The Urban Appalachian Community Coalition Core member Pauletta Hansel was recently featured as the Poet-in Residence at the Cincinnati and Hamilton County Public Library. This comes on the heels of her term as poet laureate. All of this while sustaining her work with UACC and teaching. If this were not enough, Madville Publishing has just released her most recent collection of poetry, Heartbreak Tree, which she will launch with a reading and celebration at the Mercantile Library on March 29. Since she manages to do all of this, and I know that she also edits and cultivates everything I write into something far better than what I wrote, I can only conclude that Pauletta Hansel does not sleep.
We need to be careful with the collection in Heartbreak Tree for at least two reasons. The poems explore and reveal themes and ideas that can be troubling, the “Me Too” movement, sexual assault, the exploitation of rural people, etc. But the method of approach for these potentially difficult themes is deeply philosophical, and I do not mean in the colloquial sense of offering dreamy ideas for contemplation. I mean philosophical in all its complexity. The poems reach toward the past, but always as a past that cannot be reached except in the present, and the poems remind us again and again that the present is never really available to us. The present is an absence that is never fully present. Yet, these poems demand that we remain in contact with immediate experience, not academic speculation.
Even accounting for the fact that the collection includes a poem titled “Nostalgia,” it would be a mistake to see nostalgia in any of these poems. The tendency to soften and color the past that characterizes nostalgia is completely absent here. Instead, this collection struggles with the past often in the form of haunting memories, some harrowing, some that carry a grief that remains clearly present. The past in these poems is that moment that always arrives too late. As in “This is the Poem that Has Been Staring at You for Some Time Now.” Looking back in a mirror in 1985, and recognizing that the fullness of a moment cannot be rendered until long after the moment is past, and recognizing that “the only perfect poem/ is the one you would have written/ then, and then is never now,/ and now is always too soon.” The present, the moment in which we are engulfed by the present, is never present. And the years that provide language for that past moment never quite retrieve that lost present.
The poem titled “Nostalgia” plays with the notion more than it offers features of nostalgia. The images of the by-gone things that can evoke nostalgia provide an opening, but these images are a dance of metonymy toward something completely other as each image bounces into the next: “Faint whiff/ of gas around the stovetop burner’s/ dim flame, it’s harvest gold a duskier hue/ than the carpet in the only other room/ that second-floor backstairs apartment.” The metonymy slides through sensory memories– smell, sight, spatial arrangement—but finds its main point of purchase as the self that remembers evokes a past self that is already detached from the present: “Some part/ of me already hovering to observe the self,/ her story half-written in my head.” The poetic movement is precisely what pins us to a by-gone and impossible present tense, and so, pins us to an absence.
Hansel prefaces a few of her poems with quotations from Henri Michaux, another poet of the impossible. Even when Michaux could be tangentially lumped into the surrealists, he really was both in it and not in it, and Pauletta Hansel’s poetry seems operate in similar ways. We do not get either/or propositions. Hansel’s poems demand both/and. While we can easily use the label “Appalachian poet” for Pauletta Hansel, her poetry is not local or regional. Even in a poem such as “Their War on Poverty,” which literally names Appalachian places and things like coal mines and mountains, the poem takes us far beyond regionalism. The poem derails quaint (and nostalgic) ideals from the outset: “We never knew ourselves/ as they did. We didn’t know our faces/ and floors should be dirt.” The immediate opposition of “We” and “they” sets us up to see everything that unfolds in a particular way. Whoever “We” is, it is the invention of “they,” and we do not recognize ourselves in this fiction. This is Appalachia, for sure, but it is everyone who has ever been in the downside of unequal systems of power, everyone who has been named by something outside themselves. Appalachian people, indigenous people, the colonized all over the world who are now struggling to re-claim themselves as the “We” speaks for themselves: “we saw ourselves/ packed tight with all the othered ones” while they resist the demand that they “could only blame themselves.”
Many of the poems in Heartbreak Tree reflect on themes and ideas that I am hesitant to comment on. I am hesitant not because these themes and ideas are too delicate for discussion. Rather, I feel as though the poems need to be experienced in the absence of anything I might I have to say about them. Nevertheless, I must offer some sense of what these poems offer.” The Blessing,” is an example of a poem in which form and the content fuse. The epigraph lets us know that the subject here is dementia, that harrowing and slow loss for the person suffering and which those close them must powerlessly endure. But in Pauletta Hansel’s rendering of this, we witness the blessing, “that stuttering spark… lighting/ the dark around you,” without which “I never would have/ known had death blazed full and hot/ and gone.” This lingering way of dying is transformed into the blessing of an enduring spark of life that eases out gradually. As the poem progresses, the lines become shorter while they hold onto every shred of meaning possible. The last of life with the fading mother become “our bundled days,” that are bundled into shorter and shorter lines until all that is left is “breath against/ your skin.” Heartbreak Tree talks about the impossibility of the perfect poem, but “The Blessing” may well be an example of as perfect a poem as you are likely to read.
While there is no denying the fact that the Urban Appalachian Community Coalition’s Core member Pauletta Hansel is an urban Appalachian poet, her poetry cannot be contained in categories of identity or regionalism. The poems in Heartbreak Tree are simply not containable within boundaries of any kind. These are poems of intense personal reflection that are rendered in language and forms that are active and in motion, traveling though time and place without ever offering stable ground for us the “name” them. They are poems of experience that demand that we experience them. Pauletta Hansel’s new collection of poems is called Heartbreak Tree. It is published by Madville Publishing. You can participate in the celebration of its publication in-person at Cincinnati’s Mercantile Library, downtown, or online on Wednesday, March 29, 6 pm reception and 6:30 program. Info and registration at https://mercantilelibrary.com/calendar/heartbreak-tree-an-evening-with-pauletta-hansel/.
Mike Templeton is a writer, independent scholar, barista, cook, guitar player, and accidental jack-of-all-trades. Check out his profile in UACC’s new Cultural Directory. He lives in downtown Cincinnati with his wife who is a talented photographer. They spend their free time walking around the city snapping photos. She looks up at that the grandeur of the city, while Mike always seems to be staring at the ground.