James Applewhite’s Poetry, by Dave Smith
In the early 1970s, while I was on active duty as an enlisted man in the US Air Force and feeling utterly isolated, I was trying to learn to write poems. I saw in The Atlantic a poem called “War Summer” by James Applewhite, who the magazine reported lived in Durham, North Carolina, about two hours from me. I wrote to him of my admiration. He invited my wife and me to visit. We felt as if we had been invited to the high table of the gloried, knowing Applewhite had been the young colleague of Randall Jarrell. We went. Some years later he and wonderful Reynolds Price, who died last week, invited me to read at Duke University. Afterward, at Reynold’s house, we had one of those extensive literary conversations that feels like a peek through the window into the bar where the great poets drink at Parnassus. For almost forty years I have known Jim Applewhite as a kind of Virgil, mentor, friend, poet.
Jim Applewhite’s books of poetry certainly have a southern audience, though perhaps less the the national and international recognition they deserve. His view of the poet’s role, and practice of that role, a determinedly local one, reveals the primary character in his poems is the observing, commenting, judging presence of a regionalist and civilian, a man engaged in the ongoing life of a community. He has neither coveted nor sought the readings, preferments, jobs, or seductions of the poetry business. For him the practice of poetry is consciousness. If Shakespeare found providence in the fall of a sparrow, Applewhite has found it in tobacco suckers and maple seeds and new interstate highways with “this tale of sun-angle and colors,/of us and Earth in the conscious universe.”.
Applewhite possesses intense powers of description and dramatic scene and his poems embody with merciless accuracy the way life has been lived in the North Carolina piedmont; he knows that tobacco culture and that small-merchant culture whose intertwined generations are the stories of rural laborers, mom-and-pop gas stations, farmers, overseers and descendents of slaves. I grew up among and just marginal to those lives, for whom until Applewhite there was no poet to tell their stories, to evoke their pine hills and sand rivers and vanishing names and farms full, mostly, of rusting derelict machines. Applewhite’s is the narration of ownership changed, lineage lost, the new forms of suppression, all alongside the remembered that cannot quite be erased from field or horizon or song. His testimony rivals history, and he is a verbal portraitist of enormous subtlety.
But Applewhite is not merely a recorder, whether of tobacco’s locally life-draining and culture-determinant force or the decline of small-town manners and eccentricities; he is not merely a historian of the emotional lives of a necessarily integrated (if officially segregated) society whose rules of engagement were often as brutally crushing as they might be seasonally nourishing. A scholar of Wordsworth and the Romantic ethos that depends on the inevitable progress of the human spirit toward ultimate freedom, Applewhite is above all an elegist, a celebrator of what he values as life-enhancing. Too, he resembles Horace, a poet exiled from the Roman community that defined him, for Applewhite stands at the fractal edges of his century’s wars, revolutions, and political twists, in a condition of exile from all that he finds missing around him, old virtues, codes of agreeable conduct, democratic in fairness and chance as Whitman, and plain veneration..
Perhaps nowhere is Applewhite’s view more apparent than in his response to the natural world, the rivers and trees and flowers and farms of his home area. His poems have the feel of silky dirt, they carry the real streaks on the tulips, they smell the odors of seasonal labors, and laborers. In this world is a joyful taste for barbecue, walks in pastoral woods, love of women, adventures of the soul. There are tales of those who never leave home and those who go to war and cannot, in one way or another, come home. Applewhite resists the sort of eco-complaint and political vituperation that vitiate some satirical poetry but satire is one of his forms, as the ravages of industrialized landscapes and the destruction of man’s habitat grinds at his good nature, despite whatever good they may have brought. He is a pastoralist in every regard.
Donald Justice said of Applewhite’s early poems that for him landscape is destiny. That defines as well anything ever said what is meant by the writer of the South, and in truth Applewhite’s themes and subjects have not measurably altered in the forty years of his writing. Why should they? There has been, however, a steady and reflected modulation in his lyric structure, one always seeking a way to turn lyric to epic, with perhaps modest success. The home no Southerner can go back to bedevils us best and most vividly in lyric bursts. He has lengthened his line and tucked it into block stanzas that have permitted him a deepened, sometimes oratorical voice, one whose probings for destiny own a brilliant authority. Yet I value most the delicate, almost watercolor-exquisite evocations of a leaf’s look, an afternoon’s cast of light that mimics a boy’s wandering through wildness and water. He is what poet Seamus Heaney has called “one of the venerators.”
Jim, I have often thought, brings to poetry much of the tone and vision that so unequivocally marks Heaney, and I read Applewhite’s career book, the Selected Poems, with the recognition of a poetry similarly rugged and refined, rural and yet worldly, classical in decorum but with the “strangeness” of local idiom, its wisdom like untouched sandy patches where water runs steadily clear in freshness. The issue for any poet is how to record his or her individual story so that it lives, exact and true, on the page, knowable to neighbors, and yet exudes the recognizable human experience no border, bridge, or accent can hold in, or hold back. In “Digging” Heaney has famously chronicled how his education costs him his father’s world but in that portrait of education that hurls us from the past is the start of the way back, the journey limned by poems. One feels the same paradox at the lube-lift of Jim’s father’s country gas station-and-store.
