Arts & Culture

Lyrical North Carolina

  • By Michael Chitwood
  • Photography by Travis Dove

The splendor of this state has nurtured many poets and encouraged them to put pen to paper. The richness of that tradition inspires one such writer to take note.

Mill Worker Statue Carboro's Carr Mill Mall

These days inside the redbrick behemoth that is Carrboro’s Carr Mill Mall, all you hear is the shuffle of shoppers or the chatter of diners. But in its heyday as a textile mill, this place roared. Being inside a weave room with the looms at full throttle was like standing next to a train track as a locomotive thundered by. It was a noise you could feel. It was, that is, until it wasn’t. Until most of the mills in North Carolina fell silent. Maybe that was the trigger when I visited the mall that I’d once known as a mill: the ghost of the looms I could nearly hear in the now funky, hip mill village; the old company houses, now spruced-up bungalows with well-groomed gardens; the clash of past and present. Whatever it was, something wouldn’t let me alone, and experiences I’d had in a textile mill a decade before moving to North Carolina came rushing back, and almost in a feverish state I began writing the poems that would become my third book, The Weave Room.

Of course, I’m far from alone as a poet inspired by North Carolina. But the first poem that delivered itself to me for that book came out of that noise and the way the workers overcame it to exchange the mundane small talk that is the grease of the everyday world’s engine.

Weave Room: What They Say

is mostly lost to the roar of the looms,
the sound they can feel in their soles
as they patrol the alleys
for breakdowns and broken ends.
But they say it anyway,
coming together,
putting a hand on a shoulder,
leaning in,
mouth to ear,
and then mouth to ear in reply,
almost letting lips brush the scalloped cup,
exchanging jokes, flirting, telling secrets,
all in shouts, mostly meaningless,
save for the breath the other can feel,
the warm, damp words like a lotion.

Poetry, perhaps more than any other literary form, captures and commemorates. It celebrates and mourns. It’s what we turn to in our most opened moments — weddings, births, funerals. It’s how we say hello and farewell with the warm, damp words that both comfort and moan.

The Old North State is blessed with bards. One reason is probably the many fine colleges and universities that supply working writers with steady paychecks as teachers. They both draw writers to the state and keep homegrown scribes from straying from its borders. For whatever reason, North Carolina can boast of scores of native and transplanted poets who have sung the state’s praises and lamented the passing of cultures and places.

Though he left to teach at Cornell for three decades, the state never left A.R. Ammons, for one. Ammons was born near Whiteville in Columbus County. He was a master at catching the phrases and sly country humor of the North Carolina of his childhood. Here’s part of a poem, from his book The North Carolina Poems, called “First Carolina Said-Song,” based on a story Ammons’s aunt told him about a mule-powered dash to reach a relative’s funeral:

and there come up this
awfulest rainstorm
you ever saw in your whole life
and your grandpa
was setting
in a goat-skin bottomed chair

and them mules a-running
and him sloshing round in that chairful of water
till he got scalded
he said

and ev-
ery
anch of skin come off his behind:

we got there just in time to see her buried
in an oak grove up
back of the field

it’s growed over with soapbushes and huckleberries now.

In a more contemporary setting, Cathy Smith Bowers, who just recently finished her term as North Carolina’s poet laureate, came upon a joyous sight one night in a bar on Roanoke Island. She captures it in the final stanza of her poem “Women Dancing With Babies on Their Hips”:

How useless our wondering the whereabouts
of their men, imagining them away,
some war they did not belong in,
or too late back from the shrimping boat,
and tired, to join them here. These women,
their strong lovely hips dipping
and cresting, their babies’ heads
flung back in a whirl of toothless
laughter, loving the lone ride,
their wild, dumb entry into the world.

Dannye Romine Powell finds the poetry in a quirky scene at a Charlotte yard sale. A homeowner is selling the house he’s lived in all his life, and while Powell’s husband inspects the goods on the tables, she notices the two thick cedar trees that stand on either side of the walkway to the house. She chats with the owner, who tells her he’d always planned to sculpt a Moorish arch where the trees’ tops touched, and then Powell finds the moment of meaning:

As a child, I loved these cedars,
he says, lifting a branch
and stroking it. I could throw myself
into them and they would support
my whole weight. Then, before my eyes,
this grown man, this grown, balding man,
hurls himself into one of the trees,
showing me his old game. He straightens,
smiles. The branches bob, subside.
He brushes flecks of cedar from his face
while around us morning deepens into Moroccan blue.

