“Hard Packed Clay” by Joyce Compton Brown

Joyce Compton Brown’s new collection of poetry, Hard-Packed Clay (Red Hawk Press 2022),  takes readers on a downhome kind of journey through Southern cultural territory, with poems radiant with a strong sense of place and filled with exquisite, well-wrought language. Brown—a well-respected poet with many accolades—honors both small town life and rural Southerness with poems about the land, family, the past that is never really past, religion, loss, nature, and generational roots. With verses touching on subjects both comforting and challenging, she tells a story of a family, a farm, and a place in time that should resonate with readers. While she conjures some treasured Southern tropes, she does so with sensory-laden, vibrant poems that reach for and find something distinctive and fresh. Writing primarily in free verse, she does not waste a word in these tightly woven, evocative verses. Her language is lyrical, rich, and accessible.

Brown’s talent for imagery is wondrous. In the poem “Driving Home,” the black oil on her mountain roads “glistens / and oozes over / hard-packed clay.” Her grandmother—in the poem “High Waters at the Old Farm”—wades right into a pond with “her flour-sack dress / ballooning around her / like a blooming peony.” In “Charlie’s Rock,” they travel “down bee balm slope / to musty creek where cat tails rise / from mucky soil.” The sister in “Driven” has “skin so soft you’d think you could / scoop it in dollaps.”

Poems which delve into often layered, sometimes fragile connections within families dominate the collection, especially those in part I of the four sections in the book. With her sharp sense of the telling detail, Brown might well capture the central theme in her poem, “Uncle Ray Writes Letters to New-Found Kin,” in which Brown states: “It’s not that easy  / to throw away old stories.” And that perhaps is what Brown does best with her poems—she tells her readers old stories about a family who persevered through death and war and loss. Yet she knows how to place herself in the poems as the sensitive chronicler without wallowing in or overdoing any of it. By letting the images and actions speak for themselves, she avoids sentimentality, and this makes her words all the more impactful, as in “My Brother Calls about my New Pacemaker”:

 We do not speak the stories

running through like hot wires,

the ones that twist our hearts—


memory, or memory’s mirror

welded in our beings,

our heritage of loss,


We keep vigil for them all—


Brown creates story arcs in several of these poems which add to their richness. For example, there’s Charlie, the “forever boy” who appears in more than one poem, a man who is not quite right but is treasured nonetheless. The father’s care for this person is clear, though delicately understated, in the poem “Charlie Compton Registers for War” where “Charlie stands a poor man-child / forever nine, incapable of war and hate.” Brown again lets the actions and images convey the father’s care with references to such tender acts as the father keeping the “man-child” clean, well fed, and in trimming his hair. Charlie makes his presence known in two other poems that bear his name: “Charlie’s Rock” and “Charlie Lost on the Backroads.” He appears to be a literal person in Brown’s life, and she uses his story so expertly he also stands metaphorically for “the fragile brush of innocence / lost, like sparrow wings.”

One of the several story lines that runs through this collection pertains to the dying and death of the narrator’s father, a slow death by cancer. Each poem on this topic is painfully poignant.

Beyond the dying and death of a father, other losses are rendered for the reader in words that leave no doubt of the justified grief. In “Apologia,” the mother hears a noise in the night and wakes “to find grandmother’s toppled corpse / sprawled upon the floor by chamber pot.” “Everything else was lost,” Brown writes simply but with power in a poem about multiple deaths in which a broken dam on the farm conveys more meaning than a flood in “High Waters at the Old Farm.” In “Elegy for Joe,” about a young man killed in a hunting accident, the lines speak of the blood that “burns still, flowing in blood of family veins, / the iron-red taste unstopped, unthwarted, unchecked.” In the poem “My Cousin Explains the Spud Tree,” about a youth killed while riding an old bike at twilight, Brown writes how “Mama grieved for him / like she’d just lost us all.”

Poems which celebrate nature, especially birds, are also well represented in this collection, including the lovely, uplifting “Rookery,” where “The snow of floating feathers / lies soft upon limbs of marshy cypress.” In that poem, the diligent egret parents are rewarded with “the crack, / the loud thank-you of the quickening.” And, in “Leaf Wading,” Brown writes a celebration of fall: “Still cardinals flit around the privet tree, / red-wing splash within its limber limbs.” In “Backyard Poem for Early March,” ecology and nature blend in a softly gorgeous poem:

The bluebirds too once faced uncertainty,

dying from a plague created by our kind.

When the prophets cried warning,

we heeded, saved them from our folly,

brought them back to chinaberry trees

and oaks, built small houses just for them.

Now they feast, tend their blue eggs,

perch on powerlines in rows.


They feast today in my backyard.

In “Bluebird Embattled: A Backyard Epic,” Brown deftly creates an unrhymed sonnet which once again champions bluebirds who persevere against the odds. This time the enemies are snakes, cats, and the robber birds who would put their eggs into the bluebirds’ nest. The poem concludes with an acceptance of destiny: “Bluebird yields to fate and brings the worm.”

In perhaps her strongest ecological poem in the collection, Brown writes of the devastation caused by cotton defoliants sprayed on fields and how these poisons wreck the Southern landscape. In “White Harvest,” Brown captures the full pathos of that rural practice:

The planes flew low

with plumes of poison.

which spread onto the cotton fields,

drifted over to the clover

and honeysuckle

in meadows and woods,




where the bees

were busy gathering

the poisoned pollen.

Many made it home

before they died.

All in all, these poems are radiant and acutely sensitive to their narrator’s place in the changing landscape of what it means to be raised and to live Southern. With words and lines that so well balance the beauty and the tragic, these are poems that capture both states of being with breathtaking precision.

The author of two chapbooks, Bequest and Singing with Jarred Edges, Brown is also the author of another full collection, Standing on the Outcrop. North Carolina native, she grew up in the rural community of Troutman, in a family with long and deep local roots. Brown earned degrees from Appalachian State University and the University of Southern Mississippi and taught at Gardner-Webb University, where she is now a professor of English emeritus. Besides poetry, she is published in scholarly journals and has pursued summer opportunities for study in Appalachian culture, roots music, and poetry. Her poems are widely published in print and online journals and she lives once more in North Carolina with her husband and cat.



(reprinted from Hard-Packed Clay with the poet’s permission)

The snow of floating feathers

lies soft upon limbs of marshy cypress.

Grey nests of twig and moss

sway rock-a-bye in the breeze

while egret mothers sit upon eggs,

fathers pick precious sticks to reinforce

the fortresses of new-life. Both stand,

sometimes swaying with their not-yet-babes,

protecting them still, warming warming

within the dawn, while feathers await

the spark of life, the crack,

the loud thank-you of the quickening.


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