“A Place So Deep Inside America It Can’t Be Seen,” by Kari Gunter-Seymour

Kari Gunter-Seymour poses for a portrait at the Dairy Barn Arts Center on March 6th, 2018.

Reviewed by Donna Meredith

One minute it soars. The next it dives. It drives tacks into your heart and then warms your feet like a cozy pair of socks. The language and imagery in Kari Gunter-Seymour’s poetry collection, A Place So Deep Inside America It Can’t Be Seen, is all that we expect from a talented poet at the top of her game.

The title poem seems to refer to Appalachia, an area of the country often overlooked, and when it does attract notice, it is often viewed in a negative light. The truth lies hidden deep within its hills and valleys. The poem contrasts “the magic and the songs” lost from our grandmothers’ past with a future transformed by the magic of genetic manipulation to achieve perfection. Exquisite imagery captures the universal yearning of all creatures to evolve into more than what they are:

 . . . A moth presses wings

thin as paper against my window,

more beautiful than I could ever be.


Ryegrass raise seedy heads

beyond the bull thistle and preen.

Everything alive aches for more.

Having been told she was ugly, the narrator wishes she could be more beautiful. The word preen suggests that even ryegrass seeks admiration and longs to multiply. This drive for “more” underlies most of the problems the world faces.

Many poems in the collection deal with complicated family relationships. In “When You Meet My Mama,” the speaker lists questions, some banal, some piercing. There are questions whose answers might yield helpful knowledge a mother could pass along to offspring, as well as those uncovering the source of her mother’s pain, perhaps the cause of her mother’s depression. There was an incident in the barn involving the uncle. And unfortunately, the pain is amplified by a grandmother who didn’t believe the story. Abuse and mental illness also reside in a place so deep inside America they can’t be seen.

Another poem tells of a woman’s surprise to learn her mother, a proper preacher’s wife, had once run away from home and spent a year working at an airplane factory in Detroit during the war years. Similarly, “Pack Horse Librarian” tells of grandmothers employed by the WPA as librarians “to packsaddle / literacy to the underserved” in eastern Kentucky—shocking because in those days only “women of disrepute” worked outside of the kitchen or the fields.

In “Trigger Warning,” a mother fears “ . . . never finding / the brave heart my son had been” before he witnessed war and “cradled” men “until there was just nothing there.” Now, he needs “anxiety meds.” She wishes he could get past these memories, but as she remembers her own father’s life and death, she admits, “We don’t get to choose our memories, / they are triggered. / Guilt comes the same way, / unreeling from our darkest places, / the awful wait for the agonal breath.” In both cases, people experience helplessness, the inability to stop another person’s pain or death. Because we can’t help but feel we should be able to, we are dragged down by guilt.

“Ruby May” explores a bipolar mother: “Manic, she will coo you penniless. / Depressed, she’ll peel the skin/ off your face with nary a whip / of her curly head.” A relationship with such a mother would be difficult, her love and charm attracting you one minute; her cruelty slaying you the next. The shaping event in the mother’s childhood was an uncle’s abuse, an uncle who used to tickle her / up under her chin and otherwise / on whiskey nights.” Oh, the horrible memories hiding behind that word otherwise! As children, the narrator’s mother and aunt used to hide in a fort made from chairs and a starflower quilt and “lock fingers in pinky swear, / hearts crossed, hoped he’d die.” The poet’s twist on a common childhood pledge bites deep into the heart.

Anger and pain flow vividly in “Wedding Dress.” The offending dress looks “like a waning magnolia / stuffed butt first in an old hatbox” after the marriage ends. Witness the anger: “Now a freewoman, I wanted to drown / the bitch, torture each petite pearl button.” Witness the pain: “my gut / the depository of a thousand / swallowed tacks.” Yet that “butt first”—doesn’t it make you want to unleash a peal of bitter laughter?

In “Perfect Pitch,” the speaker rejoices in the strong example set by her mother and aunt who not only sang Dolly Parton songs aloud in the car, but also worked in a factory that made Honda car parts:

The physical labor made their bodies strong,

their future bright and like Dolly,

they weren’t taking any shit.

They learned early on about strikes and picket lines,

how important it was to organize.

Activism has long been a defining trait of Appalachia, stretching back to the coal mine wars. Later in life, the narrator realizes how much she was influenced by these Feminists—even though they would have decried the use of that word. And perhaps most important, she was raised by “Brave women in the work force determined / to see their daughters inside college classrooms, / the hell out of factory row.”

Gunter-Seymour’s references to white oaks, hollyhock spines, daisied pasture, the musty smell of lilacs after rain, and brittle cornstalks evoke her special place in this world, her deep roots in Appalachia. Her poems are sprinkled with familiar echoes from the hills: “clap and tweedle laughter,” “clock ticks” and “shilly shally,” and the “flamboyant flappings of wings.”

This fine collection of poems soars on wings of well-chosen words.

The poet is the founder and executive director of the “Women of Appalachia Project” and editor of the Women Speak anthology series. A retired instructor in the School of Journalism at Ohio University, Gunter-Seymour is Ohio’s Poet Laureate. Her work can be found in Still, Rattle, Crab Orchard Review, Main Street Rag, Stirring, Lascaux Review, The American Journal of Poetry and The LA Times, as well as on her website: www.karigunterseymourpoet.com.

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