James Applewhite’s poetry validates the claim that southern literature is often deeply rooted in place. Applewhite’s work is steeped in North Carolina, both in Stantonsburg, a small town in the eastern part of the state, and in the area around Duke University and Durham. The sense of history has always been powerful in the South, and his own rootedness in the area has invited Applewhite to examine the relationship between past and present both in personal and historical terms. That relationship often produces a sense of duality that forms an important theme in Applewhite’s work.
This early volume makes a good introduction to Applewhite’s interests and themes. “Tobacco Men,” “Drinking Music,” “Elegy for a General Store,” and “Rooster’s Station” all look at the South of the poet’s childhood. In the center of the volume, “My Grandmother’s Life” uses images of water to link the poet to his grandparents as he seeks out their long-abandoned well. At the end of the volume, in the long poem “The Mary Tapes,” a woman tells a tape recorder her life’s history in country and town, a history that becomes emblematic of many lives in the “New South.”
Applewhite’s River Writing chronicles a year of hiking and running along the Eno River, a nature preserve in the middle of the increasing urbanization of Durham and Chapel Hill. The poems detail the seasons and sights along the river, its cliffs and boulders, its kingfishers and beavers. The poems also insistently link the writer to his place in the setting, in both the present and past, just as the jonquils he picks in “The Sun’s Tone” tie him to the grave of a woman who died in 1914 and yet resemble the jonquils he picks in “House of Seasons” to carry “Home to the living woman I love.”
“Sleeping with Stars and Bulbs, Time and Its Signs” is the last poem in the collection. It marks the conclusion of Applewhite’s year on the Eno and stands as a fine illustration of the level of lyricism many of the poems achieve. Camping beside the river in winter, the speaker thinks of the jonquil bulbs he dug from an abandoned homestead to plant at his own home. Even now, “each jonquil bulb/ . . . begins to unsheathe its single green claw/ Which will dig a yellow from night.” He thinks of the relics of the past he has uncovered along the river, names and dates cut in trees, a “Model-T carcass”—all signs of those who came before him and reminders that others will follow. “All will come/ Round again, will be sounded.” Even his own house will some day be a “branch-sketched cinder of rafters.” Tonight, in this drowsy meditation, the speaker feels rooted in all he has experienced:
I expand . . . To feel my huge shadow gravity-held, On the physical basis of all poetry, Nailed to earth’s wheel by the stars.
Lessons in Soaring
Lessons in Soaring takes its themes from the life of the child who grew up in the rural South during World War II. Physically surrounded by a landscape of burgeoning life, he was also surrounded by adults whose focus was on the killing events abroad, where the technology of death superseded everything else.
Several poems in this collection blend imagery from the war with pictures of rural life, as in the volume’s first poem, “The War Against Nature,” which pictures the poet as a child watching for enemy aircraft from the observation tower in his father’s service station. The adult narrator ponders the implications of the child’s eagerness to see planes:
Bored with a primordial green,
(The entire section is 1600 words.)