Maggie Anderson: Appalachian and (Almost) Uncorseted
by Kathryn Voorhees
t first glance, Maggie Anderson's poetry seems to be informed by a sense of dichotomy: of place; of language; of values. Dichotomy suggests tension and incongruence, but for Anderson, it also signals confluence, the melding of disparate ideas, places, and things in the imaginative cauldron. Maggie Anderson is primarily an open-form poet, feeling that this most accurately allows her to express the rhythms of speech and subject matter of her Appalachian heritage. She writes, "I think the form of our poems may be a crucial indicator of who we are, who we are choosing to become as a culture" ("Saving the Dishes" 88). Fearing the exclusivity of formal verse, she asks, "Who is it meant to keep out? And who will it allow in only if somehow corseted? What troubles me most about this fashion is that I have a feeling that who gets left out might be me, or many of the poets whose work I love" ("Saving the Dishes" 89). Yet, Maggie Anderson has produced three exquisite sonnets: "Nightmare," from her collection Cold Comfort, and "Sonnet for Her Labor" and "The Only Angel" from her collection A Space Filled with Moving. Given Anderson's insistence on confluence, what she defines as "coming together with intent" ("Mountains Close and Dark" 32), the seemingly disparate poetic traditions of Appalachian idiom and traditional form have produced some of her most moving poems.
Maggie Anderson was born on 23 September 1948 in New York City of parents who were both schoolteachers, her father a teacher of Latin at a private boys' school and her mother a teacher of political science at Hunter College. She identifies her parents as being the first generation to "have" education, leaving their working class roots in western Pennsylvania and Preston County, West Virginia, "chosen from their families of origin to get 'the education,' and everyone else worked so that they might achieve" ("Two Rivers" 148). In New York City, Anderson had access to libraries, museums, and theaters, all the intellectual and cultural stimulation that living in America's largest city could provide. Yet, even while growing up as a young girl, Anderson was acutely aware of the two worlds she inhabited, and of being "not wholly at home in either one" ("Two Rivers" 144).
Anderson's one world was the world of culture and erudition that New York City provided. Within this world, she learned her first language, "the language I used at school," a language she describes as "witty, linguistically clever, and certainly grammatically correct" ("Comments" 10, 11). Her second language, what Anderson identifies as her "native Appalachian dialect" ("Comments" 10), was the language she used at home with her family, language that originated from her parents' people and their roots in the Appalachian region of Pennsylvania and West Virginia, a region that Anderson would visit each summer with her parents.
Anderson physically inhabited these two worlds--worlds divided culturally and regionally--until she was 13 years old. Then, four years after her mother's death from leukemia, she returned with her father to Preston County, West Virginia, doing what Anderson claims "all good mountain people do when there is trouble: he came back home" ("Two Rivers" 145). Already steeped in the traditions of her parents' working-class mountain culture both from her parents' tutelage and from summer trips back to West Virginia, Anderson still found the adjustment a challenge. After attending West Virginia Wesleyan and West Virginia University, earning both a Masters of Arts degree and a Masters in Social Work degree, Anderson set about analyzing the effect on her writing of the confluence of her two worlds, symbolically identified in her essay "Two Rivers" as the Hudson River in New York City and the Cheat River in Preston County, West Virginia. Calling language for those poets like herself from the Appalachian region "a very complicated business" ("Comments" 10) and recognizing that the schism of two languages "has been one of the major issues I've dealt with as an Appalachian writer" ("Comments" 11), she asserts that "[i]n my poems, I want to write in the cadences and idiosyncratic phrasings of West Virginia mountain speech, as well as with the diction of my educated and formally trained intelligence" ("Two Rivers" 149). Embracing confluence, Anderson asserts, "[i]t has taken me many years to realize that to tell our [West Virginian] story clearly from my point of view, I must acknowledge fully both my worlds" ("Two Rivers" 148).
