Good Night, Irene

Dear Irene,

Was this picture taken in your office?  Maybe at home, but I'm guessing from the style of phone  it's at West Virginia Wesleyan. Frostburg used the photo for your reading in  September. Did you help them pick it out? It looks to me like a black and white version is used in part by the Intermountain in Elkins, so I'm guessing your family likes. So do I.

I did a little research and found out that you're holding a broadside of your poem, "Homage to Roy Orbison" which came out in 2009, after you published it Appalachian Heritage and in your fifth collection, Vivid Companion, in 2004.

Like Roy's, your
sense of form
shapes up this shard-filled life.

February 4 I wrote up a little piece telling folks the  news that you were gone.  Talbott Funeral says it will be receiving friends from four til nine tonight and it's already 3  p.m.  I could drive the four plus hours to Belington and still make it if I leave within an hour, but I haven't gotten any work done today, since I've spent the last four hours thinking on you.

I haven't got any work done and they're still blowing up our mountains, (Doh, of course nothing has miraculously changed since Saturday). I'm still looking for a community fund to apply for a Knight grant to  train more voices in our region  to tell their stories.  And  to interest the national press in better explaining what's going on.  Knight's  "live chat" for the grant is tomorrow at noon, just about when folks will be in the midst of the celebration of your life.  I could slip out, even though I don't own a laptop.  Google tells me the library over on Elliot is open all day and has net access computers.  I just liked  the library's page on facebook. 

I could drive the nine hours round trip, meet your family and friends.  Even walk around town and imagine your childhood.  Ask directions to the farm. But besides the grant, Dendron needs help stopping a new coal plant and in Giles they're still dumping ash on the banks of the New. And I've got pitches to write for The Guardian, which hasn't published me since December.

But you're a higher priority.

That song Leadbelly made famous  echoes in my mind.  Not the verses, mind you--the context is off--but the chorus:
Good night Irene
Good night Irene
Good night Irene
I'll see you in my dreams.
Makes me wonder what you thought of that song?  It's been recorded since by so many folks from The Weavers and Johnny Cash to  Michelle Shocked and Tom Waits.  Heck I was just now reading that even Raffi has a version.

I can't  ask you anymore in person--or in letters or facebook--unless I imagine your reply.  And that  isn't usually my nature.  Although it  would make an interesting writing prompt. The Gazette says they're burying you tomorrow.


And, even if I don't make the four-plus hour drive, I plan to sit shiva for at least the next week.  It's not as if  you were Jewish, nor am I close enough kin as it's usually defined.  But, that phrase comes to mind as an explanation: kindred spirits.

I thought about how I'd say we're connected, when I was searching images on Google to find a photograph to use at the top of this post. That word "connected" came to me when I found the photo at  a review of Jayne Anne Phillips Fast Lanes on Critical Mob.  It was tucked away on the tab labelled "connections," not the one marked "influences."

I can't claim that you influenced my writing. I hadn't read enough of you, even though West Virginia named you poet laureate years before we met in Charleston. I was off reading Bill Stafford, who doesn't write anything like me, except in the sense that all three of us were (and I am) writing from a set of common concerns, if not backgrounds.


Thanks to Vic, I'm listening to you reading three of  your poems from that October when I last saw you:
  • "Homage to Hazel Dickens"
  • "At 24"
  • "Sunday Morning, 1950"
I'll research later and try to add links to written versions or if I can't find any, I can check with your sister, Eileen Martin and see how to get permission to transcribe them here. But until then,  folks can listen here:

(I hadn't noticed when Vic posted it to his blog last April, but the West Virginia Book festival posted it in a remembrance. )


I'm also listening Llewellyn McKernan interview you at the West Virginia Writers Summer Conference:
  • your approach to how to start writing writing memoir, how she adapted her draft to write essays to be recorded on NPR and the feedback loop to the memoir
  • your  take on the status and history of the development of Appalachian literature from the times of Louise McNeill  and James Still, and
  •  your thoughts on writing process and teaching creative writing.

Just wish I had known about it before the Book Festival.  I might have asked you to continue the discussion, either when we were sitting on that bench together or during your reading when you asked for questions from the audience.


So, Irene, think of this as a wordy poem for you without line breaks.  Or NaNoWriMo by a poet and ten months early (Jeanne Larsen asked me Thursday night at Hollins, was I ever going to write a novel.)

Don't reckon I'll have more time to write you today.  I've been sitting here now, pushing aside other things.  And now it's been a good five hours and I've never even taken a break to get something to eat. The emergency Lemon Luna Bar from my purse is long gone. The last bit of  Lightlife organic Tempeh smells like it's  several days past turned.

So I don't reckon I'll have more time to write you today. But, if not, goodnight, Irene.  I'll hear you in my dreams.

1 comment:

Valerie Nieman said...

Irene would have wanted you to continue fighting the good fight - West Virginia has been on my mind so much of late, for many reasons. I'll be back in the coalfields for a few days next month. (And here in NC we are also fighting fracking, coal ash ponds, overdevelopment, loss of farms etc.) Thanks for your work and your writing!