West Virginian V.C. McCabe has created a startling body of work in Give the Bard a Tetanus Shot, her debut book of poetry. While these poems are written about the people and events of her life in Appalachia, don’t assume there’s no connection to life outside. Although, certainly, the work is full of details specific to the region, they speak also to issues of concern to all of us: environmental degradation, surviving disaster, class warfare, dysfunctional family dynamics, addiction.
The book is divided into six sections, each section tied together by a theme. I really liked this form, the tying together of concerns made for an immersive read. Below I’ve excerpted lines from a few poems to give you a taste of McCabe’s fluent language and imagery.
The title poem sets the tone for McCabe’s stunning collection. In the following excerpt she brilliantly illustrates the unique inspiration of Appalachia in her writing.
“Classic European poets found their inspiration
among the crumbling ruins of ancient castle stone.
New York City poets see their muse’s reflection
in the shiny glass of towering skyscrapers.
While here I sit in Appalachia—the point where
the Bible Belt’s buckle ever tightens the Rust Belt—
surrounded by nothing but decay and desperation.”
This section centered around enduring and coping with environmental and weather-related experiences such as tornados, floods, straight-line winds, deep snow.
The Stone Age
After the Mid-Atlantic Derecho, June 2012
“Then, from dusty mountain hollows,
emerged the wise women, leading
their kin down to the river to teach
us the old ways, their wrinkled hands
working out the history written within
their bones, reminding us that we were
once Earth’s children: fed with fresh-
caught fish, drinking pure, rushing
water, scrubbing soiled rags clean with
washboards and rough river stones.”
For Want of an Ark
“Churches and cemeteries desecrated,
the unrepentant river preying on pews,
baptizing Bibles and hymnals, toppling
steeples, unearthing and emptying graves
to fill their vacancies with flood victims.
Nothing sacred. No one spared.”
Give the Bard a Break
“I love my mountains,
my people—their strength
and fierce endurance.
But I’m tired of bearing
witness to their sorrows
with the written word.”
She takes us into homeplace, family, and food with personal history poems like “Grandma’s Texas Sheet Cake”, “Potluck”, and “Out of the Frying Pan into the Fire”.
“From the backseat, Grandma
turned to look behind, tears
in her eyes at yet another home
she was forced to leave behind.
A lifetime of hardship had not
prepared her for this final loss.
Fear of fire was more potent than
all the famine, drought, floods, and
grief she had already survived.”
Section IV was the most heartbreaking for me with poems about unwanted pregnancy, domestic abuse, class discrimination, family secrets. While much of the book is women-centered, this section condensed the particular issues affecting women.
The first poem, “The Snow Angel” broke my heart. The first stanza:
“In the bleak midwinter
on the year’s coldest day,
an unwanted child was born.”
In “The Ghosts We Inherit” McCabe shares some of the pain associated with a disapproval of writing about family secrets:
“You rebel, you miscreant, how dare you breathe
a word unapproved by committee. The open wound,
your mouth, a bloodletting of secrets”
Then the realization that,
“Who we are is what we do, not the blood in our veins.”
We’re taken to task (rightly so) as talkers but not doers in “Shadowbox” by setting a scene for the homeless of empathy without action.
“Our eyes take in what our brains can’t process
for our mouths to say. Why don’t we do
anything of substance?”
She describes despair and trauma with a scalpel’s blade, cuts away the self-pity and lays bear the brutal bones such as in “Driftwood”.
“Once you’ve been to Earth’s razor edge,
the scenic overlook to human hell,
home becomes a foreign country
you wake up in, jetlagged and groggy,
without a passport, and you just
Finally, for me, “Solastalgia” is a concise wind up of this book of exceptional poems.
“What hadn’t been destroyed by fire, flood,
storms, and chemical spills, had withered
away and disappeared as disasters
and death drove droves away—
a mass exodus of Appalachians.”
In my opinion, this book of laid-bare poetry is an important tutelage about a forgotten America where hard times are a way of life and about the people who endure. It’s a book that should be read by everyone and a chiding of the privilege so many of us take for granted.
Buy it here.
Author website here.