on Cherokee Road Kill by Celia Bland

Cherokee Road Kill is an important book written by a poet in command of her craft. I first met Celia Bland some years ago in a workshop with the marvelous Jean Valentine, and she shares a few of Valentine’s great virtues, perhaps foremost her commitment to getting the truth down on the page. In her new volume, Bland turns her unflinching gaze upon the place of her childhood and adolescence, a native Cherokee homeland on the forested western edge of North Carolina. Vivid details from memory come to life as she sketches the harsh realities of an entire unsung community. Cherokee Road Kill is Bland’s third collection, and her second to be conceived in collaboration with a visual artist, an exchange that helps heighten the play of imagery in her poems. 

Bland’s 2004 debut collection, Soft Box (CavanKerry), established her clear, generous, and uncompromising voice. By turns narrative and dramatic, with welcome flashes of humor, the poet makes what is strange seem unnervingly familiar, while questioning the bonds of family and kinship. As Jane Cooper observes in the book’s foreword, Bland can be both sharp and caring, “without a shred of self-pity.” Here are two sentences from “The Stepfather and the Daughter,” a prose poem: “Kissing him smelled like going to the library for story hour. . . . I couldn’t move or lift my arms, a sheaf of corn unsheathed and green.” An accomplished and compelling first book, Soft Box is a wonderful whole that bristles with intellectual energy and sensual appetites. These qualities are likewise present in Bland’s new book, where the world of the poet’s youth flares up with startling immediacy.

Madonna Comix (Media F8, 2014), Bland’s second book, was published in a near-folio-sized 11 × 17 1/2-inch deluxe edition with extraordinary mixed-media images by Dianne Kornberg. It is unlike any book I’ve ever seen: the artist responds to a sequence of Bland’s poems that center on the iconic Christian Madonna figure, resulting in irreverent comic-book-inspired graphics. The images are painterly and printerly—far beyond simple line drawings, though Kornberg delights in subverting the conventions of the form and uses as a ground the erasure of old Little Lulu comic book pages. The collaboration enacts a dialogue, while Kornberg’s layered images carry on a secondary argument of their own. The book is a bravura feat of production, both in graphic technique and in the poems that triggered the images, sustaining a fertile interplay between image and text.

The Virgin Mary remains a deity the poet prays to, made more human than her son through the pains of childbirth that every mother has shared. This intermingling of the divine with the commonplace strikes sparks throughout Bland’s work with Kornberg. “Please don’t let me be pulled apart, halved by the monstrous passing of this innocent beast struggling past the gate of my  . . . impermeable body. Mary, Mother, keep me whole!” Kornberg’s ironic and undeceived images—with a background of comic-book frames that can’t contain them—don’t just complement the poems, but actually join with them, spinning out the significance of individual lines and the thrust of Bland’s entire sequence of Madonna-inspired poems.

Bland’s third book, Cherokee Road Kill, includes this poet’s finest work yet. Bland can capture both violence and humor in the same poem, and with lithe assurance she wins the reader’s trust, combining the music in her lines with a powerful intellectual grace. Here are four sentences from “Scrub,” where in describing scrub pines the poet turns to self-portraiture:

There were no fruit trees in our yard; it was a car yard, a lot.

I was straight as something pliable but standing,

an unweathered sapling.

 

I sat in the dusty muffled heat of other people’s upholstery.

I described the ticking of katydids and dashboard clocks, the

hollow throats of trucks, the clanging bell of freight trains

traveling latitudinally

south to north.

Bland conveys her adolescent imagination with authority, revealing a place scarred by poverty and stalked by the threat of violence. Robert Kelly has praised Bland’s “nimble social alertness” in these poems, which are so full of substance and keen-eyed particulars. They portray an entire human society inured to hardship but partially redeemed by the beauty of the Great Smoky Mountains in Southern Appalachia, the backdrop for the narratives woven throughout the book. A fully realized place appears, with the hogs, chickens, and roosters of a poor subsistence farm set alongside the billiard halls, stock car races, and millworkers’ cottage shacks inhabited by characters from the poet’s youth. 

