A few years ago- and I must immediately admit that it was on Dana Wildsmsith’s kindly initiative- she and I spent a day straightening up Jim Webb’s cabin on Pine Mountain. It was a gift of labor; Jim had been laid up with a seriously broken leg, and hadn’t been able to do much that required moving around or hefting for several months. So we picked up things, removed stuff, organized rooms, and cleaned the kitchen, each of us lending a good hand to the other to get the place squared away. It was a job of work and talk, and how many thousands of pleasant and funny words passed between us as morning gave way to afternoon I can’t guess. But now I’ve spent another few hours with Dana and another job of words, One Good Hand. Her book feels like a continuation, into her own gardens and woods and kitchen and classroom, of all that good work on Pine Mountain. It is a continuation that, like the work at Ski King’s, constitutes a gift of labor and of self.
The first thing you notice is the shapeliness of the poems, especially the couple of sonnets that appear in the opening pages, “Grace” and “One Good Hand.” The very sure lines, lilting along without any distraction yet with all the focused diligence of iambic pentameter, the slant rhymes stepping in quietly and doing their work, the ideas of the poems unrolling in a calmly conversational yet decorous way: very much like Dana, who’s always dressed up, even when she’s casual. She looks good in boots, and you’re sure, even in mud, even when sweating in her garden in the company of hound dogs. Her words navigate such places and companions with, well, grace.
When I was younger and less guarded against my own pedantic excess and intolerance, I regularly railed against even nursery rhymes and fairy tales for their personification of animals. “Bad news for the beasts,” I declared. “If we teach children, consciously or unconsciously, that animals are like people, then children might not understand that animals can’t think or vote or revolt against their lot. That poor horned owl, kids will think, can simply fly away to another tree-though the kids don’t understand that there might not be any other trees after the loggers clear-cut the county. Animals cannot take care of themselves.”
What I forgot in all this was that animals can take care of us. We owe them much. And the least of what we owe them is our hospitality and our attention. Dana’s poems are simply the best I’ve ever read about dogs. They are not sentimental; their drollness and their humor and their keen observations keep them from that. In the meantime, they remind us of the fruitful, instructive interrelations between so-called domesticated animals and us not-so-domesticated humans.
There are many other solid poems and solid subjects in One Good Hand, too. Our SAWC friend Joe Enzweiler speaks jokingly of treating himself only to the “earned shower;” it’s his satiric critique of our distaste for manual labor: building stone walls, cutting firewood, carpentering, gardening-and of the sweating such labor causes. Dana’s “Sweet Sweat” belongs at the top of the Earned Shower subject-bibliography:
Wouldn’t seem honest not to sweat,
like claiming bragging rights
on two armloads of Better Boys
half a pound each with no spots
while you stand there dry as July clay.
It’s sweat proves you grew these beauts.
By the way, listen to that last line: along with the occasional slant and full rhymes, Dana’s lines often sing this way, too, with rich assonances and alliterations:
“Fast-food bags flag in the breeze;/and some bubba’s planted three bald tires...” ("Springtime In The Country") and
Favors work, hard work. I saw that today
When winter turned warmly dreary, nasty
With slush and fog, but I went walking anyway
And found a last flounce of snow, still white.
("Oh, Let Us Nurture One Another")
And what a sweet little poem about the Country of Marriage is “Harvest”!
You can hear Dana’s voice in these poems; she’s with you, as Jim Wayne Miller’s shadow is in his poem “The Meeting.” And in the longer, allusive “Jimmie Wayne Speaks From Heaven, Should There Be Such A Place,” (with a nod to James Still) she evokes the voice and wisdom of that mentor of so many of us, whose presence at SAWC gatherings nurtured much, and whose support and friendship remains a living presence, as it does in Dana’s work, in all our poems and our lives.