Meg Schoerke

Like Fire and Water: A Review of Fire Baton: Poems, by Elizabeth Hadaway

Fire Baton: Poems
by Elizabeth Hadaway
80 pages | University of Arkansas Press | $16.00

In her noteworthy first book Fire Baton, Elizabeth Hadaway, a native of southwest Virginia, paints a complex picture of the people, culture, and landscape of Appalachia; the poems, whether individually or taken together, offer a mixed range of responses, so that Hadaway's subjects are never one dimensional, but fully realized: she takes pride in the region, but is also willing to criticize the culture, sometimes on feminist grounds. Her criticisms, however, are always witty, and, although acerbic, tend to be articulated with such verbal and formal dexterity that they are not only morally astute, but aesthetically savory as well.

As the book's first poem indicates, Hadaway has a double perspective on Appalachia, a view from both inside (having grown up in the Virginia mountains) and outside (having studied as a Stegner Fellow at Stanford and traveled in Europe):

              Was You Born Here?

              "Cause you don't talk like you
              was born here," said
              my probable first cousin,
              at least an eighth. "Coarse-bred,"

              Yeats called Cockney Keats. What
              he'd think of me I know.
              I'm talking American Viscose,
              Magic City Mortgage Co.

              among my parentage.
              But marry that
              to old moonshiners who read Cicero.
              In nothing flat--

              in rounded mountains, knobs
              where where's whirr, peaks
              of laurel burning into bloom--
              I start to speak,

              sound like a stranger everywhirr.
              The Cure taught me Camus
              and still the flatland bouncer asks,
              "You're from somewhere, aren't you?"

As the poem announces, she takes as her subjects the region's beauty and its coarseness, and also creates a blend of the two in her very language, through its mixed diction, wide-ranging cultural references, and playfulness with traditional forms.

Although Fire Baton includes sonnets, couplet poems, and blank verse, Hadaway favors variations on the ballad stanza, a regional affiliation she acknowledges outright in two pieces.

She takes pride in the region, but is also willing to criticize the culture, sometimes on feminist grounds.
The first, "Living with Ballads: The Nutshell Bed," is an uneven experiment in trochaic tetrameter whose ballad affiliation depends more on the dream-like narrative than on any stanza form, since the poem lacks a stable rhyme pattern. The second, "Living with Ballads: Sidna Allen," is more successful, since Hadaway formally pays homage to the ballad tradition even while claiming that she lacked much exposure to ballads in her home:

              He mounted to the bar
              with a pistol in his hand
              and he sent Judge Massie
              to the Promised Land:

              the only mountain ballad
              my mother ever sang
              the years that she was raising me
              on Pop Rocks and Tang,

              and Grandmother thought secular
              music miles beneath
              her notice, so my mind is not
              one Sith Thompson motif

              after another, not green
              wood thick with noble felons,
              no Gypsy Davies to seduce,
              no Barbara Allens,

              just local Sidna, late
              in the murder song tradition,
              coming at you straight
              out of my mother's kitchen.

As an acknowledgment of poetic influence, Hadaway wryly exposes an amusing nurturing ground for her own "straight shooting" style--her interest in taking aim at all sorts of stereotypes and hypocrisies. Again invoking an insider/outside perspective, this time to the ballad tradition, Hadaway reveals her formal preferences for imperfect rhymes and stanzas with line lengths that vary from dimeter to tetrameter. The rhymes effectively migrate from the perfect sets of "hand/Land" and "sang/Tang" in the first stanzas to the interesting off-rhymes ("beneath/motif," "felons/Allens") of stanzas three and four, to the conclusive blend of perfect ("late/straight") and imperfect ("tradition/kitchen") in the last stanza. The innovative off-rhymes and the tension that Hadaway strikes between consonance and dissonance mirror the tensions the poem develops between a stereotypical Appalachian childhood (of the Coal Miner's Daughter variety) saturated in ballads, and her contemporary, "Tang" infused upbringing in which she was only exposed to the "late . . . tradition" local ballad, with its mythologizing of a brutal killing as an act of independence.

