Gloria Jean Watkins, known as bell hooks, was born in 1952 and is an American author, activist, and feminist of great renown. This book addresses race, capitalism, sexuality, history, art, education, and gender just as her previous works have. Hooks has been a teacher, scholar, the subject of documentary films, and public lecturer. Appalachian Elegy: Poetry and Place is a book of hooks’ poetry focused on her return to Kentucky (her birthplace) and the meaning of life, grief, and ultimately love during her upbringing there. Hooks addresses her heritage and the influence of white supremacist violence, as well as similar land loss issues faced by both black and american indian people pushed off by white settlers.
Appalachian Elegy: Poetry and Place
Appalachian Elegy addresses loss in Kentucky with sounds of sadness, speaking to the stories of the slaves that have been lost over the centuries. Bell hooks wants people to remember their stories and their lives, and remember who Kentucky once belonged to. Hooks has never been one to shy away from the truth in her writing, and Appalachian Elegy is no exception. It’s direct, at times dark, and pointed poems and language hold the mourning of a person who has lost part of who she is in the annals of an incorrect and biased history.
Hooks speaks to the flood of memories that assaulted her when she returned to her childhood home in many different ways, but all with a sense of nostalgic and angry sadness at the atrocities committed in her homeland and the state of Kentucky even before her birth. The poems range from slow sadness to pointed confession and everywhere in between with political and Appalachian viewpoints. Although hooks had not returned to Kentucky in 50 years, her arrival opened the floodgates to so many buried emotions that only this eloquent poetry book could contain, describe, and help her process those thoughts and experiences within the familiar Kentucky surroundings.
Hooks’ images of Kentucky do not so much embrace the state and its country landscape as describe it; she has been separated from it for so long she does not know how to greet it. With sorrow? With happiness? With understanding? With hatred? All these feelings, and her decades of scholarly historical and literary knowledge collide in this poetry volume, producing powerful verses of politically-charged but personal narratives and truths. The poems cover the marginalization of Black and American Indian peoples in Kentucky and the south in general; environmental degradation; loss of identity; and rebirth of the past with increased understanding.
Hooks explores her memories in the book, from racial lines to the beauty of the natural world she was allowed to run wild in. Hooks’ writing has always been personal and political, but this book ties her life experience, both after leaving Kentucky and while living there, together in an epic saga of connectedness and yearning.
Hooks’ poetry also speaks to the physical connection people have to the spaces and places they occupy throughout their lives, the way our places and spaces speak to us and become an indelible part of who and what we are. We carry these places with us always, just as bell hooks has carried Kentucky with her even when she was away from it. We cannot separate our being and our lives from the places we have seen and lived, nor should we try.