“Thomas Rain Crowe’s Poetry: The Soul of Appalachia”
by Ted Olson
Interspersing 48 poems by acclaimed North Carolina author Thomas Rain Crowe with 22 images from photographer Simone Lipscomb, a new book entitled Crack Light (Wind Publications, 2011) offers a meditative, resonant portrayal of Appalachia’s unique natural beauty. Crowe’s poems composed in celebration of that beauty are perfectly complemented by Lipscomb’s representational yet subtly composed photographs of places and creatures of the Blue Ridge and the Great Smoky Mountains.
Most of Crowe’s works in Crack Light were previously published, yet the poems—each of which advances some poetic vision of the meaning of life in Appalachia—are reenergized from their proximity to Lipscomb’s visual interpretations of the region. For instance, the title poem “Crack Light” (referring to an Appalachian dialectical term for the sunlight that enters a cabin’s or barn’s dark interior through cracks in logs) benefits by being juxtaposed beside Lipscomb’s photograph of a Cades Cove cantilever barn (similar images on the book’s front and back covers further enhance the impact of the book’s title poem). The concept of “crack light” serves as a central metaphor for this fine book: given the region’s mountainous, thickly wooded terrain, Appalachian visions, however profound, often are indirect, partly subsumed by shadow.
Many Rapid River readers know that Crowe has been closely associated with two significant literary periodicals based in western North Carolina, the Asheville Poetry Review and Katuah Journal: A Bioregional Journal of the Southern Appalachians. Overlooked today—even among his readers—is Crowe’s formative interaction, during his 1970s residency in San Francisco, with the Beat literary movement; he counted as friends and colleagues such major Beat Generation authors as Gary Snyder and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Crowe’s own writing shares the Beats’ penchant for individuality and spontaneity. Indeed, Crowe’s poetry reflects the deep influence of Beat literary aesthetics, including capturing the primacy of an experience in direct, vernacular language. In a 2003 interview published in Nantahala Review, Crowe described his writing process:
“My process is about letting it happen. When I’m writing, I really have no idea of what it is, rationally, that I’m doing. I’m just letting it happen. . . . Kerouac said often, ‘first thought, best thought,’ and that concept has stuck in my head all these years. It’s true, that I’m part of that tradition, the Beat tradition, but organically, that’s really just the way that I work best. I’ve found that you can revise the heart and soul out of a poem if you’re not careful, and I have seen this done often by my more academic friends. It’s about the process for me–it’s not so much the results. I’m not as concerned about ‘the perfect poem.’ I do want what I put out into the public to be as good as I can get it, so there are changes and revisions from time to time, but . . . it’s always a spontaneous process.”
Granted Crowe’s extensive Beat affiliations, his writing is far from imitative. He has long immersed his imagination in the natural and cultural life of Appalachia, yet his work has universal implications. As Jim Wayne Miller put it, “Crowe is a new kind of literary voice in which both local and global perspectives are compatible, even requisite.” Returning to his native Appalachia from California in 1979, Crowe drew inspiration for his poetry from the work of major regional literary figures, including James Still, Fred Chappell, and Marilou Awiakta; simultaneously, he read and learned from such nationally prominent environmental writers as Wendell Berry and Thomas Berry. In two non-fiction books, Zoro’s Field: My Life in the Appalachian Woods (University of Georgia Press, 2005) and The End of Eden (Wind Publications, 2008), Crowe presented nuanced interpretations of environmental issues affecting Appalachia today, and the poems in Crack Light grapple with similar concerns. In the poem “Seed,” for example, Crowe identifies the redemptive power of a seed in healing a compromised place, and he suggests that, figuratively, people are seeds of a healthier future.
From hands that have learned to scratch the
soil like another skin,
the seed slips into the wounded earth.
Like a prophet who lies down by water
and begins to dream…
the seed starts to take on new life.
We are all seeds.
Also characteristic of Crowe’s poetry is its frequent invocation of the spirit of Cherokee culture. Presently residing in the heart of ancestral Cherokee territory near the Tuckasegee community (Jackson County, North Carolina), Crowe honors the eternal, ecologically grounded traditions of native Appalachian people in his poetry. One example in Crack Light is the poem “Planting Corn”:
When the moon
beds warm and silver in the sky, and
the signs are in the hands:
it’s time to plant corn.
When crow starts
in spring with his breakfast songs
and cotton meal lies golden in the row:
it’s time to plant corn.
As the bluebird feeds
its first batch of young and
the sky takes earth in hand,
and I dance in the darkness of
a moonlit field where spring now rules the land
to the tune of Kanati’s horn:
Consistent with the central metaphor that infuses the book’s title poem,
Crack Light offers readers a range of profound if at times shadowy glimpses into overlooked or neglected places across Appalachia, and in the process the book illuminates the essential nature of those places. Crowe’s poems and Lipscomb’s photographs work in tandem to transport the reader into the heart—and, if the reader opens his or her heart to the book’s charms, into the soul—of Appalachia.