Treasures in the Dirt: Rachel Custer’s “Flatback Sally Country”

With the blue-collar grit of Philip Levine, the maternal feminism of Lucille Clifton, and the dexterous formalism of Howard Nemerov, Rachel Custer’s Flatback Sally Country is a hybrid of all things enjoyable in a book of poems. From line one of this collection, “All day the sky is a closed fist,” the poet begins taking us on a raucous yet sensitive journey through the rough-and-tumble world of characters whose lives have been deeply marred into abstract beauty.

Flatback Sally herself, the victim of an unfortunate nickname in her small town, makes recurring appearances throughout the collection, sometimes speaking, sometimes being spoken about, and almost never in flattering terms. Her imperfection, her dialect, and her perspectives combine to form a persona that is at once antihero and sage-courier, darkly delivering messages of tough, rural truth without pretense.

In this same collection, we meet aptly named characters like Mercy, whose story is equally compelling. Without providing spoilers, it is safe to say that she, too, is memorable, providing readers with a high-definition mental cinema of country womanhood, replete with all its cultural requirements.

But the people in this collection are nothing without their setting: A gossip-filled, religiously hypocritical, and often misogynistic small town so real readers can feel its tractor-stirred soil grinding between their teeth. Motifs here include broken glass, muddy work boots, and similar emblems of hard life and hard work. Raw verses placed into sonnets are sometimes ironic, sometimes tragic, but always impactful.

Custer’s love of both internal and end rhymes is on crafted display, slipping in like soft harmonies: “hunger never leaves. Hunkers in the corner” in appears in “Fire,” a poem about the reality of deprivation. With masterful meter occasionally broken for parallelism, Custer illuminates a side of America that will make some readers uncomfortable in the best possible way. Like a teacher who sometimes runs her nails across the chalkboard, Custer gets our attention abrasively to provide us with valuable lessons.

Symbols dominate this collection, with pacifiers lodged in parking lot dirt, marbles arising from lawns, and other striking juxtapositions worked smoothly into the jagged world the author documents detail by detail. These images are supplemented by gut-punch last lines like “Disinterest and love look the same in the eyes of a doll.”

Despite Custer’s love of language gymnastics, she eschews cheap tricks or theatrics in favor of concrete words that do heavy lifting in each line. Potent similes (“God//in me like a chipped tooth I couldn’t stop tonguing,”) and metaphors (“the knotted pride of his spine”) give way to revelation. Not every poem is biblically heavy, however; sometimes they take on the form of knock-knock jokes or ironic couplets such as those in “Stripper.”

This collection demands reading aloud to appreciate the musicality of Custer’s diction. Even poems like “Crank,” wherein the author guides us through the darkness of drugs, contain moments of audible awe. With soft allusions to masters like Frost (“something here that doesn’t love the world”), Custer likewise employs proven poetics from the canon and beyond.

Rachel Custer

Masterfully structured and satisfying to the end, Flatback Sally Country is both adventure and reality-check. Her celebrations of womanhood, her exposure of place, and her dynamic, inviting voice all make this book a delight to experience.

Rachel Custer’s work has been published in multiple Southern journals and venues, especially those in Appalachia, where her family is historically rooted. She is a National Endowment for the Arts Fellow (2019) and the author of The Temple She Became (Five Oaks Press, 2017).  Custer states that “the poems in this manuscript are informed by the history of my family and the people of rural Indiana, many of whom have deep roots in the South and Appalachia and still live lives informed by that culture.”



(by Rachel Custer, from Flatback Sally, originally published in American Journal of Poetry and used here by permission)

For a woman who can’t afford teeth,

it’s a well to wish in. A different hell

to twist in. A cell to kiss in. Less a pail

to piss in than this promise: you’ll never

really care where you piss again.

Machine of a human being who says

If I am a machine, let them have my body. 

I will go to live among the clouds. 

What is a drug but a cold coin dropped

down the well of a throat? What is a wish

but a castle fashioned from smoke?

What is a tweaker? The unwinding

machine of a woman’s jaw, pumping

the rusted pistons of her teeth.

What is crank? Hot glass. A brief sheen.

For a woman who can’t afford church,

it’s a burnt clean. Crank is the grease

for the newest American dream.

For a woman who can’t afford sleep,

it’s the newest scheme: cover the hurt

of your work with the hurt of your shame.

Trade your bones for a good buck.

Turn the crank all day, each moment the same.

Get fired for stealing a pop off the lunch truck.



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