In Kari Gunter-Seymour’s Alone in the House of My Heart, readers discover the region of America the headlines so often ignore: Appalachia. Stereotyped and misunderstood for decades, the region develops a new persona, and its landscapes and histories become metaphors for the headstrong female speaker of each poem. Loss, grief, addiction, environmentalism, and the COVID-19 pandemic take center stage in Gunter-Seymour’s collection, and the collection delicately and introspectively balances the gifts and hardships Appalachians inherit and endure.
Echoing environmental poetic manifestoes like James Still’s Hounds on the Mountains, Alone in the House of My Heart harbors poems such as “Bobcat.” In this poem, the elusive creature — her “ear tufts suddenly alert, / head swiveling over her shoulder” — crosses in front of a sleepy speaker. The speaker observes, “I have seen that look before, in a photograph / of my great-grandmother — a woman / stalked and caught.” In these lines, the boundary separating humanity from nature blurs, reminding readers that where one least expects to recognize themselves, they often do. Creating the mystery within these lines is Gunter-Seymour’s personal and gentle, yet direct, language which elevates the bobcat. Because of the speaker’s comparison of the bobcat to the great-grandmother, the bobcat symbolizes the female in Appalachia. Traditional Appalachian culture is predominantly patriarchal, though women tend to also have a strong influence on the family while also fulfilling traditional roles such as the family nurturer and caregiver. For many women, Appalachia can be a confining place because of these roles, but the female voices in Alone in the House of My Heart break free of those roles and those confinements and instead celebrate the physical, emotional, and intellectual strength they possess.
Of course, one cannot read Alone in the House of My Heart and not take note of the subtle political elements swirling amid the personal and historical narratives. In many Appalachian states, the COVID-19 pandemic transformed into a political arena in which individuals battled local, state, and even federal mandates. The poem “Ohio Struggles to Contain COVID-19 Nursing Home Deaths” portrays a tiny sliver of the repercussions of Appalachian states’ inability to contain the spread of COVID-19. The poem depicts the separation of mother and daughter and the disastrous effects the separation has for both. The poem ebbs and flows between longer and shorter stanzas, and this structure creates a dreamlike sensation, one mimicking the sensation of losing time, which many experienced during the pandemic. It also reinforces the sense of separation, which eventually culminates in the poem’s two final lines: “How far across the sky will this Corona / spread its doom?”
“Ending” is an eleven-line poem reminiscent of Irene McKinney’s “Visiting My Gravesite: Talbott Churchyard, West Virginia.” At first, the poem bears a nihilistic tone: “In the end, does it really matter / the way anything said in passing / grew so much larger.” Pushing this futile tone are the enjambed lines and the speaker’s usage of the collective “we:” “how we took on sorrow and stored it / until we stood in silence or wept.” The collective “we” conveys the generational trauma and oppression with which Appalachians have grappled for decades. Much of this generational trauma stems from the natural resource economy on which Appalachians rely, and the extreme fluctuations of this economy influence how Appalachians experience their neighborhoods, their regions, their states, and, ultimately, the world. Ultimately, the poem reads like a call for agency and action and an encouragement for a type of self-awareness that allows Appalachians to not only process “the splintery / cold of our foolish selves” but also helps them develop empathy to relate to those of various cultures and backgrounds.
This self-awareness and empathy become necessary ingredients for existence in “Sense of One’s Place.” In this poem, the speaker confesses, “I worry over how to dress in this world” and recognizes that “the shield we are given as a child / does not protect, our cinched belts tucked tight.” The poem is a gentle reminder about the power of words: “there are words I’ve had to step away from.” Again, the fine line between the natural world and humanity blurs as “coyote music tempers moon’s heavy breath.” Making a Transcendentalist observation, the speaker concludes: “Sometimes stars draw lines so perfect / they carve my name.” If anything, the poem embodies the philosophy that nature possesses the ability to remind humanity of its place.
Alone in the House of My Heart is a unique contribution to the ever-growing subgenre of contemporary Appalachian literature. As the awe-inspiring and biodiverse ecosystems the region possesses grow more and more threatened by excessive land abuse and climate change, this collection serves as a means of preservation for a landscape under attack and a lifestyle that has thrived in some of America’s most extreme environments. It is a celebration of the self, rugged individualism, and a mosaic in verse of the people and traditions which shape Appalachia.
Alone in the House of My Heart
By Kari Gunter-Seymour
Published September 27, 2022