Dillingham’s poems and stories gaze in special way
by Rob Neufeld
Nancy Dillingham, a Barnardsville poet and story writer, captures rural scenes with a gaze that renders them into signs.
The first 13 words of “Fragile Freeways,” a poem in “Americana Rural,” her eighth and latest book, cascade into nine lines before arriving at the sign.
was laid out
you drove by
The little, symbolic song concludes with the lyric:
and the road
became a dark question mark
serpentine under a lonely sky.
Realism and romanticism
Most of the time, Dillingham conveys her world view through ultra-specific moments—especially in her stories, which view incidents of mountain life through the perspective of mountain ballads.
“It is Monday—washday,” “Jealousy,” begins, getting into the mind of a girl who goes to a screenless window in her bedroom to check out the rain that could cancel work that day.
“But today the sun is out,” the girl sees, “and she wonders if Billy will come. She dreads to see him. She doesn’t know if she can face him after everything that’s happened.”
Scenes from the last year occur to the girl in the order of revelation, beginning with Billy, a handyman, helping the girl carry water buckets, and then staying for dinner. The girl’s father works a night shift at the mill, and neglects his family; and Billy fills a void.
The ache more than the thrill
Dillingham’s plot-lines are fated ones, not surprises. She devotes her focus to memorable moments that arise along the way.
In “Sorrow Times Two,” another story, a woman in labor hears about a recent crime when her husband stops for gas on the way to the distant hospital.
The storekeeper comes out and tells of the knifing he’d just witnessed.
“I saw it all,” he says. “Joe Beck pulled up, and the Mercer kid got in the truck with him….See that blood there?”
Whether the subject is tragic or pastoral, Dillingham’s narrators relate them in an unvarnished, open-eyed way.
The pregnant wife had led off the story with a gaze out her window.
“She watches as her husband plows the field…It is as though he and the horse are one interconnected force, the horse’s head up now as the man pulls on the reins, checking him, straining backward, the horse’s head down now as the man bends forward, giving him more rein.”
In the hospital room, after their son is born, the woman’s husband “wonders about the look of abject sorrow that passes over her face.” Six weeks later, in bed, the woman cuddles up to her husband, and he awakens. “The budding earth drinks thirstily.”
Dillingham can kick her heels or deliver elegies.
In her poem, “Epos,” local lore comes to joyous life in telling how Absalom, a pioneer,
eloped with his fifteen-year-old sweetheart
swam the Swannanoa
with his bride-to-be on his back
bought the first Big Ivy tract
Likewise, in her story, “Auntie,” Dillingham celebrates an aunt who had once come to live with the narrator’s family, and was deemed a witch by the community.
Family legends emerge hilariously, as they do in Fred Chappell’s novel, “I Am One of Your Forever,” and his book of poems, “Family Gathering.”
“Auntie,” Dillingham writes, “could cross her legs and still place both feet on the ground, a feat we had never seen accomplished before.”
The hard edge in Dillingham’s work involves a tragic view of society and people’s abusive tendencies. In this, and in the use of folklore, her kinship is with the mid-20th century East Tennessee writer, Mildred Haun.
There is another element in Dillingham writing, though, and that is the hope, grace, and escape supplied by mountain Baptist religion.
“Take the time I went with my sisters/ to our cousin’s pond,” Dillingham writes in her poem, “I’ll Fly Away.” The girl of the poem falls in the deep water.
“I drowned/ I think,” she says, “saw stars and sky that wouldn’t stop/ heard music celestial-like or so I thought.”
Then there was the time a dark shadow tried touching her in an apple shed.
Dillingham has masterfully developed her musical and tale-telling voices and has established herself as one of the leading witnesses and bards in our region’s literature.
Author Rob Neufeld writes the weekly local history feature, “Visiting Our Past,” for the Citizen-Times, and may be reached at 505-1973 or email@example.com. Visit the website he manages, “The Read on WNC.”
Americana Rural by Nancy Dillingham (Wind Publications trade paper, 135 pages).
Book cover, art by Elizabeth Ellison.
Nancy's work deserves a much wider readership than it now has. Her poems cut to the bone; they reveal a mountain woman's joy, pain, and dreams. Her fiction reverberates in much the same way. I'm delighted that Wind Press has published this book, and I hope that Appalachian Studies classes use it.
I'm the publisher of this book, so you're welcome to take these comments with a grain of salt.
Nancy's book holds the Wind Publications' record for rapidity of acceptance for publication. Reviewer Neufeld says "Realism and romanticism." For me, it's more like "Nostalgia without Sentimentality" — a velvet sledgehammer.
The book is an intermingling of poems and prose, something that seldom works in my opinion. But the prose here is more akin to prose poems, and they meld perfectly. The first reading, as well as subsequent readings, generated the same feeling in my gut that I got from Winesburg, Ohio or the introduction to A Death in the Family.
Kay Byer is certainly right when she says, "Nancy's work deserves a much wider readership..."