Book Review: Appalachian Elegy

Appalachian Elegy, by Bell Hooks


Being familiar with at least some of the poet’s other work [1] is both an advantage and disadvantage in a book like this.  The advantage is that one knows something about the author’s political worldview, which is in full evidence here.  The disadvantage, though, is that one reads this book with a confidence that one will dislike it strongly.  To be fair, there are poets whose work I greatly appreciate despite a distance between my worldview and theirs.  I am rapturously fond, for example, of the poet William Stafford [2] despite full awareness that his worldview and mine are quite different, although there are some points of intersection between them in our shared concern for the coercive power of the state and an opposition to service in the armed forces.  With Bell Hooks, though (who prefers not to capitalize her name, a convention I do not respect), the issue of her writing is that she claims to be above and beyond race when her writing indicates otherwise.  It is her lack of honesty and integrity that makes her work less than enjoyable and those tendencies are in full evidence here despite the fact that the author’s reflections on hillbilly Kentucky life and my own early childhood in rural Pennsylvania and later in rural Florida are not particularly dissimilar, race and gender aside.  And that is precisely the point of disconnect.

This particular mercifully short volume begins inauspiciously with the author reflecting in her turgid prose on her childhood and on the way that she completely failed to identify with her poor white neighbors or the poor whites of Appalachian Eastern Kentucky because they were white and she was not.  The rest of the book goes downhill from there in looking at her execrable poetry which continually reflects on issues of memory and betrayal and shows the author completely unable to rise above the prison of her background and experiences.  She invokes Buddha, shows a marked preference for animals to people, and finds even the white snow to be oppressive in its whiteness, suggesting a sort of mental and moral pathology on the part of the poetess.  Most of the poems themselves are composed of fragments that lack linking words and expressions, and none of the words have capitalization so the writing does not come off as well as it otherwise would.  The perspective can be compared to a broken person trying to pretend that she is not broken but confident and strong, someone whose past is omnipresent but who is self-deceived into thinking that she has moved on.

The author could be pitied for this perspective, if she was not so determinedly hostile to me as a reader on identity grounds.  What is most striking about the author’s self-deception is not her misguided belief that she has overcome the wrongs she believes herself to have suffered personally or ancestrally, but that in her writings about Appalachian life she appears to be particularly blind to the indigenous inhabitants of the land who were dispossessed so that she could have her rural Kentucky childhood, as while there are many reflections on animals escaping from Daniel Boone or running wild and free as the author would like to, there are few reflections on the fact that the author too (and not only she criticizes) is a child of privilege that she does not recognize nor has she done anything to deserve.  The author’s total inability to reflect upon the way that she too is the descendant of those who have benefited from injustice and not only suffered from it makes these works intensely hypocritical.  And when the poetry is so poor from a technical perspective, it cannot bear the added weight of having to be judged as lacking because of the moral blindness of its self-righteous creator on top of its failure as poetry.

[1] See, for example:

[2] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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6 Responses to Book Review: Appalachian Elegy

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