Confluence, the "coming together with intent," is not always an easy reconciliation, both personally or artistically. While Anderson finds it impossible not to write about the lives of her Appalachian family, she also recognizes her relationship to those family members as "painful, ambiguous, and complex": "In some ways, my perspective has been that of an outsider, and much of my work has been occupied with insider/outsider concerns" ("Two Rivers" 149). Ellesa Clay High characterizes Anderson's relationship to Appalachia as "shifting," in Anderson's words "in it but not of it" or "of it but not in it" (qtd. in High 5, 6). Yet in Appalachia she also finds her truest subject matter: the natural world. Confluence abounds even within her vision of Appalachia, for Anderson sees the region as "a geography of earth and water, and these converge awkwardly, paradoxically" ("Mountains Dark and Close" 34). Appalachia, however, is also now, paradoxically, the center of her sense of place. Currently professor of English at Kent State University (decidedly outside Appalachia) where she directs the Wick Poetry Center, she still finds the image that affects her more deeply than any other to be the "unremitting line of hills that defines any mountain landscape," an image she says "always reminds me of West Virginia, which always makes me feel at home" ("Mountains Dark and Close" 33).
The confluence that is necessary for Anderson to reconcile language, place, and family informs her choice of poetic form, as well. Perhaps a clue to her preferred use of open-form and prose poems can be found, once again, in her sense of place. Anderson writes:
In recent years I have seen in university writing classes and workshops too many poems by young women in which the truth of their feelings is buried under artful music and some skillful imagery within a metered line. . . . And I have seen poems by young men from the coalfields of West Virginia which gnarl the idiosyncratic grammar of that region into shapes that sound like self-parodies, shapes that show how deeply they have internalized the shame of poverty and isolation and exploitation. ("Saving the Dishes" 92)
Anderson's desire is to help her students manipulate a poetic form that accommodates the rhythms and idiom of her mountain home: "What concerns me in the poetry that's written in a kind of exalted voice--what we think of as the 'poetic' voice--is that it has no connection to the truth of our lives. And when we write that way what we're saying is 'all those people from the outside are right. We're dumb and ignorant. So we better write like they write.' And that's just not true" ("Comments" 12). Outside and inside are of critical importance to Anderson, in the worlds of "money, art, and power," and she asserts that "[i]f you are a women poet from West Virginia, there can be little doubt as to which side you are on" ("Mountains Dark and Close" 39). Yet Anderson, unlike her young students from the coalfields, inhabits both worlds. Quoting Muriel Rukeyser's line that the world would possess an "intolerable hunger" for poetry if there were none, and recognizing that "[w]e don't make art only out of what we're given," Anderson concludes that "[w]hatever fashions or traditions we may seem to be choosing, that hunger will always find and use any form it needs to be satisfied" ("Saving the Dishes" 95). The majority of Anderson's poems are, indeed, open form, poems that connect to the "truth" of her characters' lives, such as in her poem "The Wash in My Grandmother's Arms" from her collection Cold Comfort. Yet, she is at once local and universal, both in time and technique, so, not surprisingly, Anderson is a poet who adheres most of the time to open form, but who can also write in closed forms when it fits her artistic purpose. In her three sonnets "Nightmare," "Sonnet for Her Labor," and "The Only Angel," Anderson uses the confluence of form and subject matter to encompass both Appalachia and the universal beyond a particular time and place.
* * *
"Nightmare" comes from Anderson's 1986 volume Cold Comfort, the collection of poetry Ellesa Clay High calls "her most Appalachian of books" (5). Gardening is a central passion in Anderson's poems, and, as Jeff Mann notes, is "most playfully and imaginatively" presented in her "Dream Vegetables" series in Cold Comfort" (17). Patricia Roth Schwartz concludes that "[t]he cadence and rhythms of Anderson's work are those of the natural world--not idyllic scenes of imagined bucolic pleasures, but the hardscrabble terrain of West Virginia, Ohio, Pennsylvania, where lies her heritage as well as her ties now" (21). Anderson's discerning eye does, indeed, often provide the reader with "hardscrabble terrain," but Schwartz misses the ever-present confluence of opposites present in the exuberant pleasure that Anderson finds in the natural world, a world that is often bucolic exactly because it is so hard-won. The series of poems that make up "Dream Vegetables" imagines the dreams of indigenous West Virginia produce: yellow squash, tomatoes, peas, radishes, potatoes, corn, various herbs, and, in "Nightmare," cabbages. Here, in the series' open-form poems, the brown seeds of the beans swell "too large for consumption, / and they dream exhausted by fecundity" ("Examination," ll. 10-11) while the tomatoes, dreaming of falling, "edge toward sleep once more, vermilion" ("Falling," l. 10). The cabbages, on the other hand, are the only vegetables having nightmares, "awful dreams" ("Nightmare," l. 2).
