To all appearances, Ron Rash is one of the hardest working writers in America today. In the last five years Rash has published three books of poems and two collections of stories, and his novel One Foot in Eden recently won the Novello Festival Press’s Novello Literary Award and will be published later this year. If his capacity and desire to work in three genres were not amazing enough, his productivity is astounding.
Given this, the greatest astonishment is that Rash writes with a laconic, Appalachian temper. One would think that so prolific a writer would draw on a manic power so strong its influence could not effectively be channeled. But, in poem after poem, Rash writes with a reserve born of caution and of fear.
From his earliest volume, Rash’s caution has manifested itself in painstaking craft and a commitment to remember everything. In Eureka Mill, Rash gives voice to cotton mill workers of the early 20th century, some of the first people in the Carolinas to leave farming behind for the increasingly industrial city. The witness is difficult at times, as when Rash describes the scalping, by a weaving machine, of a young woman. But the poems compose themselves with an elegiac dignity, achieving a haunting music. Take, for example, the ghost of a rhyme that visits “Preparing the Body” in its opening and its closing quatrains.
Throughout Rash’s oeuvre, such weddings of music and matter seem to fulfill a promise — to bear witness to human lives, no matter how far gone or seemingly small. At times, this impulse draws on local legend, as in “Fall Creek” (from Raising the Dead) where a young couple’s love inhabits the stream that inhabited them. The vividness of the poem’s remembrance and the care of Rash’s telling are enough to admire, but the achievement of the poem lies also in the larger symbiosis between historical fact, the local story, and the sibling cultural impulses toward lore and toward poetry.
In Rash’s most recent volumes, Among the Believers and Raising the Dead, such achievement is amply demonstrated. But Raising the Dead, more than any other of Rash’s collections, twines fear with memory. In “Last Service,” the book’s first poem, Lake Jocassee is rising, swallowing farms, houses, churches, and graveyards. More clearly than in any of his other poetic works, Rash details the sometimes unfortunate intersections of a traditional country life and a dynamic modern world. Where “On the Keowee” has its local, Jake Poston, raising the drowned with a snapping turtle, “The Men Who Raised the Dead” tells of those community men who also resurrect the dead “if not from death, from water” — that rising lake. Throughout this book, rising water, the shadow of the electric South, erases towns from the maps. Rash’s stand is to rewrite them in memory.
Nowhere do Rash’s poems seem motivated by any simple nostalgia or good-old-days-ism. I feel instead the exercise of belief, a kind of folk religion, a wonderful love. And for that I am, as I hope you will be, thankful. Too often the crossroads gives us a choice of forgetting for the sake of the future or remembering to the exclusion of all current life. Rash does not stand at such a crossroads. If he bears a cross, it is something of a dowsing rod, held with old knowledge in search for new and flowing water and its moments of music, the news from below.