Tuesday, April 19, 2022

Joseph Bathanti's 'Light at the Seam' (Review)


Cover Art

Joseph Bathanti's new poetry collection Light at the Seam, published by LSU Press during Lent, could not have arrived at a more propitious, or more precarious, time in our lives. Though we have just retraced, in faith, Christ's journey to death and still behold in wonder His mysterious rebirth, we remain threatened by ruinous instruments of our own making; amid what we take for granted, air and water, birds and game, the earth that feeds us, we are too often oblivious to how the "[s]undial / casts its shadow on the hour" ("Sundial, West Virginia"). We have forgotten our charge to be caretakers of daylily and webworm, thistle and Queen Anne's lace, snake and vole, "whole kingdoms of [. . .] whirring ethnographies of insects" ("The Assumption").

Fundamentally a personal response to, even an indictment of, Appalachia's coal industry and the destruction that continued mining wrecks upon the Appalachian landscape, a place "almost Heaven— / but decidedly not heaven" ("Limbo"), Light at the Seam is, ultimately, a gesture toward resilience, renewal, and hope.

The collection comprises four aptly named sections whose religious connotations are deliberate: The Assumption, The Windows of Heaven, Limbo, and Light at the Seam. These sections suggest not only only glorious beginnings and hard endings but also the in-between "imaginal phase" ("My Mother and Father") of the likely or inevitable, be it disastrous runoff and floods, clouds of powdered coal that catch the air on fire ("Oracle"), slurries streaming toward once-pristine rivers in Kentucky, Tennessee, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, or the simple sign "No Trespassing / [that] impends / a large red / caution" ("Keyford"). Bathanti sources in these sections the workings of both the human and the Divine, drawing unmistakable contrasts: between the beauty on earth, where [f]ireflies torch the night" and "flowers shrive, and prick eternity" ("Blessed Thistle"), and the ugliness of mountain-top removal that renders a creek "sick // green-brown in slabs of sunlight— / dull as a gorged serpent" ("Postdiluvian: Mingo County, West Virginia"); between the holding of Creation as sacred, and therefore ever-lasting, and the ill-served-taking by humans by authority and assumption, "men [not] beholden / to words on a page" ("Sentences") who exact what's "beyond our ken" ("Boar"); between the clarity of witness and the dark acknowledgment of our "sin black as bituminous" ("Glad Creek Falls"); between loss and the possibility of regeneration. No matter the place named, whether Mingo County, West Virginia, or Dubois, Pennsylvania, how we "look upon the earth" ("Floyd County, Kentucky"), the poet indicates, is how we map our fate and our future. But, "make no mistake: // you are permitted entry through grace" ("Daylily"), the poet reminds us, adding, "Life is more than fable, // but never stops stunning earth" ("April Snow").

Bathanti, in showing how "[t]hings are taking shape" ("Oracle"), relies on muscular verbs and physically robust imagery — "roads conflux and houses, / that once believed they'd be a town, // cower" ("The Windows of Heaven"); "From the gouged peak, subdural, / lobotomized, serpentine switchbacks // weave a cat's cradle into the grade-rooms" ("Sundial, West Virginia"); "[h]e seesaws on his haunches, / as he strips the doe: / his bestial gorge and groan, / tugging her up like taffy, /" ("Boar"); "after years in the pit, hunched, / you could only so far lift your arms" ("The Coal Miner's Wife: A Letter") — and his use of sonority, alliteration ("the thousand thousand thuribles of light" in "Blessed Thistle"), consonance and dissonance, and equally accented syllables to emphasize relationship, mark his poems with a distinctive rhythm that energizes his narrative line.

Bathanti praises, too, in certain of his 35 beautifully written, richly rewarding poems, for even as earth teeters on the "threshold of oblivion" ("Light at the Seam") and "[u]pon the land gathers a biblical // quietus before it explodes" ("The Windows of Heaven"),  life in Appalachia renews itself with each "day [that] dawns repentant, sky blue" ("Postdiluvian"), and the poet finds solace watching "a cardinal and indigo bunting / feed, [. . . ] / [. . .] / their self-absorption / an ongoing evolutionary tick / completed this very instant." ("Evensong"). The "light at the seam", then, is both omen and reward.


Joseph Bathanti, a former Poet Laureate of North Carolina (2012-2014) and a recipient of the North Carolina Award in Literature, is the author of at least 17 books, a couple of which I have reviewed*. Currently, he is the McFarlane Family Distinguished Professor of Interdisciplinary Education at Appalachia State University in Boone, North Carolina.

* Review of Concertina

* Review of Crossing the Rift Anthology

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