The cabbages are the clowns of the vegetable garden; they appear in the only poem in the series in closed sonnet form that simultaneously lends gravitas to "the ache that cleaves / them from companions" (ll. 3-4) already harvested while at the same time humorously accuses the cabbages of "Too much head! / They do not use it wisely" (ll. 10-11). At once incongruent and perfectly congruent, the sonnet form plays for comic effect. Identifying the cabbage as, to her, a "rigid vegetable" that, therefore, experiences "the kind of scary dream we sometimes get when we are too 'uptight' in our waking life," Anderson's aim was "to give this rigid vegetable a rigid poetic form," and to attempt "to meld form and content in an interesting way" ("Letter"). The concluding couplet, while reinforcing the humor of the cabbages' plight, resolves at the same time the truth applicable to vegetables and humans alike: the promise of a life not yet lived, when the world has not yet "burn[ed] [our] rounded husks to red" (l. 12), the ungoverned dreams of youth that remain possible until they harden into the metered line of lost opportunity.
Just as Anderson celebrates the fecundity of the natural world around her, a world juxtaposed with the "hardscrabble terrain" of Appalachia, she also corrects the mistaken idea that we are to feel sympathy alone--or sympathy at all--for the people who inhabit that natural world. A signature poem in open form, "The Wash in My Grandmother's Arms," also from her collection Cold Comfort, is written for her relative who had "seven children, no teeth, / and no belief in medicine" (ll.10, 11). In this poem, Anderson juxtaposes the "truth" of the only photograph taken of her paternal grandmother with the "truth" of her grandmother's life: "She is clearly overworked and resists / this fixing of the present in a beautiful nostalgia, / the diurnal translated as the representative" (ll. 17-19). As Patrick Bizzaro writes, "Beautiful nostalgia . . . is a lie, a falsification" (26), and Anderson's poem resists this falsification as strongly as her grandmother resists the camera.
"The Wash in My Grandmother's Arms" foreshadows Anderson's second sonnet, "Sonnet for Her Labor," that comes from her 1992 volume A Space Filled with Moving. This poem provides the reader with another moving reflection on an Appalachian relative, and, appropriately for its form, the poem becomes an elegy Anderson uses to affirm the life of her relative who lives her life in the margin of the shadow of Laurel Mountain and "the brink / of all the sky she saw from there" (ll. 4-5). Anderson points out that she likes "the tension that can be created between so-called 'high art,' and the people who have been cut off from our core society, marginalized, unheralded, and impoverished, both economically and educationally" ("Letter"). Carol Frost, writing in the Georgia Review about the volume of poems from which "Sonnet for Her Labor" comes, states: "At times . . . [Anderson] tends to treat the inhabitants of her poems as a one-dimensional part of the depressed scenery--numbed, poor, afflicted, or dead. After my initial response of sympathy, I found myself questioning whether the people of West Virginia would appreciate being lumped together with little in store for them but despair" (618). This review misses the mark on several levels. In the sonnet, Aunt Nita may be numbed; she certainly is poor and dead. Yet Anderson's choice of sonnet form for this elegy to her aunt emphasizes that neither Anderson nor Aunt Nita wants (or needs) sympathy from the world outside. Anderson recounts this touching story of her motivation for writing this sonnet to her relative:
My Aunt Nita did not complete high school, though she was an avid reader--mostly of the Bible and other church publications, but also of the books I read for my classes in college. I passed these on to her when I was finished and some of the most interesting and enlightening conversations I have had about literature, I had with her in her kitchen in Rowlesburg, West Virginia. My Aunt Nita was the one in my family who showed the most interest in my writing. She liked to read my poems (my poems from high school English classes--my bad adolescent love poems!) but she always wondered why my poems did not rhyme. Years after her death, I decided to write a poem to honor her and the life of hard labor she lived for only 52 years. Of course, this poem would have to rhyme. ("Letter")
