“Hillbilly Madonna” by Sara Moore Wagner

An exquisite, powerful work by a young poet, Hillbilly Madonna (Driftwood Press 2022) by Sara Moore Wagner is an endlessly complex collection of poems to be relished slowly. Each poem demands special attention as the individual verses convey their own unique tales within well-wrought lines of compelling intensity.

The poems, mostly written in free verse with an occasional prose poem, have a story arc as deftly told as any well-written Appalachian literature. A family in turmoil, violence, an opioid and heroin crisis, poverty, birth, religiosity, and a sister-daughter-mother-grandmother caught in it all—these are the primary elements in this unflinching collection. Thus, the poems touch on some of the same topics readers have encountered in such works as Demon Copperhead. Yet Wagner’s fine words rise above the tropes to find a complicated, often painful, yet ultimately transcendent look at a place, a family, and a slice of the family’s culture.

If you are a casual reader of poetry looking for gentle words about sunrise over the mountains and spring flowers in the forest, come to Hillbilly Madonna carefully: these poems are intense, unsettling works of art. And yet, in keeping with the juxtaposition of tender and tough throughout this collection, there are phrases as beautiful as sunrise and flowers blooming.

Interestingly, the poet is not herself a complete child of Appalachia so much as she is a grandchild of the region. In an extensive and fascinating interview in Hillbilly Madonna, Wagner calls herself an “urban Appalachian,” a term she also uses in a radio interview. She explains she grew up mainly in Columbus, Ohio, though she spent summers with her father in the countryside of Appalachia “stomping through the holler.” In the interview with her editor Jerrod Schwarz, Wagner explains how she “went back to her childhood physically.” She stayed in the region while writing the poems not only to get the details of the landscape correct, but to “be inspired by whatever ghosts of me were still there.” Wagner also notes, “It was important to me, too, to not speak as if I understand fully or am speaking for the entire community, which is diverse and complex.”

In the radio interview, Wagner said the opening poem in the collection, “Fit to be Tied,” was originally named “Hillbilly Madonna.” This poem sets the stage and tone quite well for the poems to come and introduces two sisters who will roam throughout the collection. In “Fit to be Tied,” these sisters are out in the countryside, “sitting in tall grass, cattails / fat and brown” when the moon comes up. While there are hints of the idyllic in some of the phrases, the poem balances the beauty of the moon with mosquito bites, chiggers, and sweat bees. It also makes the startling announcement that “No one told us  / how to live as a girl would, to clean / the dirt from our toenails.”

“Fit to be Tied” introduces a tone of wistful regret that finds its way into other poems with its final line: “Summer, even now, gone.” In “Pre-Heroin,” a prose poem about the sisters, that wistfulness echoes again: “How much power we had that night. Just enough / to be taken away.” In “How Could She Have Known,” this wistful regret takes a harder edge: “this bud of a girl who’s marked / for loss. This mother who’s ripe / for chopping.” That hard edge sharpens even in “Narcan Metamorphosis,” where, after the sister barely survives an overdose, “she is the same girl, and she returns to the needle again.”

Harrowing is a word appearing in other reviews of Hillbilly Madonna, and that word fits. Within these poems are some truly harrowing images. In “Petrified Figure after CPS,” the father guts and carves up his son much as he would a slaughtered animal: Our father… / takes so much / care with our brother he tears him open at the throat, / butchers him like a deer in the front room.”

Yet and still, woven into these poems, there is also beauty. In “Even if These Promises are True,” for example, “In the Spring, the oak trees bud leaves small / as a mouse’s ear.” And in “Fit to be Tied,” “the moon is suddenly there / in the dusty blue sky just like the smooth / flat stones we throw into the pond.” A mother’s face is relished in “What My Mother Saw” with the lines “She was so / blue eyed, all the boys would call her bluebell, / little blue heron.”