Yet Hadaway's penchant for experiments with stanzas of varying line lengths and varying degrees of rhyme has mixed results. Sometimes, as in "Was You Born Here?" and "Living with Ballads: Sidna Allen," the effects are just right; in other poems, the rhyming strays so far off that it's hard to hear, or else the shifts between occasional perfect rhymes and sudden pairs of imperfect ones seems to have less to do with creating tension, and more to do with problems with craft, as in the awkward conclusion to "The Consolation of Philosophy," which aims for an abba pattern:

              . . . She [Philosophy] chills fast, from berserk
              to overtly officious bureaucrat
              of God, all catches and backtracks--
              maybe the consolation of paperwork,

              but not a metaphor that really hacks it
              in my book where Boethius must wait
              some fourteen hundred years for engines, rails,
              far-off train whistles, and an accurate

              description of the Midnight Special, which
              they say frees prisoners with its headlight's touch.
              The beam illuminates a roach, a smudge
              along the wall. The blanket! Then it's missed.

The allegory is confusing enough on its own, but the devolution of the rhyme scheme, combined with some limping metrical irregularities, increases the disarray, until (after the penultimate stanza where "accurate" could pair with "hacks it" or "wait" and "rails" stands unrhymed) the pattern dissolves entirely in the last stanza. The book contains a few other poems where Hadaway stretches the limits of rhyme too far--or else seems to strain to meet the demands of rhyme (it's hard to tell which): "Magic City Mortgage Co.," where the narrative fails to get off the ground, for example, or "Disney Ride Song of the South," whose dactyls would fall more securely if Hadaway had aimed for a more solid rhyme scheme than repeating the "d" rhyme in each of her four stanzas ("abcd, efgd," etc.).

Yet Hadaway's willingness to vary her form is commendable, and suggests that in future work she will likely not be the kind of poet (common even among formalists) who strikes a signature note and then sticks with it. The formal variation of Fire Baton is one of its strengths; as she says in the witty sonnet "Beginning with a Line from John Berryman," "I want to be like you enough to make / some kind of music out of my mistakes." Moreover, Hadaway gains cohesion not through mastering one form, such as the sonnet, and repeating it, but through her distinctive voice, and her mixture of empathy and acerbic critique applied broadly--to self, family legacies, Appalachian culture, and the culture at large--throughout the book.

Some of the poems gain traction when Hadaway lets go of external rhyme altogether and deftly plays with assonance and accrues internal rhymes. Part of the cleverness of "All Short-a Appalachia," lies in how the short a echoes throughout the poem's blank verse lines, whose directness and self-assurance are miles beyond the wobbliness of "The Consolation of Philosophy." Taking to task media announcers who are scrupulous about pronouncing foreign words correctly, Hadaway infuses her indictment--and her snapshot of Appalachian culture--with the sound of the short a, that builds as the poem escalates into the list of the last two lines:

                             No, you didn't trash
       our water, gash and snatch the mountaintops,
       eradicate the chestnut trees, or plan
       factory stacks personally. You
       just trample out our vowels.

                                                  Hear the whole
       diaspora slam down their beer cans, stab
       their classes' final drafts, and smash the half-
       carved radishes before they've had the chance
       to bloom as radish roses?
                                           We do that
       as often as the quack newscasters drag
       their "Appa-lay-cha" out.
                                           It's not like quaint
       or paid.
                    It's short a: acid, ash, scab, smack,
       catastrophe, Cassandra, slag, last, wrath.

The indictment is clear and high-spirited: why should Appalachia be so foreign to the media--and to Americans generally? Along with showcasing Hadaway's skill with assonance and enjambment, the lines also display her environmentalism (a thread she weaves through many of the book's other poems, such as "The Hundredth Summer of the Chestnut Blight," "Drinking Bottled Water," and "Living with the Bureau of Public Debt"). As the last line implies, Appalachia becomes a Cassandra figure, an overlooked region whose ravaged landscapes deserve as much or more attention as the commentators give to foreign catastrophes.

