Through writing, a poet returns to the Appalachian home she left

Melissa Range left eastern Tennessee more than two decades ago but her Appalachian roots are evident every time she opens her mouth. “I refuse to have my Southern way of talking scrubbed off my tongue,” Range says with a laugh.

Her recent collection, “Scriptorium,” is about language spoken by ordinary people and mingles the historical with the personal. In the book’s foreword, poet Tracy K. Smith writes “Range urges her readers to see and claim… who we are and who we’ve been.”

Range’s identity has very much to do with where she was raised. Although she left Appalachia when she became an adult, she says she is constantly exploring through poetry the deep connection she has to that area.

“Those mountains have a pull on you. I don’t feel at home there, but I don’t feel at home anywhere else either. I don’t feel comfortable being where I grew up, but my heart wants to be there.”

Since the election two weeks ago, much attention has been given to this “second America” where people have felt left behind from the rest of the country, Range says. She is quick to note that they didn’t all vote for Donald Trump. Many in her family voted for Hillary Clinton and were Bernie Sanders supporters before that.

She does admit that folks in the region often feel ignored by the rest of the country.

“If Hillary Clinton would have won the election we wouldn’t even be talking about rural people and what they want and need. But because Trump won, people are closely looking and saying, ‘What just happened here?’ Suddenly the spotlight is on rural people and trying to understand them.”

And Range says she is sympathetic to some of the anger rural people have for the “liberal elite.”

“I hear the way intellectuals disparage rural white people, saying things like ‘redneck’ and ‘white trash.’ When I open my mouth to speak— even though I have a Ph.D.— I’m made fun of because I have a twang. If people in rural America feel mad at the rest of the country sometimes, this is partly why.”

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Range says she wrote “Crooked as a Dog’s Hind Leg,” a poem that defies gender expectations, as an elegy for her grandmother. Woven throughout is the image of her grandfather, whom she says was a good person, but could not be depended on because of his alcoholism.

“What I saw growing up is that the women in my life were strong and they held it together. Like in many communities, women who don’t have much—working class women— sacrificed themselves and lived for their husbands, their brothers, their sons. I did not like what I saw, and I chose not to do that.”

Crooked as a Dog’s Hind Leg

Yanking my lank hair into dog-ears,
my granny frowned at my cowlick’s
revolt against the comb, my part

looking like a dog’s shank
no matter what she did, crooked
as the dogtrot path

out the mountain county I left
with no ambitions to return,
rover-minded as my no-count granddaddy, crooking

down switchbacks that crack the earth
like the hard set of the mouth
women are born with where I’m from.

Their faces have a hundred ways to say
“Don’t go off,” “Your place is here,”
“Why won’t you settle down?”—

and I ignored them all like I was one
of their ingrate sons (jobless, thankless,
drugged up, petted to death), meandering

like a scapegrace in a ballad,
as a woman with no children likes to do,
as a woman with crooked roots knows she can.

“When you coming home?” my granny
would ask when I called, meaning “to visit”
but meaning more “to stay,”

and how could I tell her
that the creeks crisscrossing
our tumbledown ridges

are ropes trying to pull my heart straight
when it’s a crooked muscle,
its blood crashing in circles?

Why should I tell her
that since I was a mop-headed infant
and leapt out of my baby bed,

I’ve been bent on skipping
the country, glad as a chained-up hound
until I slipped my rigging?

What could I say but “I’ll be home Christmas,”
what could I hear but “That’s a long time,”
what could I do but bless

the crooked teeth in my head
and dog the roads that lead all ways
but one?

Excerpted from Scriptorium: Poems by Melissa Range, A National Poetry Series Winner Selected and with a Foreword by Tracy K. Smith (Beacon Press, 2016). Reprinted with Permission from Beacon Press.

Melissa Range has just published her second collection of poetry, “Scriptorium.” She is the recipient of awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, the Fine Arts Work Center and the Rona Jaffe Foundation. Her first book was called “Horse and Rider.” Originally from East Tennessee, Range currently lives in Wisconsin and teaches at Lawrence University.

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