First published in 1937, James Still’s Hounds on the Mountain evokes a collective memory of a vastly misunderstood region — Appalachia. Based on Still’s personal experiences in eastern Kentucky, the poems in this collection bear reflections about nature, life, death, and a nearly extinct way of living. Written during the Great Depression, Still’s poems embrace not only the ethos of survival, self-sufficiency and resilience that permeated Appalachia throughout much of its history, they also call on readers to reexamine their dependence on the earth’s resources, specifically coal, and realign themselves with nature in a manner not seen since Thoreau and Emerson.
Experimental in form for its time, “Mountain Dulcimer” transports readers into the hills and hollows where music is found in the quiet existence of the creatures occupying the forests. The dulcimer becomes the embodiment of all that the historical Appalachian existence offered, and its music abounds in “the doe’s swift poise, the fox’s fleeting step / And music of hounds upon the outward slope.” Each stanza relies on a set of tight, concrete lines until they “drift”:
The anvil’s strength…
and the silence after
That aches and cries unhushed into the day.
Each “drift” forms a change in tone, a change in tune, that takes readers from “the lambs crying” to the “breath of the lark” to where “The foal’s anxiety is woven with the straining wedge / And the wasp’s anger…” These poignant reflections remind readers of Thoreau’s assertion that “Wildness is the preservation of the world.”
“When the Dulcimers Are Gone” also relies on the image of the dulcimer as a representation of Appalachian culture. In this poem, the speaker imagines a world in which “the dulcimers are mingled with the dust / Of flowering chestnut.” The images convey an ashes-to-ashes tone in the ideal that what is shaped from nature must return to it. However, at its core, the poem is about the irreversible loss of culture in an ever-evolving world. The speaker laments, “Where shall the gentle words in mild abandon sing / With the sweet design in loitering melody.” Thus, the poem may very well resonate today with many Appalachians and other environmentalists, particularly as climate change wages its war on fragile farmlands and mountain landscapes within the region. With that in mind, the poem “Farm” takes on a different context as well.
“Farm” celebrates the often unnoticed quiet moments and landscapes. It reads like a meditation, a prayer, and it exults “the deep moist hollows, on the burnt acres / Suspended upon the mountainside.” Despite its depiction of hard-scrabble farming, the poem uplifts the harsh landscape in which the Appalachian people managed to thrive. Utilizing a more traditional form, the enjambment within the lines seamlessly shifts readers into an imagistic experience where “the crisp green corn / tapers blunt to the fruiting tassel.” The poem also serves as a testament to nature’s resilience and sometimes inharmonious balance as “Crows haggle their dark feathers, glare beady eyes / Surveying the slanted crop from the poplar boughs.” This juxtaposition of light and dark, of the foreboding with the calm and serene, establishes the tone for many of the later poems in the collection.
“Spring on Troublesome Creek” is one such poem where that juxtaposition is a necessity. Again, the poem relies on a more traditional form, and its two-stanza structure clearly juxtaposes the harsh reality of Appalachian existence with the resilience and hope the people carried with them. In the first stanza, the speaker establishes a stark scene: “Not all of us were warm, not all of us.” They describe themselves and those with them as “winter-lean, our faces are sharp with cold.” Their clothes “smell of wood smoke,” and the speaker reiterates, “Not all of us were warm, though we hugged the fire.” The second stanza, just as brief as the first, develops a different tone. It begins with the bold, right-aligned statement, “We have come out.” The enjambment of the lines reinforces the speaker’s abrupt emergence “Into the sun again” where they have “untied our knot / Of flesh.” The speaker describes the experience in collective terms, stating, “We are no thinner than a hound or mare, / Or an unleaved poplar.” The speaker’s utilization of natural imagery to communicate the human experience bears traces of Emerson and even more contemporary poets like Hila Ratzabi.
Poems like “Earth-Bread” raise awareness about more contemporary environmental issues like coal mining. The three-stanza poem at first portrays coal mining in poetic terms as miners work “Under stars cool as the copperhead’s eyes, / Under hill-horizons cut clean and deft with wind.” The miners “dig with short heavy strokes, straining shoulders.” In the second stanza, the speaker portrays the miners “Breaking the hard, slow-yielding seams.” It is the poem’s final couplet that jars readers into the immediate dangerous realities coal mining poses for miners: “This is the eight-hour death, the daily burial / In a dark harvest lost as any dead.” The poem’s message is timeless and necessary, especially as the United States works to reform its reliance on fossil fuels.
By its end, what Hounds on the Mountain reminds readers is that often the lessons and observations from the past, and particularly those recorded in poetry, often speak more loudly today than they did in their own time. To read The Hounds on the Mountain is to return to a critical point in America’s past. However, because of its focus on nature, the collection reads like an environmentalist’s poetic plea to the public — that they must consider their individual actions in the context of the environments in which they live, or all will be lost for future generations. In its own right, Hounds on the Mountain is an enduring, necessary manifesto-in-verse and a piece of Appalachian history packaged into thirty-five classic poems.
Hounds on the Mountain
By James Still
Published July 12, 2022