Monday, December 9, 2013

Where we're from, who we are, what we write and sing

Photo by portiagay, June 2007

Where I’m From

I am from clothespins,
from Clorox and carbon-tetrachloride,
I am from the dirt under the back porch,
(Black, glistening,
it tasted like beets.)
I am from the forsythia bush
the Dutch elm
whose long-gone limbs I remember
as if they were my own.

I’m from fudge and eyeglasses,
            from Imogene and Alafair.
I’m from the know-it-alls
            and the pass-it-ons,
from Perk up! And Pipe down!
I’m from He restoreth my soul
             with a cottonball lamb
             and ten verses I can say myself.

I’m from Artemis and Billie’s Branch,
fried corn and strong coffee.
From the finger my grandfather lost
            to the auger,
the eye my father lost to keep his sight.

Under my bed was a dress box
spilling old pictures
a sift of lost faces
to drift beneath my dreams.
I am from those moments—
snapped before I budded—
leaf fall from the family tree.

~ ~ George Ella Lyon

Black Star Mountain [from Harlan Travel Guide]
George Ella Lyon was born in Harlan, a small coal mining town in eastern Kentucky in the Appalachian mountains.  I had not known of this poet/writer/singer/activist/teacher before, but feel an instant affinity. Of words:

Words amaze me. EARTH, for instance.  Do you see how it has EAR and ART inside it? 
And that's not all. If you take the H from the end (from the ends of the earth!) 
and put it at the beginning, you get HEAR and HEART! That's a whole poem in one word:


I believe that's what we're doing when we write or dance, sing or draw or practice any of the arts: we're listening to our hearts and expressing what we hear. And on the other side of the experience,  when we are the readers or the audience  for what's been created, we hear someone else's heart speaking, which helps us hear our own, and feel how we are all connected.[1]

As a girl she loved Black Beauty so much she ate raw oats to taste what it was like to be a horse.

In an interview at the Appalachian Center, she talks about "what is me" intrinsically and  "what is me" from the nurture and place where she grew up; and the songs and stories that come to her wherever she goes.  "Where you are from is not who you are," she tells the interviewer.  The mountains are her "voice place", where her primary stories come from.  The woods are still the place she feels most at home, but "I'm also a citizen of the world; I was brought up to be that."

For George Ella Lyon, poetry is "a spiritual practice, when I feel in touch with the mystery of it all. It's a way of experiencing that mystery, and expressing that mystery."  She writes about letting one's voice come out,  about voice and its power and place. Author of 40 books of poetry, children's books, novels and plays, she says she "felt the call" to be a writer back in high school.  "I wanted to make a difference," she says.  (I'm always intrigued by the response to the question "Were you born to be a writer?", because that suggests writing  is something you're somehow destined to do.  How many writers start out feeling that way, and just . . . don't follow through.  How many more go through life unable to not write?   And how much does it matter to those who feel "born to" anything, if what they felt they were inherently born-to-be doesn't get borne out?

I discovered the poet George Ella Lyon by googling "Harlan", a place name found in the title of a song  I intended to post this morning of the McGarrigle sisters, folk singers from Montreal.  Some mornings you start the day in silence, have your coffee, read the news, prepare the day, etc. sans sound.  Some days you just feel like a little music in the background . . . and today, folk music--and those mountains--beckoned again.

 Kate and Anna McGarrigle
with Emmylou Harris

Anna wrote (and here sings) the song, with guitar.  Emmylou Harris is in the middle  Kate (on the right)  plays the banjo.  [Kate passed away in 2010 at the age of 63.] "Harlan" refers to Harlan, Kentucky,  which also happens to be the birthplace of poet George Ella Lyon.

 Goin' Back to Harlan

There where no cuckoos, no sycamores.
We played about the forest floor
underneath the silver maples, the balsams and the sky.
We popped the heads off dandelions
assuming roles from nursery rhymes,
rested on a riverbank
 and grew up by and by,
and grew up by and by

Frail my heart apart
and play me a little shady grove.
Ring the bells of Rhymney
till they ring inside my head forever.
Bounce the bow, rock the gallows
for the hangman's reel
and wake the devil from his dream
I'm goin'  back to Harlan
I'm goin'  back to Harlan
I'm goin'  back to Harlan

And if you were Willie Moore
and I was Barbara Allen
Or Fair Ellen all sad at the cabin door
A-weepin' and a-pinin', for love
A-weepin' and a-pinin', for love

Note:  "The song is a longing for a childhood of playing in the woods, made more poignant by "growing up by and by". They played at being characters from old Anglo/Irish folk songs like "Willie Moore, Barbara Allen and Fair Ellen". The McGarrigles are from a tradition of singing old-timey songs as a family activity. All those references in the lyrics are to the names of old fiddle tunes: Shady Grove, the Bells of Rhymney, Bounce the Bow, Rock the Gallows, the Hangman's Reel, and Wake the Devil"  [a YouTube commenter]