Review from Appalachian Heritage,
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
. . . 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.
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