The Magical Reality of the Appalachians

by John Alspaugh Issue: Spring 2018

Review of Clinch River by Susan Hankla (Groundhog Poetry Press, 2017), 92 pgs., $14.00.

Susan Hankla's debut collection of poems, Clinch River, published by Groundhog Poetry Press, portrays decisive moments and strong images from the lives (and deaths) of an Appalachian cast of characters. Glenda, a girl raised on a thrift store budget, dwells in ten of these fifty-eight poems. Glenda is both the narrator’s schoolmate as well as her alter ego, first appearing in "Chopping Wood Before School" when she “splits shoe leather” for Junior, whose boots are too small, and then finally in “My Ghost,” the last poem in the collection, in which Junior appears to Glenda when she is grown as a specter in the skim of ice on a pond.

Two of my favorite poems in which we encounter Glenda are "The Boy in the Red Shirt" and "Blue Horse”.

Blue Horse

Opening the pack of blue-lined paper,
Why a blue horse? wonders Glenda.

The eyes of who I love. Yes.
This pen contains peacock blue.

Then suddenly a blue horse
gallops through the school,
wearing her mother's clothesline,
her papa chasing after it,
her stepmother running after him
fast as she can
"Stop him,
Goddamn it."

Depicted in this volume many others dwell along the real and imagined Clinch: coal miners, Vietnam war veterans, a boy who cooks chicken on the classroom’s red hot radiator, two drowning victims, the librarian who censors all curse words from the town’s donated collection by cutting them away (making pages in certain books hard to read), as well as a woman who must can cemetery dirt, driven by an inner compulsion. Through these poems that are puzzled together and sutured into the patchwork quilt of Clinch River, Hankla invites the reader to marvel and sometimes laugh with these characters—and to feel what they feel.

Many images are repeated throughout and echo through the hills and over the green river, creating an arresting refrain. Bleeding teabags, headless sunflowers, and blue horses to name a few. Building on this, Hankla brings back many of the characters in multiple poems to voice or demonstrate a depth of character that would be impossible to achieve had they not returned to say or reveal some new secret or some added incident that makes their lives enchanted, embued with magical realism – such as the woman in "Dear Husband," who leaves town for the first time in her life just to write her husband a long-overdue letter. Hankla invents these people and places to celebrate her own life, holding her characters up – especially the main character, Glenda – as a mirror to having been raised beside the Clinch.

Hankla's poems can seem to be almost glossolalic in nature, like something uttered in sleep, capturing the dreams of those that fill her head. In "Giving the Ghost" a soldier asks “Where are the blue horses, the ones not bearing / the notes I never wrote you?”, addressing Glenda, who even in a dream can glue his wrecked psyche together again. In "Painter of Snow Scenes," Hankla bears witness to the angst and desires of a girl in first blush:

I was going to the dance, but it was cancelled.
I spent three hours preparing
and I would have submitted –
I'd shaved my legs for that –
should it happen, finally.

Two stanzas follow in which the speaker's lament turns to imagining what might've been had she spent time alone with her date in the car in the snow. The poem concludes:

Pitch now. Lamps lit.
The year disappears.
When it was still orange and crimson,
and the fir tree held that burning sun,
and its laden branches lifted white loads to heaven,

I thought I was going to wear stockings and dance,
and that my legs would be smooth as glass.

With her keen observations of weather, place, and unique details that give life to these various inhabitants of her Clinch River, Hankla evokes an elevated sense of mystery, beginning with the first poem "The Sweater," which sets up the theme of being driven to examine where one has lived in the form of a raveling sweater that snags on a thorn tree as the protagonist tries to take flight away from this landscape, but ultimately fails to leave. And this is fortunate for us.

In Clinch River, the 58 narrative poems, woven together expertly, succinctly, create what feels like a novel. Fluid, like the river, each line seems to be divined as if Hankla had doused for the just-right word.

Q & A with Susan Hankla

How did you come up with the title CLINCH RIVER?

I am hooked on that old word “clinch”. To clinch something is more than to embrace it. Not like a clenched fist. Clinch is much friendlier, but nobody nowadays would ever say, “I clinch you”. Also, sometimes people end up in the clinch (of things).

But the Clinch River is a real river in the Appalachian Mountains, isn't it?

Yes. I grew up by the Clinch River. I was also thinking that Spoon River and my book, Clinch River, bear a kinship, because of the elegiac tone I often employ. An eloping couple drown in the river. So does a pet alligator, drowned by a boy who has a deep fear of drowning when later he is baptized in the Clinch.

And that's what you are depicting here, right?

I’m depicting my inner landscape with poems shaped from a river of memories of having grown up in Appalachia. A friend emailed me about the book, and said, “Reading your book before bedtime…it’s so familiar, so old. I can smell and taste the words.”  My images are recreations of sensory experience. And poems, like dreams are synesthetic.

So what was the inspiration behind these poems as a collection?

