“Dirt Songs” by Kari Gunter-Seymour

In Dirt Songs (Eastover Press 2024), Kari Gunter-Seymour proves she is at the top of her game by evoking both the wild energy and lustful passion of youth and the regrets such indulgences oft engender later in life. Other poems in the collection beautifully capture the natural world of Appalachia through precise language and fresh imagery. The entire collection creates magic and meaning both through the words themselves and in the spaces that lie between the lines. Which is what you would expect of the Ohio Poet Laureate: a superb collection.

In the title poem, the narrator says she comes with her “sack of sorrows /laid open.” The entire collection is particularly notable, for the way the poet lays her heart bare for all to see. In “Eye of Newt, Toe of Frog,” a spirit-crushing relationship is depicted through effective imagery:

Early on, I partnered up, roused

with hope. What I got was someone

else’s stiff neck, the shape

of someone else’s arrogance

siphoning the pith from my spine.

Dwelling on that story “could damn well loose a demon;” best to repress it, the narrator decides. Similarly, in “Mostly a Cage Is Air,” through powerful bird imagery, the poet suggests a woman trapped in a relationship: “she tucks herself, like a folded note / into a shadowed roost between / the stairs and her small iron gate, / dreams a billow of sky, wings, / perpetual winds.” And in a poem titled “True Grit,” the narrator again expresses regret over a relationship when she “allowed myself / to be diminished way too long.” These poems, scattered throughout the collection, share similar themes.

By contrast, the narrator of “Me Oh, My Oh,” draws strength from memories of wild times of “lawless” laughter, riding in a Jeep with a young friend: “Times when I go low, /  I summon that sizzley summer.” In the poem “Bad Company” the narrator recalls a senior trip to Kings Island in 1979 when guitar licks and the longest wood roller coaster in the world aren’t the only kind of fun to be had. The poem beautifully captures the sexual heat of those first explorations of groping hands. Gunter-Seymour later examines a mature woman in “Bada Bing Bada Boom.” The narrator’s description of her man rocks with raw sexual energy early in the relationship:

 He was so damn good—

had a look, cocky smile, a lock of hair

loose across his forehead, dark eyes

that could melt a cold steel rail.

Eventually, though, his ability to fire her up ends when “his unkempt hair and juvenile gyrating” grow tiresome: “There were mouths to feed, bills to pay,” and the narrator is left with “a bag full of if onlys.”

Gunter-Seymour switches styles in “That Plus Fifty Cents,” creating a prose poem chockful of strong images of “The Mall” and a shop-owner nicknamed “The Buzzard.” He writes corny haiku fortunes that crack the girls up. Through the irreverence of these earlier images, the poet masterfully sets up a razor-sharp loss in the last lines.

In “Because My Ancestors,” the narrator wants to know her own history, the stories of her people and how they came to plant the seeds that would one day become her:

I was the silk gown my mother

would never own, the black dust

of coal-fraught mountains, the face

of my grandmothers and all who came

before, staring back from the tintypes,

the copper taste of feminine rust.

Here, the poet paints a vivid portrait of her Appalachian ancestors, the deprivation and hardships they overcame. Their stories are part of who she is.

One of the most poignant poems is “Mysterious Ways.” The narrator describes scrimping and saving for an abortion “to set me and that little bird free.” When she finds she is still forty dollars short, being “No stranger to a bowed head,” she prays for the needed sum and “The Lord coughed up two twenties / by way of a birthday card.”  It arrives with a note about Granny’s late night vision: “She saw / me old, alone in the dark, / crying out for some little bird.” The mystical tone of this poem grabs the heart. Mysterious ways, indeed.

Other poems explore the natural world: the “Beryl blue sky,” “an unstoppable petal storm,” “late summer’s dog days” and a “creek’s muddy skin.” Gunter-Seymour excels in capturing a scene:

Fog pockets pervade the holler,

the mist and aromatherapy of triumphs

and losses, time a series of perfumed twists.

Hickories, unfazed, shimmer orange-gold

leaves like prayer flags, the sky

a baste of melted butter.

Yet several poems express awareness that, while it is “a gift to know this land, its seasons” . . . “every acre was once taken / by violence. We all have mortifications, history’s footprints threaded among the trees.” The poet expresses sensitivity toward indigenous people and the losses they experienced.

The poems are peopled with familiar faces and voices in Appalachia. With Grannies who forage for herbs, Grandpa Oris who says the blessing, Aunt Margaret who makes hot fudge cake, a family who eats Kraft Mac’N Cheese from the markdown bin at the Dollar Store for the sixth time in two weeks, and Billy Ray Cyrus on the radio.

One line in particular seemed to summarize what was happening to the poet in the writing of this collection: “Turns out the danger in the writing, / is you will remember all you’ve worked so hard to erase.” But poetry lovers will be grateful that the poet braved that danger and brought the memories, however painful, to the page.

Kari Gunter-Seymour’s poetry collections include Alone in the House of My Heart and A Place So Deep Inside America It Can’t Be Seen. A ninth generation Appalachian, she is the editor of I Thought I Heard A Cardinal Sing: Ohio’s Appalachian Voices, winner of the “2023 Poetry Anthology Best Book Award” from American Book Fest. She is executive director of the Women of Appalachia Project and editor of its anthology series, Women Speak. Gunter-Seymour holds writing workshops for incarcerated teens and adults and women in recovery housing. She is a retired instructor in the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University, and the founder, curator, and host of “Spoken & Heard,” a seasonal performance series featuring poets, writers, and musicians from across the country. Her work has been featured in the New York Times, Verse Daily, World Literature Today, and on Poem-a-Day.


  1. Such a rich and thoughtful review and a truly wonderful book!

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