Bland’s historical eye travels back to the early eighteenth century in the masterful poem “Croatan,” when distant English forebears attempted to return to a colony founded in the Carolinas a century earlier, but which they discovered abandoned. Another of the losses catalogued by the poet is the flooding of the ancient Cherokee town of Aquone by the damming of the Nantahala River in 1942, in an isolated part of western North Carolina—including a portion of the native tribe’s homeland for over four thousand years. Bland describes the lake water, “black as kale,” in the poem “Dammed”:

We grow kale black.

We root in dam-maw as hardpack

unpacks under hard feet, as

 

Duke Power dims the stars.

 

Kilowatts against the dark.

That plural pronoun “we” casts a wide embrace, defining a community and pulling in the reader, too. A dynamic musicality runs throughout Cherokee Road Kill and is a distinguishing quality of Bland’s poetry. Here is the last stanza of the title poem, after the poet recalls some furtive kissing “in the back of his / brother’s Corvette” and the later car crash that took Kenny Arrowhead’s life, when “spring snow / sugars the road”:

A throttled gasp and I am

trolling the pools

of Pisgah, silt-sinking, a whiskery

catfish god, cruising the dark cleft.

What movements rill the surface of what he breathes?

Bland gives these lines kinetic energy through her use of unexpected verbs, alternating resonant, open vowels—the long “oo” sounds repeating in “pools / cruising / movements”—with the brusque monosyllables of Middle English: “gasp / silt / cleft.” The concluding line in italics marks a shift in diction and the poet’s frustrated longing for omniscience.

On the page facing this disturbing imagery is an intricate pen-and-ink drawing by the artist Kyoko Miyabe. A catfish looks head-on at the viewer, with a car inverted like a reflection beneath it, both shapes filled with elaborate abstract patterning. Miyabe responds to Bland’s poems with her own startlingly imaginative work, which is at times phantasmagoric and animated by a dark, involuted energy. Her images are not often direct responses to Bland’s poems, but intuitive and obsessive reactions to it, spun out of playful doublings and surprises. The work has an intimacy that is distinct from the grand scale of Bland’s collaboration with Kornberg; the dialogue is more tangential, but it is earthy and grounded. Like the poems, Miyabe’s imagery relies upon the concrete, solid presences of things, no matter how fantastical her stippled animals and organisms become.

In a way, collaboration is at the heart of Bland’s poetry, an impulse evident in the pact she makes with her readers. Expansive, participatory, implicating, forgiving—she works to establish relationships, offering us a too-rare and vital gift. The second section of Cherokee Road Kill is a sequence called “Bird Bone” that narrates the tragic coupling between a teacher named Louise and the prison inmate she tutors who becomes her lover and, finally, her killer. Bland has the courage to imagine the last moments of Louise’s life, and even the moments after her death. The arc of this relationship mirrors the frail hopes and despair that shadow so many others in this isolated clutch of humanity. The poet bears witness to their broken lives.

Bland’s stubborn honesty reminds me of D. H. Lawrence and an essay of his that first appeared nearly a century ago, “The Spirit of Place.” Lawrence argues for the “great reality” of this idea that everywhere on earth has a distinctive and enduring spirit of place. Writing about America and its literature, Lawrence doubts whether we as a people can overcome the legacy of slavery and the genocide of native inhabitants driven from their homelands. This fundamental savagery—and the uncertainty we face as a country—are present throughout Cherokee Road Kill. By honoring a community blighted by this inheritance, Bland has given us a lyrical portrait of a neglected but essential American place.

 

_____
New York: Dr. Cicero Books, 2018. 127 pp. $15.00, paper.

 

Jonathan Blunk is a poet, essayist, and radio producer. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux published his authorized biography, James Wright: A Life in Poetry, in October 2017, and his essay “‘Living Toward That Voice: James Wright Transfixing and Transfixed” appeared in the Winter 2017 issue of The Georgia Review. Blunk has poems this fall in FIELD (no. 99).