Marianne Worthington, Larger Bodies Than Mine, Finishing Line Press, 2006
by David Gross
Marianne Worthington was born in Tennessee and now lives, teaches and writes in southeastern Kentucky. Her first collection, Larger Bodies Than Mine, takes its title from a line in James Agee's A Death in the Family and most of these poems deal with the poet's family: grandparents, parents, siblings, cousins, aunts and uncles, their lives and deaths, demons and saviours, sometimes they come from a place mysterious and twilit. The book opens with this poem:
A man sets fire to the woods
behind my grandmother's house, makes
his way toward me. He lights
firecrackers, tosses them in a zig-
zag pattern. Dry leaves, brush crackle
and spark. Flames jump around her
porch. I am paralyzed on a cot in the street
watching. Her house ablaze, the man lies
down behind me, whispers in a voice like smoke
"Have you ever wondered if you're a ghost?"
These lines bring Basil Bunting to mind, who felt that all poems were musical and Worthington's love of music, both sacred and secular carries throughout this volume:
... We are willow and birch,
enchanted and renewed; apple and blackthorn,
blossoms with sharp spines. We are the bristlecone pine
in the desert, older than Methuselah.
These could be folk song lyrics and one could nearly transcribe a string-band songbook from these poems, but not all of the tunes would be dark and filled with hardship as are so many traditional songs. Ms. Worthington's spiritual ties are also evident throughout many of these stories of life in the Appalachians, whether it be in the reverent clarity of her observations or simple delight in the natural world:
Give back the blackberry
briars hiding snakes, the itchy okra in the kitchen
garden, the cattle on their daily march from field
("For the Young Girl Who Lost Her Father")
or the comfort of faith in an afterlife that her grandmother hoped for:
What darkness comes and transfigures us while
we sleep? What hot wind took up my lovely
grandmother, her body lifted upright
from dreams, her coarse white hair loose and blowing
like her bedclothes into the void beyond
("My Grandmother's Dream of Ascension")
Many poets, when writing about family, end up sounding cliche'd or sentimental but these poems are totally genuine, drawn from a place so real that I felt myself being drawn back into my own family stories; a place filled with black and white TV, Ivory Soap, nine-cent Krystal hamburgers and Captain Kangaroo, a time and place many of us remember and that Ms. Worthington recreates perfectly. She sings of mountains, family and self:
Let me stand in the open window
up front on the driver's side
my body braved against the wind,
head held high, stubborn,
like the daring Jack Russell terrier
roaring by me in that red pickup truck,
her broad chest thrust proudly
sniffing the possibilities of the open road.
Larger Bodies Than Mine was chosen by the publishers for their New Women's Voices Series and was the 2007 Appalachian Book of the Year. Its publication establishes Ms. Worthington a place in the increasingly rich vein of excellent writing coming out of the Appalachians and I look forward to her next collection.
David Gross lives on a small farm in the foothills of the Illinois Ozarks. His most recent collection of poems Pilgrimage is available from Finishing Line Press or at Amazon.