By choice, James Still has lived most of his 80 years in Eastern Kentucky, in the Hindman Settlement; though born in Alabama, he says that the day he arrived in Knott County, he "felt he had come home," and was cast on the "mighty river of earth" with "the living and the dead riding the waters." As with Roy Helton, another good poet drawn to Appalachia from the outlands, he has "drunk lonesome water," and so for the rest of life has been "bound to the hills."
"The Wolfpen Poems" seem to me to establish Still as the truest and most remarkable poet that the mountain culture has produced. He is a more permanently valuable writer, for instance, than his fellow Kentuckian, Jesse Stuart, who shared some of Still's background but was shamelessly exploitative of it, very nearly to the point of becoming a professional hillbilly. There is none of this attitude in Still's example. The poems are quiet, imaginative and sincere, and the poet's terrible grief over the loss of a way of life ("when the dulcimers are gone") registers with double effect because of the modesty of statement. Throughout everything, Still writes that there is a continual sense of both custom and uniqueness, of tradition and at the same time the strangeness of the tradition, of work and wonder, of the everyday things one does in order to survive, taking place in a kind of timelessness, a world of sacramental objects.
His people are equally archetypal, timeless, interpenetrative with the country they live in, so that the two resemble each other: The human being is himself land walking, weathered by seasons, loving, aging, dying and coming back in spring, and the land bears not only the spiritual but the physical imprint of the man who has lived his life on it, in it, and with it. In the life-landscape, even the wounds are duplicated; the land takes them on.
Uncle Ambrose, your hands are heavy with years,
Seamy with the ax's heft, the plow's hewn stock,
The thorn wound and the stump-dark bruise of time.
Your face is a map of Knott County
With hard ridges of flesh, the wrinkled creekbeds,
The traces and forks carved like wagon tracks on stone;
And there is Troublesome's valley struck violently
By a barlow's blade. . . .
It is much to Still's credit that he does not bring dialect into his poems, and it is a considerable feat that he projects the sense of "countryness" without resorting to this most obvious of devices. He is sparing of metaphor, so that when he makes a comparison by means of his sharpness of eye and his remarkable aptness of selectivity, he is able to bring an extra dimension from the simplest physical details, such as the measurement made from one place to another. Seldom has the concrete highway, for example, appeared as so sinister and destructive an agency as in the few words where Still admonishes us not to go "upon these wayfares measured with a line/ Drawn hard and white from birth to death." Still believes that a sense of harmony is not so abrupt and final as the line by which the highway is laid down, but that "quiet and slow is peace, and curved with space."
His sense of home is strong but is in a marvelous way counterbalanced by his sense of wandering, of lying not in his "rope-strung bed" in the log cabin where he lives, but somewhere out on the hills, under the open fall of water.
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 hoofs relinquished on the breathing stones
Eaten with rain-strokes.
To those who tend to think of mountain people in terms of "The Beverly Hillbillies," or country people in terms of "Hee-Haw," I suggest a thorough reading of these poems, or better still, a living with them and in them; the reader's vision is likely to change, in a quiet and profound way, in the company of a man who sees in the death of a fox he himself has run over the doom of a part of the Earth, and perhaps the promised end of us all. "The Wolfpen Poems" bring home, among many other good and painful things, the necessity of Appalachia and the things it stands for, even to those who have never seen it. From the curves of his land, Still has more than the right to ask for all of us, as the fox goes, and the dulcimer, as we destroy the natural world and its traditional cultures, "is there no pardon anywhere?"