Refuting the Stereotypes of Hillbilly Elegy With Poetry: A Review of Ryan Walsh’s Reckonings

 

American’s national crisis hinges in part on how hard it is to accept this time of change. We want progress without pain, transformation without torpedoes, and turnover without stuff we like getting turned over. The resistance brakes support for turning the page, blinds us to what’s ahead, and makes us vulnerable to fantastic promises, and offerings of utopia.

America chooses capitalism, engine of creativity, consumption, construction—and destruction. When the latter gets creative in our backyard, we act shocked. But, as diner denizen Bill Wnek points out in Moundsville, the whole point is to shut down the hometown factory “if you can get it cheaper somewhere else.” Our journey making Moundsville has led us on a close study of this fact. Few places have been rocked by creative destruction and global trade harder than West Virginia. The state wants badly to flip the script.

I was thrilled this past weekend to discover Reckonings, an elegant, subtle book of poetry by Ryan Walsh, just published by Baobab Press. The collection of 38 poems, divided into four parts, tackles Walsh’s West Virginian childhood, meditations on Appalachia, and hopes for the future. (You can buy the book here.) At a packed launch at White Whale bookstore in Pittsburgh, Walsh read, preceded by acclaimed West Virginia novelist Ann Pancake. An exciting evening of homegrown Appalachian literary buzz.

The 37-year-old Walsh grew up in Elkins, WV and near the zinc plant in Spelter, WV where his grandfather worked for 28 years. After living in Michigan and Vermont, he landed in Pittsburgh as a fundraiser and communications director for Grow Pittsburgh, a non-profit that fosters gardening in the city.

In a phone interview, Walsh says he hopes for West Virginia to remake its economy in a more sustainable way. “Industry is what people know, so it’s easier to wish that back than to do the hard work of creating something new,” he says.

His book of poems traces an arc from factory days and a childhood among the trees, free of phones and screens, to a new century of hopeful environmental activism, technological makeovers, and reckoning with America’s changing place in the world.

GHOST FACTORY

It is imprinted on me, the factory on the hill

(no more factory, no more hill).

 

Grand and silent as a church.

Rusted hulk like a breathing scab

 

I couldn’t help but touch.

Those powder hills and slag heaps

 

We raced bikes over raising dust.

DuPont dismantled the smelter brick

 

by brick then brought down the shell.

Cadmium, arsenic, lead. Shadow

 

plant rooting down like a black star

black-holing the whole town.

 

All night the ghost factory is awake

making new ghosts.

 

Somewhere someone else

will do this for even less.

 

Now wind rakes the reclaimed site

each grass blade blazing

 

and a family pulls from the creek

fish no one should eat

Walsh says he got interested in chronicling his childhood in industrial Appalachia in part after chemical company DuPont, which had owned the zinc plant, paid a cash settlement and offered medical monitoring to people who had lived near the plant, where his grandfather had worked.

His focus is on honoring the humanity of people in forgotten places. “A book like Hillbilly Elegy gets so much attention because it reinforces stereotypes,” he says. “There are colorful people living everywhere in all cultures, and the poverty as entertainment thing is tiring. Typically, West Virginia makes it in the news because something horrible happens or something seems wild enough to document.”

That, concludes Walsh, “is a different kind of extraction.”

Reckonings also addresses the challenge posed by new technologies, a world of:

Fox cries and filaments

Wi-fi and wet dreams.

 

And what did you want–

confirmation of your smallness?

You are a creature in a body

 

Little planet

your gravity

little something.

 

Fields filled with fire-

flies, bodies blinking off

across the grasses–

 

Off     on     off

through dark grasses,

indecipherable

as words on a page

in night black night

In the end, the battle is for acceptance — of that more prosperous, more polluted past, and reality as it is today, with all its hope and desolation —  and for dreams of a better future.

From the book’s last poem, THE PINES:

We’ll gather like new-day monks or moths

A fire between us

Each heart-warm friend

we reckon them one by one

Each name a bead in the bracelet

Each arrival a thanksgiving

 

In the face of the lake

stars make replicas of themselves

forgetting our names for them

 

so we can all begin

tender as children

making a new life in the trees

 

John W. Miller

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