Wagner doesn’t merely describe the visual but she also evokes the other senses. In “Girlhood Schism,” the poet offers us “the smell of rust / on the door frame” as well as the tactile feel of “stinging dirt needles / whipping branches.” In “Fit to be Tied,” the sisters “whistle so loud / the chiggers rise up from the earth.” And “Even if These Promises are True” offers readers the taste of morel mushrooms “meaty and tender / sautéed simply in fresh Amish butter.” In these and similar lines, Wagner’s talent for metaphors and lyrical phrasing brings the readers into the full center of each poem. In that way, like the best novels, she excels at her world-building and in creating a strong sense of place.

The poems often display some rather shocking or at least unique similes. In “We are That Farmer’s Daughters,” for example, “Morning / spreads like the thin veil of blood around the brain.” In “Old Wives Tale,” the poet asks, “help me undo / our childhood like an old corset…” Hauntingly, in “Idle and Lawless,” as the sisters play at being boys like Tom and Huck, the poet sees the future and that she “will leave you with that needle in your arm / like a box of stolen gold.”

That the narrator and the women in the poems struggle to survive and rise above the male-centered, often violent world they inhabit is a recurring theme. Her own mother witnessed her mother being shot and killed, and Wagner’s mother’s grandmother was also murdered. These events find themselves in several poems, as well as in the poet’s interview. In “What My Mother Saw,” the poem reveals a bit of the story:

On the morning

my mother watched her mother get shot

in the head …

she was 13 and knew every bone in her ribcage,

how fragile the skull, like the bits of hardened clay

in the yard, how your mother can break before you, even before

you break her yourself.

While there appear to be autobiographical elements and stories from her own family in these poems, Wagner cautions readers in her interview that “poetry is not memoir.” Yet she acknowledges some of her own history in the interview and how it relates to the collection: “Ultimately, I see this as a book about breaking cycles. For better or worse, I needed to show the cycle in order to get the hope of breaking it to come at the end. We are not chained to our tragedies and weakness.”

In “Captivity Narrative,” this ultimate goal of breaking the cycle is expressed:

Plodding and smacking

across every stone until: Doorway

or something else, it never matters

how you get out, only that you

always do.

The last lines of the last poem also express this goal. In “Let’s Wait to Bath Her,” the mother speaking of her daughter, says, “maybe I can be what she needs, / or else, what I see / when I look in the mirror–/ clean.”

Sara Moore Wagner

Sara Moore Wagner is the winner of numerous awards including the 2021 Cider Press Review Editors Prize for her book Swan Wife, and the 2020 Driftwood Press Manuscript Prize for Hillbilly Madonna. She is the author of the chapbooks Tumbling After (Redbird, 2022) and Hooked Through (Five Oaks Press, 2017). She is also a 2022 Ohio Arts Council Individual Excellence Award recipient. Her poetry has appeared in many journals and anthologies. She currently lives in Ohio with her husband and three children, and she teaches Creative Writing at Northern Kentucky University. To learn more about Wagner, visit her at: https://www.saramoorewagner.com/about



Fit to Be Tied

(reprinted from Hillbilly Madonna and used with permission)

 The moon is suddenly there

in the dusty blue sky just like the smooth

flat stones we throw into the pond,

sitting in tall grass, cattails

fat and brown as our legs welted

pink with mosquito bites. Sweat

bees circle your head like a halo;

you blow on a tight reed, taut between

your two thumbs, whistle so loud

the chiggers rise up from the earth

in a cloud. No one told us

how to live as a girl would, to clean

the dirt from our toenails, shave

the holler from our limbs like scraping

paint off an old truck. It’s so

hard to tell a star from a lightning

bug when the evening sets; you have

to really look at it, to see it blinking

through the blackness. I lose

your face just like that, the way the bulb

of an insect can go light dark as you trace

it through the sky. Let’s play that game

where we lie so still this landscape forgets us,

the crawdads and toads bloom

into the night, until our bodies become

more than vessels carrying in the next

dawn, and the next, until we are this

valley, budding and brilliant hill-scapes,

established and settling stones,

until our father comes shouting,

headlights blazing down the dirt alley,

lifts us into the truck bed, the indentations

smoothing out the outline of the land

from our backs. One day we will be mothers,

I say, as the sky races above us and we bump

back and forth into the next stage

of our lives. Summer, even now, gone.





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