Peeling out of Wheeling, West Virginia, with four wheels toward Ithaca, I asked my friend if she would read aloud a few poems about West Virginia. After a few too-short days of creeping up windy mountain roads and happy-crying when a view of a valley opened up before us, I hoped that poetry might have the words to synthesize and encapsulate the beauty that the four of us had felt over those few days.
First up from the Google search was “West Virginia” by Aaron Kittle, a romantic ode in charming lyric about the grace and power of nature. It evoked God-fearing sublimity and praised the plentitude of forested landscapes. We loved it; it reinforced every roadside stop and detour up a mountain we made, and confirmed to us that we did, in fact, see the real West Virginia. Maybe, in just those 60 hours in the state, we had been able to comprehend its essence.
Then came “An Ode to West Virginia,” which is posted on MyPoeticSide.com, by AppalachianHellFire. It begins: “The forgotten place / Where I am from, / Where my family lives, / Where I will never forget, / And you, an outsider, will never know.” The poem is a brutal critique of our whole weekend: a dreamy college road trip with the amorphous and regrettably naïve goal of “seeing West Virginia,” playing “Take Me Home, Country Roads” over the car speakers and holding piles of visitor center brochures. The poem doesn’t have the neat form or the elegance of Kittle’s poem, but it’s fierce and cogent, powerfully correcting what they thought the musicians, artists and vacationers were missing.
“An Ode to West Virginia,” was more than I bargained for, but I was glad to hear it. When we’re visiting a place most of us need a reminder that it exists apart from our visiting perspectives, that the visitor’s center doesn’t include event listings for too-early funerals because of cancer or lung disease or opioid overdoses, and that no visit or poem or song will every fully convey what it is like to pin your life to a place. We sat with the heaviness of discomfort for several minutes, and then cautiously tried to discuss.
In Seneca Rocks, West Virginia we found ourselves talking to the owner of the general store, Joe, about the area: The farms, the conservation efforts, the natural beauty. When he found out that the three of us were studying environmental and sustainability sciences, he brought up that he thought people making environmental policy were too disconnected from the people whom they would be regulating. “That young lady from New York — Cortez? — she doesn’t know what it’s like here.” He said the Green New Deal is simply infeasible and that people with political power would not properly incorporate local knowledge into their policies. Regardless of the specifics of these policies, the fact of the matter is there remains a strong perceived — and to some extent, real — disparity between the perspectives of people who are planning sustainable transitions and those whose livelihoods would be most acutely transitioned.
I didn’t say this, being too self-scrutinizing and afraid of tokenizing our new co-conversationalist, but one of the reasons why I wanted to see the state was to challenge my preconceptions, to build empathy and dialogue, to talk about natural resources with people who were more focused on employing people working in mines than on decarbonizing the energy grid. I left West Virginia with more questions than answers, as well as a reminder that empathy and understanding are herculean tasks.
And maybe that’s where the poetry comes in. And not just poetry, but films and paintings and short stories and novels. Songs, posters, sculptures, tapestries, plays, musicals, photographs. Works that speak to the heart and soul of the people and the issues. More than scenic overlooks or even the conversation with Joe in that general store, AppalachianHellFire’s work was consequential. It overcame its lack of poetic sophistication by sheer emotional force and complete earnestness.
I hope that, as the transmission of information over the internet continues to shrink the world, that there is more room for artists like AppalachianHellFire, and more art like “An Ode to West Virginia.” It is too easy to silence these voices before they are heard, but their art offers us so much.
Katie Sims is a junior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Resident Bad Media Critic runs alternate Tuesdays this semester.