But the lines also reflect one side of her mixed attitude toward Appalachian--and working class--culture, a stance that, as other poems make clear, derives from her double perspective as a native who "escaped" through education, but who has chosen not to abandon the place and its people. Thus, while she's proud here of how "the whole diaspora" rebels against the niceties of upper class culture, in other poems she's just as willing to criticize her milieu, as in "A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Car, of Dale Earnhardt at Daytona," whose argument is feminist, yet arises from close understanding of NASCAR's ghoulish appeal:

              Never, until we live again
              where a girl can walk
              to the basketball court unafraid,
              among many pedestrians a pedestrian,
              watching the red-tailed hawk
              that roosts in bridge cable braid

              swoop for its own delight
              and hers, and play
              a raptor-minded game
              and walk back home that night
              as safe as in the day,
              the sidewalk crowds the same;

              never, until we begin
              to rise against what lurks
              behind forty thousand poured
              a year into Benz's gin,
              the Bavarian Motor Works,
              the mouth of Moloch Ford,

              those average annual dead,
              will I attempt to grieve
              for him in particular.
              I have plenty to mourn instead.
              I slap no sticky "3"
              surrounded by a blur

              of specious angel's wings
              on my window, no
              "Gone to Race in a Better Place"
              over the years of dings
              scarring my bumper. Go,
              buy your black t-shirts, efface

              your own complicity
              in his last crash. I
              will admit I hold a grudge
              against the whole jock galaxy,
              but I didn't want him to die
              and I think you did, as much

              as you want to, yourselves.
              You eat the shafts
              of your steering wheels. Cigarette
              and gas stations pile their shelves
              with his face folded, half
              in love with asphalt death,

              a cotton/poly blend
              exclusive of decoration,
              because it was no accident.
              It was ritual. I won't pretend
              to buy into that rite, to pour the sponsor's libation
              at the foot of his monument.

Hadaway achieves a striking balance here between formal dexterity (as in her masterful weaving of that long first sentence through three-and-a-half tight stanzas) and eloquent invective, and can just as easily slip snippets of high school slang ("the whole jock galaxy") into the poem as a contemporary riff on Keats (whose "half in love with easeful death" becomes, appropriately, "half in love with asphalt death"). Yet the argument works because she takes advantage of her insider's perspective: she knows all of the rite's requirements, and refuses to worship at this temple. And she gains credibility through the poem's tonal range: the poem mourns not the loss of Earnhardt, but the loss of a culture of walking, and the attention to the natural world that pedestrian life demands; and, more specifically, the loss (if it ever existed) of women's freedom to walk the streets without fear. The elegiac tone of the first stanzas shifts to the well-honed (and, by this point in the poem, well-earned) critique of NASCAR culture in poem's second half.

The range of tones, in fact, continues throughout the book, adding depth and complexity of feeling to family poems (such as "The Black Dog of the Blue Ridge," "A Good Half Hand," "The Banks of Hell," "Richmond Breastworks," and "Lumber Room"); quirky love poems ("Moved, Lost Your Number," "Crop Cults"); and "Fancy Gap," a long, autobiographical meditation on how place imprints itself indelibly on the psyche. Throughout, Hadaway gains purchase through juxtapositions of lyricism and satire, recognitions of beauty and ugliness, that like water and fire, may not seem to mix, but that come together memorably, as in the closing lines of the book's last poem, "Living with the Bureau of Public Debt":

             Any river will do

             for holy, however poisoned,
             if it carries voices. Choir
             of broken things, keep on singing
             "Look, here is water and fire."


Meg Schoerke is the author of Anatomical Venus (Word Press 2004). With Dana Gioia and David Mason, she co-edited Twentieth Century American Poetry and Twentieth Century American Poetics: Poets on the Art of Poetry (McGraw-Hill 2003). A professor of English at San Francisco State University, she teaches courses on 19th and 20th century poetry.


Kim Bridgford
Meg Schoerke

Jane Sutherland: I choose subjects that I cherish, or that spring from deep rooted feelings, or that come to me intuitively--dogs, roses, cranes, an iconic work of sculpture; and I concentrate on the details and slightest disparities in color, tone and textures in order to show how extraordinary are things we think we know and take for granted. The process of painting for me is connected to the physical properties of the subject as well as to its meanings, associations, and memories.
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