At first it was memories of living in Appalachia in the fifties and early sixties. A few years ago, I was sitting in a van with the motor running, while a friend ducked into Dollar General to buy trinkets for an art project, and I began to have sharp and arresting memories from being a child in those mountains. One of which was of what happened on Saturdays. I’d hear a knock at the door, which I answered. And a woman standing there in the doorway was asking for children’s clothes and toys. She was wearing a blanket for a coat, and she asked for nothing for herself. Focused only on the needs of her babies, she displayed absolutely no self-pity. I was inspired by her strength. Her selflessness reminded me of women in my immediate family, my mother and her sisters, how they never put themselves first.

Do you mean that poverty somehow typifies the world you're writing about?

Yes and no. It’s tricky. I think poverty can be truth that you leave out, because it is painful, so you push away from it, the poorer for it. It took me a long time to learn how to write Clinch River. First, I tried writing it as a novel, but that didn’t work for me. But the desire to evoke the experience of having lived in Appalachia never left me—it was going to haunt me until I did something about it.

What other artistic influences have helped to form your vision?

I met the Reverend Howard Finster, Man of Visions, and then began writing and publishing articles and essays about him and his unschooled art,and our friendship brought me back to Appalachia once more. My Sermons in Paint is still in print. At first I loved Finster’s folk art, because he wrote on his paintings, even putting the exact time the painting was completed. But then the familiar sound of his voice and the wording of what he had to say took me home. But home can be what lives on in your psyche, so not as much a literal place you could visit. I would not recognize the place I’m referencing in my book if I tried to drive there.

What do you mean -- you wouldn't recognize it today?

No GPS would be able to track it. In poetry you can enter into another identity, standing close, breathing the same air. My book is a deep dream in which I am all the characters in it and even the fiddle when it whines. I am the tufts of clouds above the thorn trees and the land where boulders push through and where sheep graze on the hillsides. I am the smell of snow that is fixing to fall. I am the loser. I am the lover. I am the girl who lives in town and the girl who grows up on a hill.

Strong women abound in my family. And women in the book, especially in the persona poems, such as the one whose heroine is coping with her husband’s post-traumatic stress disorder, “Grass Widow” represent that. Or in “Dear Husband,” a woman who has never before left the region, one day up and does it, just so she can write her husband the one letter he can receive in their very long marriage, so that he will finally see in print her appreciation of him.

You have a number of characters that I'm taken by, especially Glenda. Can you tell more about her?

Glenda is the girl who has a BB in one eye, and she is the only character in Clinch River who ages, because I wanted her to stick around and in some way be the book’s memory. In my childhood she was a scrappy little girl in my second-grade class that I knew. At that time, I suffered a trauma, or a revelation, when my pharmacist father told me to take a sack of medicine to school to give to that girl for her family. The stapled shut white RX bag in hand, I looked into her eyes, as I handed it to her and saw that a black BB was lodged in her right eye, in the cornea. Her unsmiling face as she took the bag made me look down. Until that moment, I never felt the chasm of haves and have nots that had been there all the time, nor did I understand just how much I would need her in the writing of Clinch River, when she becomes the main character in the book that I name Glenda. Glenda endures many slights. She is a tall, lanky girl who always sits in the last row in class, inhabited by those with low self-esteem. She takes care of people, such as her mother, who is abandoned by Glenda’s father, and who becomes mentally ill. Glenda also takes care of the boy, Junior, who is eventually a veteran of war, and then, finally, in “My Ghost”, he is a phantasm Glenda sees when she is grown.

Is there one poem that you would like to shout about right now, maybe something that I overlooked in my review?

The poem that comes to mind is “Society for the Completion of the Road,” which actually gives everybody present at an important meeting the opportunity to settle some hash. In it, Little Miss Sunbeam, a kind of dirty Goldilocks, has been invited down from her billboard in the town and is included in a tribunal gathering after school, “While we settle this business of the Sticks”… The poem is about a great change that participants in the meeting know is coming, where that old world view is ending, and a new one is about to begin.



John Alspaugh

John Alspaugh has supported his writing by working as a carpenter, a bartender, a painter, a screenwriter, a model, a lifeguard, a bookstore clerk, and a janitor. His first book of poetry, Everything Dark is a Doorway (Palimpsest Press, 1981) was nominated for a Jerusalem Prize, and he was recipient of the National Society of Arts & Letters Award for Poetry chosen by the late John Ciardi. John's writing has appeared in the anthology American Fiction and in various literary journals including The Virginia Quarterly Review, Raw, Richmond Quarterly, Feedback, New Letters, and others. Although he has a B.A. degree in English, John considers that his real education began when he hitchhiked to Boston from Richmond, Virginia at the age of 17 to be reunited with his first love. Thus began his travels – backpacking & hitchhiking over 30,000 miles. He currently lives in Los Angeles.

Susan Hankla lives in Richmond, VA. Clinch River is her debut collection of poems, published by Groundhog Poetry Press, LLC; the collection was on the Small Press Distribution bestseller's list for July and August, 2017. Burning Deck Press published her chapbook, I Am Running Home. Other poems and short stories have appeared most recently in Cold Mountain Review’s: Issue on Extinction, and in Journal of American Poetry, Volume 4. Recipient of a Virginia Commission on the Arts Grant for Fiction, and of a fellowship to attend the Frost Place, she has enjoyed being a fellow many times at Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. A graduate of Hollins University, she has an MFA in creative writing from Brown University.