M. Stone is my favorite modern poet. This collection is a gem. In my mind, her regional writing in Lore is just as significant as Faulkner’s, Joyce’s, Derek Walcott’s, Gwendolyn Brooks’, I could go on and on…
What is so beautiful and impactful about regional writing is that it unites people. The work often illuminates fundamental truths that transcend location. Lore is no exception, especially given its title. “Lore” is an oral tradition. This can be illustrated by the fact that many different cultures, across different time periods, have a story about one man and his family surviving a global deluge (among other examples). The harrowing, gut-wrenching, grabbing accounts in Stone’s collection are ones that we all know because we have personally lived them, know people who have, through reading, through word of mouth, or even through empathy. She skillfully writes in a multitude of voices. If the reader tried to attribute every first person account to Stone herself (which, I feel like she is in there somewhere, but surely not everywhere), his/her head would spin. Sometimes she writes from a male perspective, sometimes a female perspective. Sometimes it’s an adult speaking, other times a child. Sometimes it’s a parent, other times a spouse. Human sexuality is explored, but some of the relationships Stone leaves open for the reader (i.e. “Jewelweed.” It is unstated if the speaker is male or female).
The level of craft in this book is stellar. One of my favorite lines in the book is found in “Black Cohosh.” Line 2 reads “are rouged with rhododendron bloom.” The letter O is very prominent, and it serves multiple functions. Sometimes it’s assonant (rouge and bloom), and other times there is internal rhyme inter-syllabically (yes, I did in fact just make that up..pretty sure it’s not a word) in rhododendron. “-dendron” has rhythm to it. After “Blue Cohosh,” I was so short of breath I had to stop for a minute. This is a typical physical response when I read any work by Stone! The stanzas in the whole book are neat, crisp, and potent.
The most potent moment happens though when the reader first opens the book.
I was surprised to see what adheres the poems together: plants. Specifically, plants native to Appalachia. Because I put implicit trust in Stone’s writing, I dove in. And I swam. Sometimes, I rested and just floated.
The format of the poems in Lore is remarkable and strategic. What writers and readers of poetry often appreciate about the art form is how conducive it is to discussion and interpretation. We revel in having a measured amount of uncertainty in what a particular metaphor means, the emotion the entire work elicits, how that work relates to the audience, and so forth. The title of each poem is a plant, and what that plant treats. Then, the writing follows it. In essence, Stone gives readers a solution, and then poses the problem or situation. The audience witnesses a poetic paradigm shift, of sorts. The uncertainty I am left with, after my heart was squeezed of its contents, is unsettling and pointed. I don’t know if the Goldenseal helped the speaker, or if she stayed with her boyfriend/husband. Was the boy who saw his friends die get really dehydrated after using the Coralroot? Was he emotionally paralyzed and have to be under the care of a professional? Did the Virginia Strawberry, in cooling down the speaker, arouse a different heat, one a plant can’t assuage? Did John ever return to the marriage bed? Did the miner have to go to AA? Did the Black Willow also dull the pain of loss? Did her husband take her back? (and did his wife find out…and how’d they get mouth sores? Did she get out of a bad relationship in “Bloodroot?” Did a lot more people die in “Boneset?” After “Blue Cohosh” ends, did the girl have to get an abortion? Was Joyce’s husband able to keep working? There are SO many questions.
However, Stone does give us answers. One lies on page 3. It is a quote from Paracelsus: “What the eyes perceive in herbs or stones or trees is not yet a remedy; the eyes see only the dross.” Plants can cure or alleviate, but they are not necessarily a cure-all. That’s why the audience is so keen on what happens next (Stone even has a disclaimer on page 2 that the book is not meant to diagnose or treat medical conditions). However, the key difference between allopathic treatments (i.e. take a pill that fixes one thing, but causes five other problems…traditional medicine), and osteopathic, or, more precisely, homeopathic/natural remedies is that one form of treatment hinges on a patient’s willingness to take advantage of the solution, and the other focuses on faith or belief that the proposed remedy will be beneficial. The osteopathic/homeopathic/alternative medicine falls into the latter description.
Lore shows readers what it looks like when we hold onto something for dear life, be it solutions, desires, better times, etc. Sometimes when we desperately hold on, it is possible to lose grip. Other times, we can hold on, weather through adversity, and come out the other side. What is beautiful is that we can avail ourselves of these plants whenever we get ready. Traditional medicine changes, and may or may not be available depending on our resources or insurance policies. But those plants are ever present to solve perennial problems. Just as the plants are alive, the people chronicled are alive too, and are in flux. It is possible that the people written about had good outcomes…we just don’t know. Regardless, that faith can be tapped into, and we can look past the dross if we want. There is a masterful, rich duality to this collection.
In Stone’s passion for the written word and generosity, she gave a number of copies to readers. She has been so vocal about her struggle and emergence from depression. I am rooting for her so hard in all of her creative endeavors, and have directly benefited from her strength, her experiences, and her support. In her speech found in the written word, I am often left speechless. And that’s the thing, isn’t it? To have text, which is not audible, silence you. Text that takes the air from your lungs. That puts the words back in your mouth even though you think you broke them. That pulls you up when you start to flounder.
- Addendum: A brief note on the organization: I found it very interesting that the book opens up with a question of whether or not the speaker will be able to procreate and ends with another speaker’s child dying… I feel this is significant, but I don’t know what it means…