Beauty - Pauletta Hansel
by Pauletta Hansel
This week I am sharing one of my poems, originally published in Coal Town Photograph, a book of poems about growing up in and leaving eastern Kentucky. While some of the details are my imagination (Let me say for the record that I never visited any bootleggers!) the feeling is real. I started this poem in my head when I was driving down Route 15 on my way to a writers’ workshop in Hindman. It was high summer and much of what blooms on its own—the redbud, wild irises, and flowering bulbs—were long since spent, but all along the road were patches of intense color mixed in with the many shades of green. And I began thinking about how what people say about Appalachia, even what we sometimes say about ourselves, is so different than what my eyes were feasting on. And that thought brought me this poem:
Where I’m from, everybody had a flower garden,
and I’m not talking about landscaping—
those variegated grasses poking up between
the yellow daylilies that bloom more than once.
Even the rusted-out trailer down in the green bottoms
had snowball bushes that outlived the floods.
Even the bootlegger’s wife grew roses up the porch pillar
still flecked with a little paint, and in the spring
her purple irises rickracked the rutted gravel drive.
Even the grannies changed out of their housedresses
to thin the sprouts of zinnias so come summer
they’d bloom into muumuus of scarlet and coral
down by the road.
Now driving that road that used to take me home,
I think how maybe it’s still true.
Everybody says down here it’s nothing
but burnt-out shake and bakes and skinny girls
looking for a vein, but everywhere I look
there’s mallows and glads, begonias in rubber tire
planters painted to match, cannies red
as the powder my mother would pat high
on her cheekbones when she wanted to be noticed
for more than her cobblers and beans.
Everywhere there’s some sort of beautiful
somebody worked hard at, no matter
how many times they were told
nobody from here even tries.
Earlier this summer, almost a year after the poem was written, I read an article called “‘Don’t Forget the Beauty’: Appalachian Town Pushes Back Against National Narrative of Despair,” part of the series, 100 Days in Appalachia. The article was about Portsmouth, Ohio, an Appalachian river town sometimes considered the center of the nation’s opioid epidemic, and an event the town was having to offer another vision of themselves up to a media that, according to their press release, has “sensationally concluded that ‘hope has left Portsmouth.’” It’s a good article. You can find it here: https://www.100daysinappalachia.com/2019/05/31/dont-forget-the-beauty-appalachian-town-pushes-back-against-national-narrative-of-despair/. The title comes from a reminder a townsperson gave a filmmaker who was documenting how the football team was taking leadership in fighting the drug problem: “Don’t forget the beauty.”
I have seen so much beauty the last year or so working with the young people of Breathitt County. I have so many favorite moments that it’s hard to pick just a few: Was it walking into the theatre room with all those creative and passionate students and thinking, this is where I would have found myself, way back then when I lived here? Was it the poem reluctantly handed me by a burly sophomore: “I love football like a brother—you fight daily with it till 3.”? Was it exploring all the beautiful maps made by Ms. Raines’ and Ms. Coomer’s students, showing me the ways in which Breathitt County gave them strength? Was it reading the words written on my last day at Breathitt High in the spring, a letter from a young woman to her future self, which could have been a letter to me: “Never forget the land to which you first belonged, because it is your home.”?
I am thinking now about some words on the website of IDEAS xLab, the sponsor of Our Breathitt, whose vision is a healthy, just, and hopeful society. “Are you hopeful?” the web page asks. Have you set goals for yourself in the future, where the outcome is uncertain? Can you imagine many different ways to reach your goals? Do you have the grit and ability to rally what you will need to get there?
When I think about the youth I have met, I want to say yes for them. Yes, I see you! I know you can!
But I can’t, of course. I can’t speak for any of them, for any of you reading these columns we’ve been sharing these weeks. You can speak for yourself, though. How are you hopeful? And how can we—all of us: your neighbors, your leaders, your elders, your youth, your healthcare providers, your allies, your media —how can we leverage that hope for the benefit of “Our Breathitt”?
Pauletta Hansel is a poet, essayist and teacher from Jackson who was Cincinnati’s first Poet Laureate. Her parents cared for and educated Breathitt children and young adults for many years.
This column is brought to you by Our Breathitt, a community arts and health experience bringing together artists and Breathitt Countians from across Kentucky. Project is organized with IDEAS xLab (an artist-led nonprofit), and supported by the National Endowment for the Arts. Starting in August 2019, five collaborating writers, each with their own perspectives and ties to the county, will offer weekly columns and audio stories for radio and podcasts. Contact us at 859-397-1317 to join this conversation by leaving a voicemail with your response to the questions we raise and adding thoughts of your own! You may hear your responses incorporated into future posts and narratives! You can also email at firstname.lastname@example.org. We hope you will mark your calendars and join us at the Our Breathitt Summit, October 11-12 in Jackson, Kentucky. Information at www.ideasxlab.com/ourbreathitt.