Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Review of Sherry Chandler’s "Talking Burley"

Talking Burley

      by Sherry Chandler

Main Street Rag, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-58848-721-2

81 pages


The following biography is from Main Street Rag Publishing’s website: 
Sherry Chandler grew up in the hills near the confluence of the Kentucky and Ohio Rivers, where her family farmed burley tobacco for generations. Talking Burley is her third full-length book of poems. Her work has received several awards, including the Betty Gabehart, the Kudzu magazine prize, the Joy Bale Boone Prize, and the Editor’s Choice Award from Waypoints. Twice nominated for Best of the Net, three times for a Pushcart Prize, she has received financial support from the Kentucky Arts Council and the Kentucky Foundation for Women. She lives on a small Kentucky farm.”

I first met Sherry Chandler around ten years ago at a reading and panel discussion held as part of the Kentucky Women Writers Conference in Lexington, Kentucky. I’ve enjoyed her poetry collections Weaving A New Eden (2011) and The Woodcarver's Wife (2014) which I reviewed and interviewed her for. Last year I was lucky enough to read with her and Leatha Kendrick at River Valley Winery in Carrollton, Kentucky. Sherry has a website at:
       —Karen L. George

Review of Sherry Chandler’s Talking Burley

Sherry Chandler's Talking Burley examines the hardships and traumas of farming and consuming tobacco, along with aspects of the industry’s troubling history, woven with personal memories of growing up in that complex world. The poems intricately braid cultural and social history of Kentucky and the nation, delving into subjects such as illness, loss, strained relationships, war, debt, and greed contrasted against moments of beauty, wonder, reverence, and tenderness. She roots her poems in concrete, sensory detail, particularly of the natural world, quickened by humor and wit rubbing up against clear-sighted seriousness.

The first poem of collection, "Cigarettes," sets the stage for the book with a stark, honest account of her own history with cigarettes:
            I smoked them.
            I smoked them because I was married at 17 and divorced at 23.
            I smoked them because, when I heard the pistol, one shot in the dark,
                   I felt nothing. There was nothing.
            I smoked them pregnant.
            I sucked on them while my baby suckled on me.
            I smoked them at a quarter a pack, at half dollar a pack, at a dollar a
            I smoked them through vows I wouldn’t pay more.
            I paid more.

The repetition suggests the power of the cigarette addiction alongside the narrator’s feeling of helplessness to give them up. The poem goes on to say she smoked them when her “mother-in-law died of lung cancer,” and when her father smoked while wearing oxygen, ending with the emotionally intense lines:

            I quit them.
            I sat on the kitchen stool and I hugged myself. I hugged myself and I
                   rocked myself. I rocked myself and I screamed.

In “Founding Principles,” she talks about our nation’s shameful history, how it was “built by slaves,” how the top of the Capitol’s columns is decorated with tobacco leaves, as are school rings. The poem ends with the acknowledgement of our troubling, complicated history, with a striking contrast of light and dark images:

            We re a city on a hill
            We are a thousand points of light
            We are burning crosses.

Several poems examine the tobacco wars of the early 1900’s in Western Kentucky and Tennessee. Because the American Tobacco Company priced tobacco so low that farmers couldn’t make any profit from it, the Planters' Protective Association of Kentucky and Tennessee (called PPA) was formed. The Night Riders, a militant group of the PPA, began to attack farms of growers who did not support the PPA—destroying tobacco crops, buildings, machinery, and attacking individuals.

The poem “Pearl Wilhoit” describes Night Riders in Hopkinsville, Kentucky that “destroyed property valued at over $200,000.” In “The Night Rider,” written from the point-of-view of one of the Night Riders, the state of Kentucky’s motto is praised, “United we stand, divided we fall,” urging all tobacco growers to join the PPA and boycott the monopoly of the American Tobacco Company:        

            Time to teach your old squirrel gun
            some new tricks. If those hillbilly holdouts
            take Duke’s bribe, if they don’t pledge
            their tobacco to the pool, 
            we’ll all fall.

            The ones who won’t starve with us,
            we won’t let them fatten against us.

The poem “How to Lose the Family Farm” lists incremental ways such a loss can occur, starting with such things as war; or when you’re forced to borrow against the crop so you can have enough money to grow it; or recessions and depressions. The poem lists other ways, repeating the same sentence structure, emphasizing the escalating manner of this plight:
            Start when the Night Riders call you hillbilly, scrape your plant beds,
            burn your barn in the name of solidarity.

