Specter Mountain, a collaborative collection by poets Jesse Graves and William Wright, traces nature’s long-range work through the central image of an Appalachian mountain. In “Spell,” one of the book’s quieter poems, the speaker notes, “I belong // to wild onion and sassafras and other divinations / of autumn stems.” It’s a communion that “comes from some history / twisting up bright and green.” These lines distill the entrancing power of Specter Mountain-its history, its inhabitants, and even the voice of the mountain itself.
For poetry that explores the Appalachian landscape and perspective, Graves and Wright make something of a dream team. Writer-in-residence at East Tennessee State University in Johnson City, Graves has written with distinction about Appalachian life, most recently in his stellar 2014 collection, Basin Ghosts. Wright, a former writer-in-residence at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, has also explored this terrain in his own collections, most recently in 2015’s Tree Heresies. To see these poets merge their talents in service of the Appalachian lineage is a particular thrill.
Specter Mountain‘s opening pages invite us into its ambitious vision by invoking the Old Testament language of creation. The first poem traces the geological history of the region: “And it was said unto gravity, / heave a stone / at the barren Earth that a moon will form from it- // and the worlds survived, fractured into existence.” The authors present the mountain’s origin story as no less dynamic or destiny-forged than that of any Marvel superhero.
Wisely, they make only sparing callbacks to the Genesis voice, which otherwise might loom too large. When it does recur, this voice proclaims the progression of time across the land: “thus the seasons spoke the mountain / into blossom and shadow.” In this work, the elemental and sacramental are intertwined in a kind of aesthetic cosmology.
Cyclical experiences of all kinds form the primary shape of the book’s vision. Nature disrupts us but also remakes us, an unfailing cycle of destruction and rebirth. But the violence is not all nature’s to deliver: human violence-against the land and against the human body itself (through addiction and crime)-recurs, as well. We absorb such destruction into larger cycles of life and community, as the poem, “Offense,” states with startling acuity: “We carried the sin / as a bleeding hand homeward.”
How are we to live, then, given the enormity of the forces pressing against us and within us, burdened by the knowledge of our limits? Facing nature’s vastness, perhaps all we have is humanity’s surprising insistence on hope and an un-killable drive to keep surviving. Such resilience often emerges from the poems-we find it in characters who stay busy eking out their living from the land.
But we also find lonelier figures confronting deep grief and fear. At times the poems refer to haunted names of classic literature-King Lear, Aeneas. It’s an effective way to position the poems in a larger tradition of human inquiry, reaching out from a specific patch of ground toward somewhere infinitely larger: “I peer into the early-darkening sky,” the speaker says, “listen for a voice thundering from the peaks, / watch for the signal, a falling, flaring star.” In spite of nature’s apparent indifference toward human wishes, somehow we still dwell in an unbroken chain of existence, which continues to include us, even if we routinely forget how to access its power.
With Specter Mountain, Graves and Wright have created a unique contribution to Appalachian literature, a collection which deserves to be savored. They’ve approached their subject with unusual range and depth, taking particular care to avoid regional clichés and sentimentality. As a result, moments of wonder, tenderness, and generosity shine through all the stronger. Under the haunting spell of these poems, we allow the elements of nature inside, letting them do their revelatory work within us.
[To read an excerpt from Specter Mountain, click here.]
Emily Choate holds an M.F.A. from Sarah Lawrence College. Her fiction has been published in Shenandoah, The Florida Review, Tupelo Quarterly, and The Double Dealer, and her nonfiction has appeared in Yemassee, Late Night Library, and elsewhere. She lives in Nashville, where she’s working on a novel.
Tagged: Book Reviews, Nonfiction, Poetry