tip my hat
and marvel at that little bit of mastery?
—a moment of perfection amid
the sloppy, high-scoring hours of those days.
Afterwards, swerving down dirt roads,
throwing dust into the gleaming night,
we pressed the pedal home and since we could,
took one last swig of the high life before retiring.