Our poets discover the unexpected places where people swirl and soar, and they crystallize the moments when that happens. There are too many good poets here to try to form a list, but seeking them out will reward you not only with carefully observed illuminations, but also with news of the depth and breadth of North Carolina’s treasures.

In his latest collection, Durham poet Michael McFee writes a long homage to the baseball park, McCormick Field, in his native Asheville. In one section, he describes a gentleman who comes to all the games and doggedly keeps his own stats, recording the action of each play. McFee wonders:

… does he save those sheets,
or does he keep such faithful score
for its own sake, for the pleasure
of noting every lit movement
for a few hours, for a few months,
for who knows how many decades?

Noting every lit movement. He’s talking about the ballplayers, yes, but not a bad description of what our poets do for us.

Poetic History

The history of North Carolina — well, the English version of it anyway — could be said to begin with a poet.

Sir Walter RaleighSir Walter Raleigh:
Courtier, soldier, aristocrat, spy, and explorer, Sir Walter Raleigh could also add poet to his descriptors. Although some of his literary efforts are now known for their exaggerations, his poetry was more in the “plain style” and came to be admired by the likes of C.S. Lewis and William Carlos Williams. For its 50th anniversary, the North Carolina Museum of Art commissioned Tar Heel writers to respond in poetry and prose to pieces in the museum. The printed collection was titled The Store of Joys, a phrase from one of Walter Raleigh’s poems.

First literature in N.C.:
In Literary North Carolina, Richard Walser notes that as early as 1698 Henry White, a Quaker living in what was then called the Perquimans Precinct, penned a long, untitled poem about “the fall of man” and his “restoration by Jesus Christ.”

In 1737, an anonymous scribe from North Carolina submitted some heroic couplets to the South Carolina Gazette in Charleston. One went: “As blustering Winds disturb the calmest Sea / Tyrants drive the People to Extreams.” He might have had more than one reason for remaining anonymous.

Later on, at least two governors composed patriotic poems during the American Revolution. Gov. Thomas Burke, whom Walser calls “a one-eyed, excitable Irishman,” exclaimed against the British crown and wooed ladies with rhymed love notes. Gov. Alexander Martin celebrated the honor of fallen American heroes.

The Slave Poet:
North Carolina claims a literary first in George Moses Horton, a slave who grew up on a Chatham County tobacco farm. Horton composed verse in his head and then recited the poems for students on the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who paid for the lyrics for use in enticing sweethearts. A book of Horton’s poems, The Hope of Liberty, was published in 1829, making him the first black Southern author.

The Poet Laureate:
In 1935, the state gave official recognition to poetry by creating the office of poet laureate with the General Assembly’s passage of H.R. 909 Resolution No. 60 “to name and appoint some outstanding and distinguished man of letters as poet-laureate of North Carolina.” It seems such a man was a bit difficult to find at first, as it took 13 years before the first laureate, Arthur Talmage Abernethy, was named by Gov. R. Gregg Cherry in 1948. Abernethy wore the figurative laurels for five years and then stepped down to make room for James Larkin Pearson in 1953. Pearson took to the title and didn’t step down for anyone, serving until his death at age 102 in 1981. He was followed by the editor and publisher of The Pilot in Southern Pines, Samuel Talmadge Ragan, who served until his death in 1996.

After Ragan, the North Carolina Arts Council decided that a term limit was in order so that more of the state’s many fine writers could share the title. Fred Chappell then served a five-year term, followed by Kathryn Stripling Byer (when the criterion was modernized to “person of letters”), and then Cathy Smith Bowers. The current laureate is Joseph Bathanti, a professor at Appalachian State University who accepted the position in 2012. The laureate now serves a two-year term.

Former laureate Chappell noted in his review of Duke professor James Applewhite’s “Ode to the Chinaberry Tree” that “… great contemporary conflicts — war, industrial savagery, pollution of landscape and history — are taking place most dramatically in the countryside, in small towns and villages, as tradition and individuality struggle to survive.” North Carolina poets of every stripe have been recording those struggles and triumphs down through the decades.

— Michael Chitwood

Michael Chitwood is a lecturer at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His poetry and fiction have appeared in Poetry, The New Republic, Threepenny Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, Field, and The Georgia Review. Poems reprinted with permission from the poets and Broadstone Books.

This entry was posted in Books, February 2013 and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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