Staring the Red Earth Down by Brent Martin
Red Bird Chapbooks
Available from the publisher
“Staring the red earth down,” Brent Martin writes at the end of his poem “Man Pulling Cable”—it’s what “the spectral mountains” where he lives and writes in the Southern Appalachians, do. At the end of another, “the hand fades quickly with moisture and light.” Between these two lines lies a breadth and depth of reach, in insight, perception and feeling—all enfolded in a keen sense of place entwined with peoples’ lives; an entanglement of a land and its people—often troubled, misused, forgotten, but where “songs buried now silent, / but [still are] willing and begging to be sung.”
Stopped and waiting in line along a mountain highway by a road crew laying cable, all disgusted in their tedious work “cursing their elsewhere version of a future” except for one man grappling the cable “strong and satisfied,” as if trying to birth “some breeched infernal new world,” the poet notices what looks down in judgement on all this: “the spectral mountains / staring the red earth down.”
An old woman watches television in “her beat up house trailer/ the home old man Passmore built / next door sinking into the weeds” as the poet wanders her winter fields looking for pot shards—remnants of a lost past. In town a homeless man sells weeds, bouquets of common clover he’s pulled from cracks in the sidewalk, holding out a bouquet “so delicately he could be holding a baby,” saying “this one is called Everyday People.”
Walking old Indian mounds, two friends recite together Robinson Jeffers’ defiant poem “Shine, Perishing Republic,” “his hand slapping my back for emphasis, / where water now flows in rivulets / down upon the abandoned rail lines...” Such poems take us lovingly to a place most of us already know within ourselves—the place where we struggle to come to terms with circumstances of loss, impending change, a world in the harsh throes of modernity, and yet, unaccountably, still nascent with hope.
Poem after poem teases out the worn places in the heart, the patches sewn in for repair with the broken threads that connect us to a truth echoing always in the land. Even in an airport, one of the most placeless and alienating places on earth, the stranded poet, in “The Love Trial of Virgie Arthur,” finds respite gazing at an ubiquitous tv monitor watching CNN while outside “...starlings fight for scraps / on the empty winter runway.”
The Ferryman tells me to fish downriver,
the crusty bastard, standing on his porch
cursing everything upstream.
He curses the town a while,
then he curses its conservative
church going citizens,
and as he is waving like the Queen
as I depart in my little red boat,
he tells me that Jimmy Sang
has been catching redeyes in the evening,
smallmouth in the afternoon.
You gotta Fish them v’s though, the spot where the water
funnels through them old fish weirs.
Old angry and happy ferryman
with your bright river rolling on
birthing your final somber days.
Downriver, he says again, downriver.
Fish them v’s and to hell with upstream.
This ferryman is a crotchety short-tempered descendant of Charon, resentful and cynical in his displacement from his mythical time—as we all are now in our “little red boat[s]” of what passes for modernity. The land, always the land—its mountains, its history, all speak together in these poems as a Greek chorus. Following the rich thematic strand of loss and redemption in Southern storytelling, they make clear how place is pivotal, how we are wedded to place whether we wish it or not, how it insists we must come to terms with where in particular we are, and that when we don’t nature maintains a voice to admonish us.
In “Snowbird” the poet lays out what is permitted to him to speak of in his daily work day life—“ecosystem resources,” and of what he is not—the sacredness of coyote bones that lay claim upon this place “as legitimate as the stains of cities / which line the mountain’s brow.”
Romantic poetry brought forth nature poetry in the nineteenth century, and blossomed in the late twentieth century into ecopoetics. It is a long tradition now. It has always maintained a critique of modernity. Mr. Martin’s work brings an important contribution to this literature of bringing us intimately close to the crisis of our time—the ecotone, the edge habitat between our human lives and culture and the nature that makes a place for us. As such they are deeply political and moral. Through these poems an important collaborating voice comes forth to sing a song “willing and begging to be sung.” It is the way Mitchell Lick speaking “in splintered tongues of white” makes irrelevant the language of “ecosystem services” and such human talk finally “fades quickly with moisture and light.”
Brent Martin is a writer, folk artist, historian, and Southeast Regional Director for The Wilderness Society. His poems and essays have been published in the North Carolina Literary Review, Pisgah Review, Tar River Poetry, Eco Journal, Chattahoochee Review, and elsewhere. His work focuses on the people and land of his native south. Staring the Red Earth Down is his third book of poetry. He lives with his partner, singer-songwriter Angela-Faye Martin, in Western North Carolina's historic Cowee community.