The heart of a (mountain) woman

I've been reading a lovely book of poetry, "Living Above the Frost Line,"and it's become essential preparation for my trip this week to the mountains of North Carolina and Georgia.
You see, I'm living out of the mountains for the first time in my life. From the rolling Allegheny Plateau to the hills of north-central West Virginia, I've been wrapped in mountain mists and lulled by the sounds of flowing streams and deep-woods birds such as vireos and thrushes. But in 1997 I came down to the flatlands, to Greensboro, and it has been a wonderful transition but not without some pangs for a former life.
Nancy Simpson's book of new and selected poems, out last year from Carolina Wren Press, takes me back. In 108 pages, it covers a lifetime as woman and poet, from 1977 to 2009. I've begun to know something of this devoted teacher and activist, beyond the exchanged e-mail messages when she drew me into the family of the John C. Campbell Folk School. I still remember her email heading: "So you wanna teach? Yes! Yes!" And I've loved every minute spent at Brasstown.
But back to her poems.
Early on, she takes up the image of water, water "in which memories converge." In "Water in the Highway," she writes that "Water on the pavement moves before me/Witch water, I say, as though some sorceress waits/snapping her crooked fingers." Yet this water is real, whether visible or not, and she writes of driving home, "knowing as I go/I will have to cross water to get there." Crossing water, in many traditions, is a way to shake off ghosts, and spirits too pervade these poems, from those dead in wrecks and dead in war to those who accepted death in readiness for communion with God.
These poems sing of solitude, that lovely twin of loneliness, that has the poet declare she will "sit here until someone tells me different,/afraid everything is going to fall." In another poem, Simpson writes that "Sometimes you get what you asked for,/to be left alone," the opening to a poem that ends, "Rubble from lives in one lifetime passes before me./This is the end, the new start,/rock I remember, and clay soft beneath my feet."
And these poems sing of family. I was particularly taken by "Sharing the Bed With Mother" in which the women make themselves narrow, and sleep on the stones of lies. "This could go on all night,/my wanting to build a bridge/and tear it down, and build it back again."
Ultimately, however, it is about the mountains. Images of soil and rock and weather shape these poems, and they are adorned by trees and flowers and the living creatures that make up a beautiful but demanding place. Simpson echoes Whittier in "Storm," as a snow storm closes out the world and she learns that "there are things worse than being all alone in a blizzard."
The title poem closes the book, and it is a poem of affirmation - against all odds, against war and abandonment and loss and struggle, the writer returns to the image of what will, or won't grow above the frost line. "Along the mulched path, it's clear/experts are wrong. Red nasturtiums bloom./Here in my garden/knockout roses still bloom their hearts out."
I'll get the chance to talk with Nancy on Saturday. But then , I've already come to know her heart through this beautiful book.

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