The poem stands as a graceful, compelling, and formal representation for Anderson of the legacy of human industry and community that characterizes her heritage. The concluding couplet, while recognizing the seeming indifference of Aunt Nita's menfolk, focuses rather on "[a]ll that food / and cleanliness" (ll. 13-14) that is the result of her aunt's "lust / for labor" (ll. 8-9). Aunt Nita's immaculate kitchen is her response to the life she has been given, a life lived in a tradition where, in Anderson's own words, "the community is more important than the individual, and . . . the achievements of any one individual are the achievements of the group" ("Two Rivers" 147). While the poem asserts that Aunt Nita lies down to rest, it does not equate her resting?or her dying?with despair. Instead, the sonnet stands as "a tribute to that woman's effort?and the efforts of countless women, mountain-born or otherwise?to create an orderly home for those she loved, despite their apparent indifference" (Mann 18). This sonnet, a companion piece to Anderson's open-form poem "The Wash in My Grandmother's Arms," asserts the same truth found in the lines of that earlier poem: "My grandmother clutches her wash in the wind / and I locate my inheritance: how she holds to her task / in the face of speculation. . ." (ll. 20-22).
Anderson's third sonnet, "The Only Angel," also appears in her collection A Space Filled with Moving, and like the two sonnets previously discussed, this poem operates at the intersection of Anderson's two languages, offering the reader the confluence between "[t]he prosaic voice the poet admires" and "the play between flatness and the formal requirements of the poem (a sonnet)" (Frost 618). The Angel of Death who narrates the poem, for example, tells the listener (the poet herself?) that however sweet she may be, "you don't know shit / from shinola" (ll. 4-5). As her poetic career has developed, Anderson acknowledges that "I have been using more obvious organizational patterns in my own poems. Not a regular meter necessarily, but more regular line and stanza lengths, and more involvement with the pentameter, if not actual employment of it as a line base" ("Saving the Dishes 92). In "The Only Angel," as in her two previous sonnets, Anderson adheres to a rhyme scheme and an (almost) metered line, but both are flexible, including the enjambed line and the slant rhyme?or no rhyme at all. Anderson is most flexible in this sonnet, with loosely interlocking rhyme more like the Italian sonnet than the English sonnet it is. She writes, "I can't say that I really know why I imagined that angels would speak in iambic pentameter, or that the angel should speak a sonnet. I think it has something to do with the tension of form and content again: angels are 'high beings,' the sonnet is a 'high form,' and yet this angel is not sweet and consoling, but a kind of scrappy advice giver who doesn't cut us any slack" ("Letter"). At first glance a love poem ("I could bring you to your knees / with one hard kiss" (ll. 5-6)), the choice of sonnet form initially seems reasonable, even appropriate. While reviewer Patricia Roth Schwartz claims that Anderson "does not write of romantic and sexual relationships" (21), the truer statement is that Anderson writes only rarely about them, a fact the poet, herself, recognizes:
I haven't written a lot about [human sexuality], a decision that's more a matter of temperament than anything else, but I do think that one of the great sources of joy we have available to us as human beings is our erotic selves. As important as I think it is to acknowledge grief, I also think it is important to acknowledge that source of joy, to have the freedom to acknowledge it, wherever it may take us. (Long and Anderson 40).
