“Alone in the House of My Heart” by Kari Gunter-Seymour

Alone in the House of My Heart (Ohio University Swallow Press, 2022) is a rich and varied collection of poems by Kari Gunter-Seymour, Ohio Poet Laureate and founder/executive director of the “Women of Appalachia Project,” an arts organization she created to address discrimination directed at women from the Appalachian region. Divided in to five sections, the poems are remarkable for their accessible language, relatable themes, and precise imagery.

“Vernal Equinox,” the first poem, examines the loss and regeneration all humans must face. The speaker is “thinking about last times / [she] never knew were the last,” a sorrow we all face looking back on our lives. To “shake off this inexplicable sadness, / two cinderblocks where lungs ought to be,” the speaker packs a book, walks the fence row into the holler, and lets “spring hold on to [her] for a while.” This poem feels particularly relevant in these times of pandemic, when so many of us turned to nature for solace.

Another poem in this section, “Bone Thin,” recalls a humiliating moment one Sunday morning in a Pentecostal church: “Later, in the choir loft, mother leans, / her coffee breath all over me, / whispers loud enough / for the soprano section to hear, / You’re too pretty to be so fat.” One cannot help but ache for a daughter cut down by her mother’s obsession with her weight. A second poem in the collection—and one of my favorites— “Hella Barbie 1968,” covers similar ground. The poet laments that she comes “from farm folk, short, stocky / built to dig a ditch, throw a bale”—quite a contrast to Barbie: “I was thirteen, she was Barbie– / tight waisted, pointy ta-tas, / teensy purple pom-poms glued / to sexy high heeled slings.” The narrator’s mother bargains with her: lose five pounds if she wants a Barbie doll. A severe reduction of calories leads to her passing out in gym class—but she is rewarded with the doll, whose unnatural proportions result in a totally dysfunctional body. The poem captures the way the doll has pushed girls toward destructive eating habits and poor body images of themselves.

Another favorite poem is “Subsequently Hereafter.” The imagery and rhythms in this one are simply sublime. Each stanza offers repetition of a supposition like this one: “If my name were an animal, / it would be brown dog, dreaming / of squirrels to hound, near empty / dinner plates, buried bone maps, / the certainty of trees.” Subsequent stanzas consider different concepts, including spices, alcoholic spirits, and music. Especially lovely is the stanza devoted to color: “If a color? The hour before / a thunderstorm, a cerulean warbler / or stalwart stalks of chicory, / jagged petals wagging / their tongues in waves.” If one of a poem’s purposes is to make us see the world a new way, this one succeeds: we must pause to imagine the color of the sky an hour before a thunderstorm.

In the title poem, the speaker laments trouble in her adult son’s life, blaming herself for ways she might have failed him. Her sorrow, her inability to fix her son’s problems, cuts into a reader’s heart:

Tonight I weep for all I cannot fix,

wish for a newfangled deity to implore,

a let’s make a deal beyond altar and incense,

a clearing house for the backlog of Karma.

I drape a makeshift veil over my head,

one hand raised in supplication,

the other shielding my heart.

The poet describes so achingly the pain parents feel when they see their children suffer.

Other poems awaken our senses to the sounds around us, the tops of oak trees “clacking their branches together” in a storm, or “someone’s truck gearing down to take the hill, life somehow slipping out of gear,” or where the wind is like the voice of clouds. With onomatopoeia, the poet nails “the preak, /pruck, purr of all wild creatures.”

Many poems are devoted to the speaker’s aging mother. “Do Not Disturb” presents a disturbing portrait of a mother who is falling apart, “unraveling like a daytime soap opera.” The poem laments past use of electric shock therapy, an overzealous attempt to mend a broken heart, and her current mental decline: “Cracked as a broken mirror and all its mess, / her hours decline to halves, halves to minutes, / an empty frame all that remains / of the what, the where, or the not of her.” Another timely poem explores the effects of Covid on nursing home patients like her mother, who “sits locked away, / trapped between memory / and the moment, her body rusting.” Yet another begs life to be kind to her mother, to “leave her the names of her two children” and to spare her a few good memories like “the smell of woodsmoke, acres of sunflowers, / the climb east up the mountain.” In yet another poem, the narrator admits she was “not the daughter [her] mother needed.” In “I Look for My Dead Mother in New York,” the poet compares her mother to the Statue of Liberty: “Like the Lady, my mama was / most beautiful in sunlight, / puckered apron, trowel in one hand, / Bible raised in the other, tired, poor.” And finally, the poet explores grief after the mother’s death in “To Those Messaging Me After My Mother’s Passing.” In a nod to the current age of social media postings, the poet considers the inadequacy of such communications and the ups and downs of the psyche following loss:

All the desperate utterances we tweet

to be superficially soothed,

our reward a scattering of posts

and heart-shaped clicks.


What is history anyway,

but a conversation we’re born into

without context, a string of songs

about heartbreak, a universe

that made us from its shattering and dust?

Some days you’re handling the grief,

others, you’re a dog in a car doing donuts

in a Walmart parking lot.


Other poems explore memories of the speaker’s father, a kind man who “survived / into his seventies, but died at the age / of eighteen, on a tiny atoll in the Pacific, / when Japanese forces finally failed and he, / one of the lucky ones, returned to the states / bleeding memories as the nation cheered / and squirreled away savings bonds.” The poem is a stark reminder that a war may end, but the damage it causes continues for years to come.

Perhaps the most classic Gunter-Seymour poem in the collection is “Oh You Woman of Appalachia,” where the poet laments “how they work to keep you down, / call you fat, shoeless, / say you have no teeth.” She disagrees with this assessment, vehemently:

But you got teeth, plenty.
Ask any city man thinking to park
his fracking machines in your valley.
And the earth responds,
rewards you in petals,
herbs, sweet potato vines.

The poem describes the generosity of mountain women to their neighbors and their perseverance in the face of grief and loss. Indeed, she says they are not soft at all: “You are limestone. / You are flint. / You are mountain shine, / feed-sack proud. / You are diamond.”

Like the mountain women described in this poem, Gunter-Seymour’s talent shines like a diamond in this collection: solid, clear, sparkling.

Other works she has written or edited include A Place So Deep Inside America It Can’t Be Seen, I Thought I Heard a Cardinal Sing, Serving, Women Speak, and Essentially Athens, Ohio: A Celebration of Spoken Word and Fine Art. Her work can be found in Still, Rattle, Crab Orchard Review, Main Street Rag, Stirring, Lascaux Review, The American Journal of Poetry and The New York Times. Gunter-Seymour is the Artist in Residence for the Wexner Center for the Arts and the 2020 Ohio Poet of the Year. A retired instructor in the School of Journalism at Ohio University, she was the recipient of an American Academy of Poet Laureate Fellowship in 2021. She is the founder and executive director of the “Women of Appalachia Project” and editor of the Women Speak anthology series.

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