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A poet of the mountains

George Ellison. George Ellison.

This past weekend was given over to reorganizing the books in my home library. In the process, I relocated a volume of poems I had feared was long lost. 

My favorite “Appalachian” poets would be Robert Morgan, Kay Stripling Byer, and James Still. 

I never met James Still, but we corresponded in the 1970s with some frequency. Wilma Dykeman and her husband, James Stokely, close friends of Still’s, had suggested I might enjoy his work. They especially recommended “Hounds on the Mountain,” a collection of poems that had appeared in 1937 when he was generally recognized as “one of the strongest voices to emerge in Appalachian literature.”

Born in 1906 in LaFayette, Alabama, Still was librarian at the Hindman Settlement School in Kentucky during the 1930s. Following a stint in the Air Force during World War II, he became a freelance writer. In 1952 he returned to the Hindman Settlement School, again as the librarian. He stayed on for 10 years or more but left that post to teach and write. 

After I did indeed become enthusiastic about Still, who was somewhat reclusive, Wilma Dykeman said he would like to hear from me. At that time, for various reasons, Still had not, to my knowledge, published a book of any sort for almost 25 years and was pleased to be remembered. He did, of course, resurrect his career in the mid-1970s and go on to publish various poetry collections, novels, and children’s books, so that he is now sometimes referred to as the “Dean of Appalachian Literature.”      

I have apparently lost our correspondence, but, sure enough, the volume that reappeared this weekend was “Hounds on the Mountain,” published by The Viking Press in a “first edition limited to seven hundred fifty numbered copies of which seven hundred are for sale.” My copy is hand-numbered in ink as being “435.” I had mailed it to Still, asking if he’d sign it. It came back inscribed on the front flyleaf: 

“For / George Ellison / Who has kept my poems / in his heart all ‘these sleeping years,’— / with greetings, and gratitude. / James Still / November 25, 1975.”

 From the Mountains, From the Valley (University of Kentucky Press, 2001) collects all of Still’s poems, including those that appeared in “Hounds of the Mountain.” I reread them this weekend with delight and remembrance of a fine poet. I recommend them to you. Here are some sample stanzas:

 

From “Rain on the Cumberlands”

Rain in the beechwood trees. Rain upon the wanderer

Whose breath lies cold upon the mountainside,

Caught up with broken horns within the nettled grass,

With hooves relinquished on the breathing stones

Eaten with rain-strokes.

 

From “Hounds on the Mountain”

Hounds on the mountain …. 

Grey and swift spinning the quarry shall turn

At the cove’s ending, at the slow day’s breaking,

And lave the violent shadows with her blood.

 

From “Graveyard”

There is no town so quiet on any earth,

Nor any house so dark upon the mind.

Only the night is here, and the dead

Under the hard blind eyes of hill and tree.

Here lives sleep. Here the dead are free.

 

From “Horseback in the Rain”

To the stone, to the mud

With hoofs busy clattering

In a fog-wrinkled spreading

Of waters? Halt not. Stay not.

Ride the storm with no ending

On a road unarriving.

 

From “Spring on Troublesome Creek”

Not all of us were warm, not all of us.

We are winter-lean, our faces are sharp with cold

And there is the smell of wood smoke in our clothes;

Not all of us were warm, though we have hugged the fire

Through the long chilled nights. 

 

From “Mountain Dulcimer”

The dulcimer sings from fretted throat

Of the doe’s swift poise, the fox’s fleeting step

And the music of hounds upon the outward slope

Stirring the night, drumming the ridge-strewn way. 

 

From “Child in the Hills”

Where on these hills are tracks a small foot made,

Where rests the echo of his voice calling to the crows

In sprouting corn? Here are tall trees his eyes 

Have measured to their tops, here lies fallow earth

Unfurrowed by terracing plows these sleeping years. 

 

Editor’s note: This first appeared in a February 2010 issue of The Smoky Mountain News.

(George Ellison is a writer and naturalist who lives in Bryson City. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.)

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