"The Only Angel," which uses the language of sexual desire, is actually a poem about death, mingling in its beautiful but jarring fashion our human acknowledgement of death and grief with sexual metaphor, reminiscent of John Donne, but purposefully without Donne's elevated poetic language. The sonnet focuses on the brutal fact of mortality that all humans must face. As sure as Aunt Nita "lay down to rest and died" ("Sonnet for Her Labor," l. 10), so, too, will the poet and all of her readers die, whether by "your heart attack, your wreck, your slow disease" (l.11). The grief to which Anderson alludes is the same grief the cabbages from "Nightmare" feel being "cleaved from companions," but the death that seems a peaceful lying down in "Sonnet for Her Labor" here becomes an active, ecstatic conjunction, the lover, "hot and ready," storming "the blank imposing door" to "get at" the beloved (ll. 14, 12, 13). The Angel of Death leaves no question that this conjunction is inevitable, and, perhaps, that is ultimately Anderson's message: through pain, grief, and contradiction, confluence ultimately gives the human heart joy.
Maggie Anderson is a poet of paradox, of divisions seeking reconciliation, a poet of two places, two ways of speaking, two approaches to poetic form. In Poem 5 of her series "In Singing Weather" from Cold Comfort, Anderson writes, "Grandeur / makes me nervous, and now the ravaged ground / and shabby bean vines seem, at last, to match / my soul. Where there is congruence, there is / hope" (ll. 18-22). Anderson's hope springs from the acknowledgement of tension?whether in subject matter or poetic form?as a necessary prelude to congruence, to conjunction, to confluence, to coming home.
Anderson, Maggie. "Comments." Her Words: Diverse Voices in Contemporary Appalachian Women's Poetry. Ed. Felicia Mitchell. Knoxville, TN: U of Tennessee P, 2002. 10-16.
---. Letter to the author. 17 May 2009.
---. "The Mountains Dark and Close Around Me." Bloodroot: Reflections on Place by Appalachian Women Writers. Ed. Joyce Dyer. Lexington, KY: UP of Kentucky, 1998. 32-39.
---. "Saving the Dishes." Poetry East 20 & 21 (Fall 1986): 88-95.
---. "Two Rivers." Liberating Memory: Our Work and Our Working-Class Consciousness. Ed. Janet Zandy. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 1995. 144-51.
Bizzaro, Patrick. "Representations of Truth in Maggie Anderson's Poetry: 'beautiful nostalgia,' education, and permanence." The Iron Mountain Review 21 (Spring 2005): 20-26.
Frost, Carol. Rev. of A Space Filled with Moving, by Maggie Anderson. The Georgia Review 47 (Fall 1993): 617-19.
High, Ellesa Clay. "Maggie Anderson: Two Languages." Her Words: Diverse Voices in Contemporary Appalachian Women's Poetry. Ed. Felicia Mitchell. Knoxville, TN: U of Tennessee P, 2002. 3-9.
Long, Kate and Maggie Anderson. "The Spaces Between: A Conversation." The Iron Mountain Review 21 (Spring 2005): 35-42.
Mann, Jeff. "'A Beloved Place and People': Landscape and Folk Culture in the Poetry of Maggie Anderson." The Iron Mountain Review 21 (Spring 2005): 10-19.
Schwartz, Patricia Roth. "Profound Pitt Poets." Rev. of Windfall: New and Selected Poems, by Maggie Anderson. Lambda Book Report 9 (September 2000): 21.
Four Poems by Maggie Anderson
The soft moist brown decay beneath hard leaves
makes cabbages sometimes have awful dreams.
They know the source, in need, the ache that cleaves
them from companions, but cannot grasp the means
of changing what they fear. They sleep alone.
In dream, the cabbages are haunted, tracked
through winding passages where they can't run,
straight into culverts where they can't turn back.
They dream the shaggy roots of those they've loved
but never have come through for. Too much head!
They do not use it wisely. High above
the warm sun burns their rounded husks to red.
The cabbages dream all they did not seize,
when they were young in limp, ungoverned leaves.
The Wash in My Grandmother's Arms
In the only photograph of my paternal grandmother
she wears an apron and a dust cap, holds
her washing in her arms, and squints at the camera
as if she finds photography too theoretical,
its attempt to capture history as it's made.