James Applewhite’s chronicle is a compact, luminous, etching of a singular imagination working to get down the way it was for the generations who grew on the eastern North Carolina farms when it was clear, as it was to nearby writers William Styron and Reynolds Price, that their postage stamps of place were both doomed and infinite. Nobody gets to say everything about his life and his ground but Jim has done a share that the watermen from my area would call “a right good jag” of work. I don’t know what I would have written, or how, without his example, which must have appeared through some divine favor for me. That’s how I choose to see it anyway. I followed Jim’s poems for forty years, learning what to say and how to say it in a tongue of my own, his books never far from my scouring eye. His poems are not answers, they are dilemmas, full of the gnomic, riddling, memorable way of saying one wants to hear again and to repeat to a friend smart enough to understand. The gods do not permit us to ask for more than that. --Dave Smith
The Language of Space and Time
The counterpane now is only space—an extent
in light. Once, it encoded a town and belief,
when grass spread wide its uttering tongues
below children. A skyline on the western horizon
seemed cut out of paper. Huge heads of oaks,
those elders, nodded over the low roof-angles
and the wooden bodies below, alive with shouts
and groans, the hopes and mournings. The attics,
seen from inside, held rafters devoutly skyward,
like Hands in Prayer. Atmospheres spoke over
these humid lawns, echoing cries between
houses at evening—lightning bugs winking,
enlarging separation, gathering in darkness—
while cooking, that the children smelled from outside
the yellowing windows, bound their tastes to this earth
with more gravity—submerged them in feeling,
their words soft-edged, blurring the consonants,
inflecting bedtime whispers with a particular belonging.
So that Earth may speak of space, it has brewed
these rounded-off, gut-urged surges of breath,
with tastes of long-cooked meat, night in the nostrils.
Over the town now shadowed on the counterpane,
lightning flashes. As the storm gathers in upon
the hurried inhabitants, rain in stringent lines
splashes their faces, like the slight weight of rays
from far stars. They look up, and back, tears
of recognition streaming from their eyes.
They have come so far, materialized on this stage
that is the same for everyone, and different.
This possible surface lifts from the Earth
and recedes into time. I behold it departing
with a rending like the soul tearing loose
from my body. And in that moment
I am consoled: by knowing what love is possible,
how so much expands with the new-born light,
in morning, and how this whiteness deepens,
rich with a thousand kisses, shadowed by
this land with its snake-stealthy river,
the air passing under a bridge, enlarged
within the arms and breasts of a lover, along the lone
road at nightfall, in moth-lifting evening.
This remembered fabric , like a counterpane
folded and re-folded between a mother and daughter,
is the membrane of space and time—
surface of love, experience of place
on Earth—a town, somewhere to exist again.
Quest for Beginning
The cold front chills me, so I believe
this rumor of pines in wind, distancing
the thought of beginning—and of the star-
simulacrum I will see, if evening
enlightens my path but dims the sky.
Nearer the river, I walk through
a rain of color. Too bright yet
for a sharp-tipped light. I wait
beside sliding water, as the beech grove
uses up day with its yellow.
Not much longer. Wind moans
the limb-vaulted ceiling
like cathedral-conversation with the dead.
Now. Now that this day is fading, clouds
part. A beech ignites like a lantern-mantle.
Is it glow from below,
or one stray ray, descending?
Light leaks away from near air. Higher,
atmosphere catches the sunlight.
When enough of the thickening brightness
passes, I’ll see through a clearer night—
and mark the point, infinitely acute,
like the spacetime start.
Coming Home in the Dark
I step into shadowing leaves,
along corridors in trees
that precede me like a future.
Their parallels open from a point
I project before, conscious
of a behind-me converging into murk.
As the planet rotates its rocky body
it darkens this side with its shadow,
leaving the air transparent.
Orion lifts his leg, climbing
the sky, seeding space with his stars,
begetting new glints in the nebula-sword.
He bequeaths the constellation demos
to generations after. I imagine
a marble temple, the metamorphosis
of these trees—trunks now fluted,
as a pediment arises among limbs
and a Zodiac begins to pierce through.
Colonnades recede, along beams
out-shined from his mind’s forms.
Among the great kites of light,
Orion’s thought shines straight
between the sharp bright starting-points.
With gathering murk at my back
I distill his paradigms,
in thought to hold upright,
as I descend the path at last,
our stream-side house still dark.
Again I look up at the night.
The hemisphere’s illusory motion
elevates new arcs into the sky
and I rise with the star-man.
Dave Smith's new collection of poems, Faces Flared with Gold, will appear from Louisiana State University Press in Fall 2011. In 2010 he published Afield: Writers on Bird Dogs (Skyhorse Press, essays edited with Robert Demott) and in 2006 Little Boats, Unsalvaged (poems, LSU Press). He is the Chairman of the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University and is Elliot Coleman Professor of Poetry.