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THE WELL STRING
by Noel Smith
fiction
non-fiction
memoir
poetry
                                      From the book's FOREWORD
                                                  by Silas House
                            (author of A Parchment of Leaves, Clay's Quilt and The Coal Tattoo)

Noel Smith knows about the soul of this place. In these poems set in rural America,
specifically Southern Appalachia, particularly Eastern Kentucky, she zooms in on all the
perfect details, all the little secrets that only a person with a conscious heart can notice.
Each of Smith’s poems is a sharp, wonderful knife that slices open the chest of this
place and gently folds back the skin so that the reader can see within with eyes as wide
open as her own.

We see clearly and vividly, for Smith offers us haunting images. In the title poem, a long-
married couple unwind a length of twine to measure the depth of their well and, in the
process, are able to assess the bigness of their love. But their well string serves as even
more than that, providing a central image that evokes a measurement of distance and
time. Herein lies the tangled wonders of the known and the unknown, the timely and the
timeless. Taking the “hunk of twine,” the woman in “The Well String” realizes that it is
“all snarled up.” She straightens the string just as Smith untangles the knotted-up
wonders of the known and the unknown throughout this collection. Once untangled, the
couple open the well, lifting “the lid off another world,” and the well string is sent on a
journey down into the well. We happily go along.

Smith takes us on a journey of wonders as we travel with her across time and place, to
Appalachia – “snarled up” with complexities – over the course of the entire 20th
Century, presenting not so much a poetry collection as a novel in poems. We leave this
book knowing not only another time and place, but also an entire family and community
of flesh-and-blood characters who are so real and complex and endearing that they
fairly climb out of the page and take up residence on our shoulders as we read along.
                                                                                                                           
(cont.)...
I TELL YOU I AM BY MYSELF DOWN HERE

You’d think on this bright day
the way the light is,
messages could come in from outlandish places.

I call to my great grandmothers
on down the line all laid to rest
in the Campbell cemetery with the babies.

You, Granny Haywood, were
buried in shame all by yourself,
just 'cause you were stuck

with that wild man Jobie Creech
all the time messing with women.
They say you shot his favorite, Emmie,

her with her baby in her arms.
She was down a while before she died.
Being as the baby was Jobie’s, you raised it.

Once in a while Jobie would
take Emmie something special.
One time it was sausages and souse.

He wrapped it up for her
and just as he left,
you switched it to a poke of cow pies.  

Nothing like that happens to me.
Just as well. You, Granny Haywood,
were buried as befits a murderer.

I never knew you and still I miss you.
How was it for you all? In your time
did you feel the gray mist all day

clamping down, pressing on your chest
as if you was under the river?
And the little coffins. I would like

you to tell me, how you got through.
After that we wouldn’t have much
to talk about as I just have

t.v., my girl friends and my new pickup.
Jesus isn’t around that much.
I just get up, put my McDonald’s uniform on,

go to work, come home, watch my stories.
But the way the light is today,
messages ought to come in.

I feel it every time that Redbird sings
but I’ve not the tongue to name it.
I tell you I am by myself down here.
                            NANCY ANN

In the half light of dawn a ghost mountain
towered above her in a mist lit from within.
This was the time to go up and gather
the ginseng, cohosh, yellowroot, bloodroot.

On the flank of the mountain the palms
of her hands played the shale,
flinging away any treacherous break offs
as she heaved herself straight up
hand over hand by the trunks of trees.

At times like this she felt neither
male nor female, knowing herself only
as a being dwelling in the forest along
with other wild things, eyes, ears and skin keen,
muscles rippling along like a careful cat.
She went from one grove to another
cutting and culling the precious roots.
The mist thinned to spirals rising

around her like a hundred campfires.
Spirit mists, she called them.
She turned back down at that odd
elbow of a beech bleached as bone,
grown close to the ground. At noon,

slung with a precious harvest,
she slogged down Line Fork, sometimes in it,  
sometimes on its banks, heard the bark
of her good hound Jim and came at last
to her paling fence, her cabin of logs,

the blessed dark of sleep. To rise
at dawn and set out her leaves to dry,
to mix and grind the poultices, salves,
teas, powders, gifts of the earth
to those in pain and those
reaching the dooryard of death.
CALEB AIN’T GOING TO DO ME LIKE HE DID FANNIE

Right after they married sister Fannie off
Caleb and Bige Wheeler rose up
drunk as hoot owls and hollered for me.

I tore up the mountain like a wall-eyed bat
over the head of the holler, thorns
drawing blood, and down the branch along

those bald stones so wet and shiny,
through the dark green hemlocks like rooms
that hide me. I stopped in the cool moss

to listen to the branch, the way it just jingles along
without a care in its sweet singing. It said
soon you will be gone from this black place.

Directly I came on Uncle Digby sitting on his porch.
I said, Caleb ain’t gonna do me like he did Fannie
and I’ve come to ask you for some money

so I can get gone from here. Uncle Digby,
them kind blue eyes of his, You just a child, he said,
Lord have mercy. He went in and came out,

handed me a handkerchief tied up,
money inside. I hopped a train to Aunt Suzie’s
and stayed till the day Johnny Howard came to me.
THE BIRTH AT SUDIE CATON’S

Sudie Caton’s time has come.
Nancy Ann has carefully laid out
her scissors, white sheet
and packets of herbs. It is dark
but for the flickering
of a single candle guttering
on the broken-down stove.
The night air pours in
through gaps in the log walls.

The twins have gone up the creek
with their grandmother.
Nancy Ann tilts a splint chair
against the chinking to doze, but hounds
whine and shuffle under the planks,
and far toward the mountain
an owl’s sob sifts in over and over.

Two gnarled hands appear
inside the door sill and old Papa Jamison
skinny as a string of pulled gum
jerks in on hands and knees,
a corn cob pipe bobbing in his mouth.
His neck wags this way and that
sniffing danger. He sees Nancy Ann,
swears, spits and crawls back out.

Nancy Ann walks Sudie Caton up and down
the plank floor to encourage her body
to give over its tiny prize,
one figure leaning on the other,
a walk so ancient and patient
in its steadfastness
that each footfall is a prayer.

At long last the morning sifts in flawless,
each leaf bejeweled with light.
Sudie Caton is stretched out on the iron bed
where the sun shines in on her
through a hole in the wall.

Amos’ head jerks into a beam of light.
As his body slithers into the crisp air,
steam rises from his flanks
and this blinding shaft
ignites him briefly before Nancy Ann
wraps him in the blanket the church sent.
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(c) 2008
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                 BLACK GOLD

Where Sam was born
the log house leans
on the broken back of pasture
now crushed for coal.
Two piano keys lie in the mud.

Seams of coal
secret as the maidenhead vein
which once threaded back
to steamy seas
whose beds shot up

to peaks only to be brought down
by simple water;
hollows so close-sided
that when Nellie clanged the pans
for dinner, it rang through the whole creek.

The skulls of the hills
are now split and laid out
in yellow rubble scudded
with overhead wires
and a stubble of stumps.

On pale rock above the interstate
a crowd of giant square heads
on steel legs flash their lures, Walmart’s
Wendy’s. Into this tangle of mirages and desires
stream Nellie’s children in pick-ups and SUVs.


In hidden valleys even now live a few old men
like Sam who still till small holdings
dense with green seas of corn,
greasy beans, yams as big as your head
and blackberry wine put up in the cellar.

Their calendars are kept
by pacts with the moon, the laying by
of seeds, the timing of insects.
These men hang on like a pod in a November wind,
living by the old signs.