by Brenda Smith
SKY UNDER THE ROOF
Bottom Dog Press
I have to admit that one reason I wanted to read Hilda Downer’s Sky Under the Roof was that the title intrigued me. Just how does the sky end up beneath the roof? I can’t say truthfully that I answered my own question, but I enjoyed every minute of the journey. Her poetry above all else is a masterful weaving of connections: connections through time, family, friends, the earth, history, culture, objects, and nature; connections between people and times, people and places, hearts and bones, love and loss. She creates a reality of her own with her words and images. If you have ever pondered whether we use creativity to withdraw from the world or to re-enter it, this book answers for the author’s view—we create to re-enter and connect.
Downer divides her book into three parts: I. The sky bears its own weight in watchfulness, II. Bottles and jars are the skeletons of light that hold up the sky, and III. The sky listens but offers no advice.
It is impossible to say of Downer’s work, “This section is about…” because, for her, all things are connected and a poem that begins with a childhood memory, may pass into a eulogy for earth, and continue on into a reassurance to the reader that we are all one, and that makes everything all right in the end. She begins with “Picking Cherries up Howell Hollow” which concludes with the lines, “deeper still in childhood/attempting to see into/who I have and have not become.” And so she leads us along on this quest of hers where we find that her journey is our own.
One sturdy thread of her travels reveals her love of the natural world as she illuminates many truths of Appalachia’s environmental struggles. She does not shove environmentalism down our throats, but her images and insights make us realize that what we have done to the earth had better be put right. One favorite in this section is a longer poem, “Flashlights and Fire” whose lines do not preach, but insightfully describe: “You showed me clear-cutting/where trees of whole mountains/won’t work anymore./Stray logs lay useless as dead flashlights/where too much daylight/needles where deer and bear,/and whole species of what could heal us,/have had a fire in their house.”
Another poem in this section, “What is Under my Dress” crosses time from ancient days and back again, ending in a revelation of who she has become. At first, it seems two topics, thrown together perhaps by a poet whose mind cannot find focus, but when seen as a whole, the connection becomes clear and the transitions seamless:
“Scops sing in an unwritten language;
arched stones and Celtic bones…
faith and prayer sent out in the direction of birds,
where the infinity of the small
reaches the infinity of the large,
and between any man and woman,
there is that something more.
An editor once summed up
my poetry as merely listing,
told me to put that under my belt,
and would I drive with him to Vermont.
Here’s another list;
I don’t wear a belt;
I wear a vintage prom dress;
I refuse to face life like a man;
and I’ll make up my own mind,
if there’s any room left,
about what to put under my dress next.”
“The Source of Confessional Poetry Along the Toe” juxtaposes time and place between the contemplation of Frankie Silver’s murder of her husband in 1833, to confessions of her children, to childhood memories of crossing the Toe River, ending with a satisfying conclusion to the odyssey:
“We are not strangers
when time moves forward
to meet time moving backwards…
When I return to the other side,
I do not return fully,
But I do return whole.”
In the final section of the book, “The sky listens but offers no advice,” Downer returns again to Bandana, her Appalachian home. Her scattered musings are united by her memories, expressed in such poignant words that they could be our memories, too. Those places and people and thoughts that we held dear in our youth are seldom forgotten, and she shares hers with such clarity that we are enveloped with her. We remember and ache with our own pasts as we travel her road built of words and images.
We begin to get an inkling of the book’s title in “Not Even the Bone of White Bedroom Furniture,” a poem dealing with memories of her sons:
“They prefer to play with their father.
Sometimes loneliness is not just a back turned,
But something lost, unnamed,
In the sky that sees but offers no answers,
A fear I won’t know what to say to sons.
They fashion guns from the bones and elbows of laurel.”
Downer ends with a final tender plea for the environment with her poem, “Watauga Lake is Manmade,” an ode to the land beneath the water, to the town of Butler, that no longer exists. It is a perfect ending to a book that travels back and forth between time and memory to make the connections.
Why is the sky under the roof? I don’t know. I could make something up, but I think I prefer to simply bask in the emotions that Hilda Downer’s words and images evoke.
She says: “In the writing of this,/I pull you closer to me./In reading, you pull back./We click together like hickory nutshells./For whatever purpose,/it is in this pull that I dance alive.” I want to dance with her. If you read poetry for how it can reach out and grab you, then you will want to read this book too, and dance along.