blackbirdonline journalFall 2012 Vol. 11 No. 2
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Review | The Always Broken Plates of Mountains, by Rose McLarney
                Four Way Books, 2012

spacer The Always Broken Plates of Mountains

Whether we feel rooted or rootless, writing that digs into the dirt, revealing the nuance and texture of place, seizes the imagination. Rose McLarney’s remarkable poems spring from a consciousness of kinship, from a deep awareness of generations that have long lived and labored in Appalachia. In this debut populated with farmers, neighbors, lovers, animals, and machinery, we encounter the plainspoken voice of a storyteller who both observes and participates in rural ways of life. We are seeing Appalachia from the edge, through distilled and deftly hewn images that speak both to affection for the region and an underlying discontent with its limitations. These quiet and direct poems explore the tension between tradition and change, between loyalty and the desire to wander. The book creates a world that feels timeless and tactile, where we understand lives in the context of practical, hands-on work, and where stories attempt to capture the tough essence of what threatens to be lost.

The opening poem, “Gather,” introduces McLarney’s eye for detail and gift for concise image and tightly controlled line. The poem, like many in the book, begins objectively, with a series of declarations and straightforward observations:

Some springs, apples bloom too soon.
The trees have grown here for a hundred years, and are still quick
to trust that the frost has finished. Some springs,
pink petals turn black. Those summers, the orchards are empty
and quiet. No reason for the bees to come.

Other summers, red apples beat hearty in the trees, golden apples
glow in sheer skin. Their weight breaks branches,
the ground rolls with apples, and you fall in fruit.

Turning from description to the unspecified you jolts the reader into the scene. The narrator’s direct address feels surprising and inclusive, and the quick shift in perspective draws us to consider the psychological weight of the poem’s final couplet that follows:

You could say, I have been foolish. You could say, I have been fooled.
You could say, Some years, there are apples.

These three plausible responses to the orchard’s yield introduce the various and complicated mind-sets of the people we are soon to meet within the pages of the book. Some characters respond to their circumstances with self-indictment. Some feel duped or dismissed, while other characters consider their conditions and reply with matter-of-fact practicality.

Stylistically spare, McLarney’s poems explore how the effect of time and so-called progress alters professions and landscapes. In “At a Mountain State Fair” we encounter a herdsman forced to confront the reality that he ascribes to a fading way of life. Not only do the few people who attend the fair prefer exciting rides to animals, but when the herdsman “calls / to his [own] collies” even they “are deaf to him.” In “Salvage” a man builds a table from trees left to rot “after they clear-cut his family land / to put in the interstate”; yet, despite the road’s trespass and intrusion, “he says nothing against change.” The poems exact restraint, keeping emotion under the surface and effectively creating a deep and wide sense of loss made all the more poignant by what is held back.

Among the strongest poems in the collection are those that highlight human shortcomings and pulse with a tragic sort of beauty. In “Appetite,” buffalo fall victim to the naïveté of a newcomer who attempts to raise the animals in an unsuitable setting. He purchases hay and allows them to “eat as much as they will.” As a result of this excess, we find the “bulls / suffocated under the bales. / Such bodies, buried / by blades of grass.” The image smacks of irony; only through human ignorance and interference could “blades of grass” kill such powerful beasts. Similarly, “Flock” exposes the unfortunate outcome of a man’s “big plans.” A farmer buys a thousand chickens that end up crushing each other, trying to “get out of a draft.” He “throws running birds back / against a tide of beaks and clawed feet” but ends up “knee-high / in bodies . . . each time the wind blows.” We hear a twinge of sadness in the speaker’s voice as she identifies both with the man’s misfortune and with the creatures’ plight; “every bird in the flock / feels the same desperation.” Yet, she speculates:

Still, if I went down and found him,
the sight might seem beautiful:
white feathers falling from the air
and covering a man.

Here, as in so many of the book’s poems, McLarney suspends her readers in the lyric moment. She intrigues us by observation and metaphor, where the quotidian is unexpectedly transformed. Skillfully embedded with figurative language, McLarney’s work rewards close reading.

While several poems in the collection speak to the trials of domestication, those written in first person strike a notable chord. Through the voice of the I we discover a woman who pushes against the ideas of love, loyalty, and convention. Hers is a restless spirit. She keeps tame sows, but revels in “smash[ing] the ice / on the trough” with a “pick ax,” which makes her “feel wild.” She’s self-sufficient, but still can wish for “a man / who hears when I say, Let me alone, / and lifts me over fences and creeks / anyway.” She may seek to wander, even hope to name dogs “Thither and Yon,” yet remain rooted in place. As the book progresses, the I seems less satisfied with staying put. In “Desire,” the speaker happens upon a hunter in the woods, a location and exchange charged with potential danger. She leaves unharmed, but is haunted thereafter by a dream of running with hounds:

the dogs narrow
in the nose and shoulders, grow

into wolves. I go wild too,
and disappear into the trees.

I become why
dogs howl at the forest’s edge,

and you wake at night,
and you say, It’s nothing.

This transformative fantasy brings to mind Actaeon, the hunter who turns into a stag and whose hounds tear him apart. In this case, the speaker’s metamorphosis highlights her desire for power and illuminates her want of escape, even as it affirms that leaving cannot free her from the influence of heritage and place. The wolf may “disappear” and exist on the fringe as a threat, but its stealthy presence remains integral to the life within the landscape.

Intense and unsentimental, these carefully wrought poems show both sophistication and economy. They empathize with generations who have staked their lives on the land and looked bravely in the face of loss. Reading The Always Broken Plates of Mountains conjures the image of calloused hands embodying the kind of toughness required to weather situational and emotional change, while under the surface “there is a tenderness that persists.” These powerful poems create a quiet and resonant immediacy; McLarney’s work sings with clarity and truth.  end

Rose McLarney is the author of one collection of poetry, The Always Broken Plates of Mountains (Four Way Books, 2012). She teaches writing at Warren Wilson College.

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