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Volume 26, Number 6 — June 2019

BOOK REVIEW: Her Secret Dream

Collection of Poems "Worth the Wait"

By James Owens | August 28, 2007

Rita Sims Quillen's Her Secret Dream, a welcome book of new and selected poems gleaned from 30 years of writing in and about Central Appalachia, offers readers the best work of one of the most intelligent and honest poets in the region today.

Quillen's books have not come fast. This is her first collection of poems since Counting the Sums appeared from Abingdon-based Sow's Ear Press in 1996, and many of the pieces from that book have found their way into the present volume. The result of such slow simmering is a batch of poems that is worth the wait. Unlike writers who nervously hustle a new book out into the world every couple of years, Quillen seems reluctant to let go of her work until it is just right.

Quillen's interests as a poet and her approach to putting a poem together have remained fairly consistent throughout her career. "Nexus," an early poem, provides a key moment of orientation toward Quillen's work as a whole, touching on themes that have continued to shape her vision of her world right up to the present. The poem begins by recounting a walk taken by the poet with her daughter through the sort of landscape that Quillen evokes so well:

We climb up the rocky path
Across the hill where bees throb
Toward honeysuckle and wild rose
Through matted briers
and chiggerweeds
To a top-heavy oak
The tree of life
With roots splitting the ground

The poet and girl visit a stream where they wade and try to catch tadpoles, eventually watching bees that spend their days carrying water "from the stream to the high ground," and the poet wishes the girl might someday come to understand the interelationship of all the things around them, rippling out from the "nexus" of perception through the human and natural worlds, represented here in the bees' "lives / Lasting only a few days / Or a season: / A flicker of connection."

That final phrase, "a flicker of connection," might as well be inscribed at the heart of Quillen's accomplishment. Whatever the themes of her poems — and they are often about the ache of youth and the other ache of age, about marriage, the sometimes difficult lives of women in a traditional culture and the paradoxical longing for the comfort of tradition, about children and the absolute necessity of poetry — it is always the weave of "connection," even when thrumming with its tensions and ambivalances, that informs and unites the varied poems into one vision, the connections of person to person, of a people to landscape.

The more recent poems in Her Secret Dream make it clear that the landscape Quillen has in her view, no matter how closely observed and true to life and recognizable, is no longer merely the world of the everyday here-and-now. In a series of four poems about trees, especially, the hills and hollows of the page echo the poet's voice back with a symbolic, even mythic, resonance. "From the first tree I ever loved / I learned danger and duality," begins the significantly titled "Rewriting Genesis":

The ancient pear tree in the front yard
With the rope swing my father made
Served as sanctuary
Where I could pump and pull
Till my sandals were framed
Blue then green, blue then green.

The speaker of the poem remembers that the pear tree and its swing were off-limits during August when bees visited the fallen fruit and "the tiny yard became a yellowjacket hell / Where bursting pear skins split / To reveal soft pale delicious hearts." Her disobedience in this version of the Fall was to ignore the ban on playing under the tree.

Under the pear tree
Lay the Garden of Eden
We drew in Bible school
With a waxy green crayon tree,
The snake I hated curled underneath.

Just as "Rewriting Genesis" is a version of the biblical story of the Garden of Eden, so the pear tree and the yellowjackets are versions of the "top-heavy oak" and the bees from "Nexus," carried through to a later, perhaps wiser, retelling. The other "tree poems" among Quillen's recent work ring their own changes on the archetypal material. This is not repetition, rather the deepening and enrichment that happens when a poet in her strength holds an idea patiently and revolves it, writing from several sides.

Quillen, who also teaches English at Mountain Empire Community College and surveys the world from her home in Scott County, Va., has gathered her forces for a lasting contribution to the literature of Appalachia and beyond, deserving a place beside such poets as Jim Wayne Miller, Fred Chappell, Jeff Daniel Marion, and Robert Morgan. Her Secret Dream is an important book for anyone at all who cares about poetry. And for anyone who cares about poetry in Appalachia, it is essential.

About the Poet:
Rita Quillen lives with her husband, Mac, on Early Autumn Farm in Scott County, Va. In addition to her books of poems, she is the author of a book of critical essays, Looking for Native Ground: Contemporary Appalachian Poetry, and an unpublished novel titled Hiding Ezra. Her work has been included in several critically acclaimed anthologies, including Bloodroot: Reflections on Place by Appalachian Women Writers; Appalachia Inside Out; and the Appalshop public radio series, Tell It On the Mountain.

About the Reviewer: James Owens grew up in Dickenson County, Va., and now lives in La Porte, Ind., where he works in educational assessment. A former copy editor at the Bristol Herald Courier, he graduated from King College and earned an MFA in creative writing from the University of Alabama. He was the editor of the Sow's Ear Poetry Review (2000-2003). Some of his recent poems and reviews have appeared, or will appear, in Now & Then, Clinch Mountain Review, The Pedestal, and Birmingham Poetry Review. A collection of his poems, An Hour is the Doorway, is due out from Black Lawrence Press this fall.

A! EXTRA — The following poem did not appear in our print edition, only on-line:

Let the Words Fall Where They May

by Rita Sims Quillen

Let darkness come
With only a star here or there
A doughy biscuit moon
Unfazed by clouds passing by.

Let storms slash across treetops
Lightning spiking to the ground
Thunder rumbling through the walls
Knocking limbs to earth.

Let snow pile the roadbank
Remove all color from the world
Freeze long tears from my rooftop
The snowflakes disappearing instantly in my hand.

Let the Words come like an ache
Moving through my timid hand
Unafraid of stormy night and black and white
The ink a ragged tracing of my life's map.


Topics: Literature