26 June 2018

Growing Up In Appalachia

—for Phil Rice, 29 August 2012

It is certain earth
is now sloping
away from its
magnetic angle—
Oh, I know how
this type of thought
can restrain hope,
hope that... off
the asphalt a bird
may fly away... fly
again through air,
and rejoice
in such ability to move,
nobly move again.
A man of your age
back from his trip—
but I mean a man,
not the boy, the one
who grew up in you,
a sudden gasp
on top of his girl—
the quick spill—
what they thought
to be love stamped
on their foreheads,
nothing is less sure
you can’t again fly…
fly again really high
off this asphalt
into those skies.

This poem was the second time my friendship with Phil had 'handed' me a poem. The first time was when 'Janice's poem' got written. Most of the time when I write a poem it's to confront a gnawing, a knowing of something I've always been aware of, but needed to experience again. And as Walcott said, "If you know what you are going to write when you're writing a poem, it's going to be average". You can know something without realising that you know it. Here is what I learned from that.

'Janice's poem' and 'Growing up in Appalachia' were not intended poems. They were 'found' poems. For the first one I had been nurturing a poem about an African woman going to the market. It never materialised, because, I think, I had known what I had wanted to write about. But the thrust of it was a strong woman, a woman determined to make it. A woman. The poem happened to work just when Janice passed, and Phil wrote to friends and family about his experience. I realised then that I had all along been trying to write about a moment just like that one. About a woman, strong, determined, and in love with life.

The poem clicked in a literal snap. I changed a few words and Janice, whom I had never met but had in fact met through conversations with Phil, gave the impetus, the core, of the poem, which I titled 'Janice's poem', and whose force I acknowledged without restraint. It was the first poem that kind of made me tear up. Many poems in the book "Waslap" had learned how to do that, and another friend in the US, Tim, would guide me through that ordeal. The few hours it had taken me to touch the poem up, 'inspired' me to pick up the phone, call Phil, and try (I'm not a good phone speaker) to 'whine' about how his ordeal was affecting me.

'Growing up in Appalachia' hit me when Phil was experiencing a different ordeal, and because of his e-mail messages to me (and also to family and friends, everyone Cc'd), I was again flummoxed. His e-mails are what his book 'Winter Sun' is. It is in the writing, the speaking about intimate life confrontations nonchalantly, but in a way that finds you. And that is where the "inspiration" for 'Growing up in Appalachia' came from, if we can call it inspiration. Phil's book, Winter Sun (A memoir of love and hospice), is a regular read 'in my book' (pun intended).

Phil Rice

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