Merciful Days by Jesse Graves
In his most recent collection, Merciful Days, Jesse Graves labors to make some sense of memory, its caprices and concrete reveries. In poems that flit impressionistically between youth, young manhood, and middle age, Graves’s verse puts language to a landscape and populace absolutely ghosted by a past both immediate and antique. Part and parcel to the populace’s affinity for times bygone is an almost uniform connection to the terrestrial earth; most of the characters in this collection fall somewhere within the agrarian continuum: they are subsistence farmers, ad-hoc husbanders, and shadetree contractors. Thus, given their intimacy with it and material dependence on it, the setting itself—The Appalachian Mountains of contemporary northeastern Tennessee—becomes a foremost character. But, working through the poems, one swiftly realizes that there is no trace of cloying “local color” or chintzy sentiment (the refreshing lack of the ham-fisted vernacular and “countrified” neologisms that so often cheapen writing about Appalachia also warrants praise), just the raw, unleavened ordeal of a place and its people.
Giving credence to the notion that the poetic world Graves curates is haunted by the past, and the multitudes that have already passed on, the collection opens with “The Kingdom of the Dead,” in which the speaker (presumably dreaming) imagines what he would do if he truly had carte-blanche access to the dead. Forgoing any sort of star-struck parlay with “kings or warriors,” the speaker states that, if granted the time, he would seek counsel with family:
I would guide my uncle out of the shadows
to tell again of his bucolic boyhood,
running through fields of burley tobacco leaves.
My brother hangs back, still new to his ghost life.
How to bring him forward? Will he speak to me
about parting the veil between our worlds?
Indeed, for these characters, the veil that separates the living from the dead is sackcloth-thin.
So often glossed over in favor of topical relevance or hip exigences, Graves pays consistent homage to family life and the homestead, but these thematic conceits are kept novel and compelling through the incorporation of a synesthetic dream logic. For instance, in “Sage Grass Brushing Against My Shins,” the speaker goes to bed remembering his father’s long, painful wane. In sleep, this grief is transmuted into a dream in which he and his father putter around the family farm after Thanksgiving dinner, surveying different projects they completed together over the years. Though this meditation is composed in forthright, no-frills diction, Graves intersperses mystical elements to remind the reader that they are journeying through the speaker’s addled subconscious: “We [...] wandered / around the yard, scattering cornbread to chickens, / scratching the heads of all the dogs we’ve ever had.” While the premises are not usually as phantasmic as the above, many of the poems in Merciful Days attend to the gothic surreality of remaining beholden to the land in an increasingly technocratic world.
On the line level, Graves’s metaphor systems and stylistic machinations are firmly rooted in the plow-and-loam procedurals of rural life. Similar to Virgil’s schema in the Georgics, Graves uses the tactile particulars of farm work both to provide characterizing texture to his scenes and settings, and to establish a sound axiomatic bedrock from which he can consider loftier, more ethereal subject matter without burying the reader in abstraction. The poem “Distant Star” begins with a generalized account of the mechanical defects and inclement terrains that so often sideline farm equipment: “The old red truck was always getting stuck in a ditch, / or the David Brown tractor bogged deep in mud.” Then, the speaker recounts the gruff coaching his father gave to amend these mishaps, how he would “wave his arms and shout instructions / on what lever to pull, which post to hitch to the chain, / the place to lean my shoulder against and shove.” Finally, these frame narratives coalesce into a present which finds the speaker’s father delirious on his deathbed, still shouting instructions. Now grown, the speaker does his best to humor the old man’s fevered wishes: “I tried my hardest to dig, to drag, to gouge, / anything to loosen the grip of the muck / that pulls him out of the world he has known.” By first applying the leitmotifs of decline and disrepair to inanimate objects, then repurposing the same nomenclature to describe a person, Graves compels the reader to consider the brute inevitability of death from a different, deeply resonant vantage.
Given the sheer amount of narrative and thematic attention paid to them, it is no small wonder that inanimate objects take on transcendent qualities in Merciful Days. In fact, the economic precarity that forces these characters to constantly rehabilitate old tools and equipment, tumbledown outbuildings and storage sheds—instead of just buying new when something breaks or ages into obsolescence—is the same force that imbues said tools/structures with their totemic significance. Since these characters spend entire lifetimes with certain pieces of equipment, these places and objects become reliquaries for past occurrences. Sometimes, engaging with them is the only way to trigger a memory. In “Nameless River,” the speaker likens the act of remembrance to rummaging through a derelict shed:
I am trying to find a name this afternoon,
wandering through the lately abandoned
storehouse of my father’s memories.
He left my life with the key still in his pocket,
so I enter through the high cracked window
of his stories, looking for what to call the man
who offered him that first job driving a truck[.]
In this same vein, “A Blue Tractor Passing” shows the speaker’s mother identifying the driver of the titular tractor based solely on the timbre of its engine, while “The Log Chain” reconstrues the scalded log chain that, by gristly fluke, killed one of the speaker’s ancestors as he ambled back from a twilit barn dance. Since the lion’s share of their waking hours are spent in toil—in addition to the familiarity bred by the hyper-insular nature of this community—machines and equipment come to function as synecdoche for the very characters that operate them.
But I do not mean to give the impression that Merciful Days is all hairshirts and hardship. There are moments of teeming joy, sudden delight, and dogged thankfulness in this collection. Nowhere is this more evident than the eponymous poem. At the tail end of a bitter winter, the speaker and his mother are walking “the cattle trail / alongside the cemetery fence,” taking stock of the blighted fields and the bloom that is soon to follow. Though there is a palpable undercurrent of loss and physical dwindling—symbolized by the graveyard and the temporal bleakness—the mood of the poem is defiantly serene: “Mid-february feels like late May[.]” And this serenity, this hard-won state of grace, is given voice by the speaker’s mother—along with scope and suppleness by the speaker himself—in one of the collection’s most salient, encompassing passages:
she says, meaning something I feel
but cannot begin to shape into words.
Ultimately, though he unflinchingly depicts their fitful triumphs and beleaguering travails, I believe Graves wants most of all to enunciate—to hallow and exalt—what keeps these characters going: an abiding gratitude. As a poet and an Appalachian, I am beyond grateful for this collection.
IAN HALL was born and reared in Eastern Kentucky. His work is featured in Narrative, The Journal, and The Mississippi Review, among others.