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       Review from Appalachian Heritage,  Winter 2003   

Steven R. Cope.  In Killdeer's Field. Wind Publications, 2002. 116 pages. $12.00.  
Sassafras. Wind Publications, 2002. 228 pages. $15.00.

Steven R. Cope's recently published book of poems, In Killdeer's Field, begins with a quotation from Jack London that includes the sentence, ". . . language did not grow fast in those days."  A poem appearing early in this stunning collection, "Appalache," contains the lines:

      . . . and every thought becomes one thought
      and that the thought of the earth--
      the same thought, the only thought,

      the thought the wild dog has
      when his belly's full of blood
      and the air is cool
      and it is dusk
      and he leans upon his paws
      wanting nothing--not even the truth.

Most of the poems in this collection, certainly those in the first section, seem enactments of this state of spirit, where language has no abstractions, where utterance is prized out of deepest, most knowing silence.  The distilled feeling of this book could only have been achieved through vigil--long, dedicated, and arduous.  The work coheres around grief--austere and passionate--for the wounded natural world, the world that is no longer "the only thought."

In his novel, Sassafras, which appeared a month after In Killdeer's Field, the spirit of that world is embodied dramatically in the form of a three-footed black panther, marauding and terrorizing along Pomery Shocks Ridge, near the Red River Gorge.  The narrator of the action is a kind of bard, able to report, with grim tenderness and droll accuracy, on the working of the minds of various members of the little town of Jolene, down from the ridge. (Among other wonderful gifts of narration, Cope has a perfect ear for the spoken language of Eastern Kentucky, hearing it so keenly that he transforms common, hard-pressed utterance into a kind of song or poetry.)

The novel opens on a dream dreamt, on a freezing night when the power lines are out, by the Reverend Carson Ables.  It is a dream of sharing a cave with a large animal of whom he is not afraid, and whom he then becomes.  He awakens from the dream with the words in his mind, "Glory to the lamb that was slain," and a sense that something is moving, inside and outside his house.

To speak of the mysterious panther's siege upon this feckless and all-too-human community would be to reveal the action.  I will only say that the structure suggests the movement of Greek tragedy:  something threatens the community, and a terrible price must be paid before the community can become safe.  But the price, in this case, is the annihilation of what is most free and pure, the source of mystery, dream, and power. To make the community safe, irrevocable harm must be done.  In the end, it is the most innocent human soul, that of the stepchild of Reverend Ables, Toby, who is granted the power to be touched and changed by the panther's mystery, who by his love heals the distance between human and beast.

This novel is written in language that "did not grow fast"-- unsentimental, precise, and deeply felt.  As in the collection of poems, Sassafras seems the work of sustained, hard-won vision.  Both works have their maker's mark upon them, language at once utterly concrete and also, seemingly, in the act of purifying itself into silence.

                                   -- Mary Ann Taylor-Hall