I never knew my grandmother but I've heard stories:
how she never wanted anyone to marry, how she feared
thunderstorms and the whistles as helper trains
pushed forty times their weight up Laurel Mountain.
My grandmother had seven children, no teeth,
and no belief in medicine. I recognize my relative
by her suspicion of impropriety in taking pictures.
It's my grandmother's conviction that, like lightning
or heavy trains on mountain sides working against
gravity, photography and marriage leave too much
to chance, to interpretation later of expression
or disaster. She is clearly overworked and resists
this fixing of the present in a beautiful nostalgia,
the diurnal translated as the representative.
My grandmother clutches her wash in the wind
and I locate my inheritance: how she holds to her task
in the face of speculation, as if the picture could
not possibly turn out, as if the sheets were trying
to fly away from her like pale extinct birds.
"Nightmare" and "The Wash in My Grandmother's Arms" are from Cold Comfort, by Maggie Anderson, copyright 1986. All rights are controlled by the University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, PA 1560. Used by permission of the University of Pittsburgh Press.
Sonnet for Her Labor
My Aunt Nita's kitchen was immaculate and dark,
and she was always bending to the sink
below the window where the shadows off the bulk
of Laurel Mountain rose up to the brink
of all the sky she saw from there. She clattered
pots on countertops wiped clean of coal dust,
fixed three meals a day, fried meat, mixed batter
for buckwheat cakes, hauled water, in what seemed lust
for labor. One March evening, after cleaning,
she lay down to rest and died. I can see Uncle Ed,
his fingers twined at his plate for the blessing;
my Uncle Craig leaning back, silent in red
galluses. No one said a word to her. All that food
and cleanliness. No one ever told her it was good.
The Only Angel
I can see that, what with one thing and another,
you're all worn down, but you have to quit
calling our to me with all these elegies.
You're sweet, but it's clear you don't know shit
from shinola. I could bring you to your knees
with one hard kiss, but I want you to mother
up the good life, get around a little more.
You're trying too hard, hedging your bets.
I am not a porcelain light behind the trees.
You can't touch me. I'm not even here yet,
your heart attack, your wreck, your slow disease.
I am what you cannot know, the blank imposing door
that you will storm one day to get at me,
hot and ready, since you will have to be.
"Sonnet for Her Labor" and "The Only Angel" are from A Space Filled with Moving, by Maggie Anderson, copyright 1992. All rights are controlled by the University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, PA 1560. Used by permission of the University of Pittsburgh Press.
Books of Poetry by Maggie Anderson
Windfall: New and Selected Poems. Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh P, 2000.
Greatest Hits: 1980-2000 (chapbook). Columbus, OH: Puddinghouse P, 2000.
A Space Filled With Moving. Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh P, 1992.
Cold Comfort. Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh P, 1986.
Years That Answer. New York: Harper & Row, 1980.
The Great Horned Owl (chapbook). Riderwood, MD: Icarus P, 1979.
Edited Journals by Maggie Anderson
Trellis: A Magazine of Poetry and Poetics (Morgantown: The Trellis Press Association, 1971-81). Co-founder.
Wick Poetry Series of the Kent State University Press.
Books Edited by Maggie Anderson
After the Bell: Contemporary American Prose about School. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 2007. Co-edited by David Hassler.
A Gathering of Poets. [an anthology of poems collected and read to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Kent State shootings] Kent, OH: Kent State UP, 1992. Co-edited by Alex Glidzen.
Learning by Heart: Contemporary American Poetry About School. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 1999. Co-edited by David Hassler.
McNeill, Louise. Hill Daughter: New and Selected Poems. Edited with an Introduction by Maggie Anderson. Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh P, 1993.
McNeill, Louise. The Milkweed Ladies. Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh P, 1988.
The Next of Us Is About to be Born: Poems from the Wick Poetry Series in Honor of the 25th Anniversary of the Wick Poetry Center. Kent, OH: Kent State UP, 2009.
Maggie Anderson has received fellowships for her poetry from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Ohio Arts Council, the MacDowell Colony, and the West Virginia Arts and Humanities Commission.