I was thrilled to be asked to write the guest editor piece for this issue of The Great Smokies Review, and took great pleasure reading all the pieces during the depth of summer from my front porch with a view of my garden.
Anyone who has a garden knows it will teach you many things, but really, anyone who pays attention to anything long enough knows that things change. Lilies will fold and fall, and Black-eyed Susans will take over. Some things we have control over and some things we do not, and there are always so many questions. Questions and quests in life, some chosen, some thrust upon us. Over just a few days of sitting out here on my porch, three red leaves appeared on my serviceberry tree, a squirrel decimated a tomato plant, and a baby mockingbird finished growing up and left home. I thought about how different it will be out here by the time you’re reading this issue: a darker autumnal sky, fall leaves in their glory, the bite of winter in the night air.
The two pieces I’ve chosen are for their dark and beautiful imagery. They lingered with me, haunted me, as I drove to work or scrubbed a pan over the sink. These works stayed with me long after I read them—for that imagery—and for their spirit of the quest and search for meaning and connection.
Georgia Smith’s nonfiction piece, “Breaking It Down,” pulled me right into her world using present tense and a first paragraph that begins with a missed turn along “a rocky switchback, dark sheds and wet black trees pressing so close to the gravel road.” It’s a personal narrative that toggles back and forth in sections between her spending a day with Walter Harrill, a farmer in Fairview, where she will learn how to slaughter rabbits, and two dates with a man named Bruce.
I found similarities and patterns in these two very different threads. In both instances, the narrator has put herself in the situation, and in the quest, purposefully exploring two tension-filled experiences. She writes: “I went to slaughter rabbits because I wanted to know if I could do it. What I wondered was, could I belong to a life like that? Would it change me the way I wanted to be changed?” And: “I arrive at a south side bar for a near-blind date I’d set up myself, one of only two I’d endured in my life. As I scan the dim, empty bar, I can’t shake the feeling that years of getting something wrong have landed me here, in the same plaid shirt I always wear to work Sunday brunch, my hair pinned up in the rearview mirror, offering myself to the scrutiny of someone I hardly know.”
We experience the scenes with images such as “the shining white slaughter room, hard winter light from the window working up a snowy glare.” And with more sensory/physical detail: “It is hard to make my body do it, and a bright pulse of panic rolls up from my lungs…There’s a soft little pop, the sound of the spinal cord severing, its pupils eclipse what is inside, and within seconds its presence is in full retreat. It’s gone.” And on the date with Bruce: “…with a beat of surprise I feel myself align with him, like a horse falling into a canter along a split rail fence."
Both experiences knock us out, through dialogue as well as the narrator’s observations. There’s the poignant surprise of what Bruce tells her: “So there’s this woman in Santa Fe…I’m in love with her, and if it works out, I’m going to marry her.” And in the barn, Walter says, “See the feet?…How they softly cross? This means you got him.”
Towards the end of both experiences, the narrator calls up the image of herself looking towards home. At the bar, she writes that if she turned, she’d be able to see her lighted window from her fourth-floor walk-up. On the drive home from Walter’s barn, there appears the “pale winter horizon that obscures my distant home.” Perhaps these glimpses convey a wish for safety. Safety of the unexplored. Fleeting thoughts of, I wish I hadn’t come to kill rabbits today. I wish I hadn’t gone on this date. These little glimpses of human weakness endear her to us. But we know, from whom our narrator shows herself to be, that these challenging experiences are chosen, and this part of her outweighs these moments of weakness.
The images from her day at the barn haunt not only the reader, but also the narrator as she returns home, where, she writes: “The rooms are so still I imagine I can sense my own ghost.” And as she steps into the shower, she senses “constellations of blood on the side of her neck.” I’m sure I’m not the only reader who will think of Lady Macbeth.
Smith’s ability to show her vulnerability and strength, her human questions and longings, and the way she’s rendered pictures for us with dark exquisite colors, made this piece resonate with me long after I read it.
In April Nance’s poem, Crossings, I found the presence of another quest. More subdued and routine than in Smith’s piece, but also concerned with the search for connection. A mother and son are described as taking a walk by the creek after supper. The mother, our narrator, is taking pictures while we see the glow of the son’s phone. They are together, yet apart in their own worlds. She writes: “We are somewhere else.”
Crossings, or missed connections, are not only between mother and son, but also involve the eerie image of a neighbor woman who appears to them:
When the ironweed’s purple flowers are up to our knees,
she crosses the creek.
Slurred speech, summer skirt
Reveals scar (memory’s tattoo) – pause
Meant to explain the accident, the limp, the pain that won’t go away
Why she is the way she is.
I found there to be something witchy about this neighbor woman, but at the same time, Nance steers me toward empathy for her, as she, too, seems to be looking for connection. Even though her memory fades and she can’t seem to remember the mother and son when they walk again, she continues to cross the creek to meet them; she continues to try.
There is a strong pull of yearning from the two women in this piece. For example, the mother reveals to the son as they approach the woman’s white house that she wishes she could sit with the neighbor on her front porch, where together (she imagines) they would “drink red wine watch cars go by.” And then again in the moment when the neighbor woman feels compelled to give the boy advice— “Don’t let the world make you mean. Be good to your Mama”—Nance succeeds in showing us the wanting from another point of view.
The mother, like the neighbor, continues to try, as we are told these walks with the son continue,
A Friday later she crosses again—forgetting we’ve met—that we share April birthdays,
That we are not strangers.
…and I was left with the image of two silhouettes, mother and son, walking into the unknown, away from the safety of home as the sky darkens and the weeds get taller, encountering the neighbor who forgets them again and again, all with the hope of finding connection.