            Start when you join the Night Riders, become the enforcer, so you don’t
            have to watch your children starve.
            Start when the juggernaut of agribusiness runs you down, when the
            American Tobacco Company swallows up all competition for your
            money crop.
            Start with having a money crop, all those eggs and only one basket. 

The above stanzas convey the sense of defeat those tobacco growers must have felt. While reading these poems, I noticed how timely they felt, though placed in the past, because unfortunately they point out a sad truth still present in today’s world—that money and big business control everything. 

The poem “Smoke Rings” powerfully conveys how tobacco provided many things, not all wanted: 

            Tobacco (dip chews at jawbone, teeth, and tongue) buys
             life insurance, health insurance, chemotherapy
            Tobacco (allotments laced with chemicals grow steroidal crops)
            crop my sister raised bought her first piano and necessary lessons
            Tobacco (smoke fills the organs of breath with carbon monoxide)
            tithes bought the organ my sister plays on Sundays, hymns ruined
            lungs can’t sing to save their souls

The poem also alludes to the child labor practice rampant on the tobacco farms. In a note to this poem, the author references a 2011 article by Sarah Bosely in The Guardian, which “estimates that there were 1.3 million [children working in tobacco fields] worldwide under the age of 14”:        

Tobacco farmers’ sons (unschooled) schooled in tobacco culture
paid the taxes, built the schools

The irony of the above lines perfectly portrays some of the quandaries associated with tobacco growing and its business.

Many of Chandler’s poems recount memories of her time growing up on a tobacco-growing farm. In “Fires at Night,” she’s reminded of a fire “sixty years ago” when they burned tobacco plant beds “to sterilize the ground, / ready it to receive seeds small as the dot / at the end of this sentence.” Such a beautiful image of hope—life rising from the ashes. 

In the collection’s title poem, “Talking Burley,” she speaks about the “Mysteries of language,” that tobacco had its own vocabulary, how “we spoke, our broad a’s and flat i’s / made a job of a jab, turned a harrow to a hire, / ware to wire, and wire itself to wahr,” and how cured tobacco was arranged “into ordered piles / / we called books.” 

She gives examples of her part in the family’s tobacco growing in “To Set Tobacco with the Season,” where you need: “a nine-year-old / granddaughter / willing to drop / the seedlings along / the laid-off rows.” In “The Jobber” she and her cousin assist Uncle James and her big sister in the planting process: 

            Uncle James shouts water boy! And me
            and my cousin take off with our lard
            buckets full. The bucket bail 

            bites my palm, sweat bees sting the bend
            of my knees. When I cry, Uncle James says
            sweat bees only sting lazy people. 

Many poems are alive with images of the natural world. In “Cicadas” she expresses their sound so exquisitely as “a conch-shell swell and fall…as if holding to ear a humpbacked larval husk / to hear the shimmer of the earth’s pulse.” She has poems about horseflies, tobacco worms, “soft as baby hair, / vulnerable / as exposed gut,” and grasshoppers who “bet / their lives on the thrust of their long / hind legs.” In “Grasshopper” we see her delightful sense of humor and wit: 

            A tobacco worm is soft as a Quaker.
            A grasshopper is hard-shelled as a Baptist. 


This poet apologizes to the Quakers. 


Take a July walk
down the farm road
just to look over your tobacco,
a sizzling scatter of grasshoppers
will mark your progress
like a child’s sparkler
shedding stars. 

What a lovely image to end the poem, creating a pleasing sense of awe, along with the marvelous onomatopoeic line: “a sizzling scatter of grasshoppers.” 

The poem “Thurston” opens with a beautiful description of a creek: 

            A thing of roots and mud, the high bank smells
            of fish, rotten sycamore leaves, the rank horseweeds,
            growing thick as a stockade wall along this deep hole
            where a grown man might wade up to his neck
            in murky water.            

In the poem “Rivers” she relates a memory and the poet’s deep connection to the natural world. It opens with rich imagery of sight, sound, scent, and motion: 

Smells of early morning rivers
lap at memory in small
wind-driven waves, slap
against a plywood boat. 

I love how it gives a heron and three buzzards equal footing in the next stanza, creating a gorgeous image of the buzzards: 

            Dragging its legs, a heron
            takes flight. Three buzzards
            on a snag open prayer-book
            wings to greet the dawn. 

The poem ends with a stanza of family with her in the boat, and how they are intricately braided: 

            Daddy’s rumbling
            volcano voice,
            his cigarette smoke,
            my brother’s chuckle,
            all helix-entwined
            in my watery cells. 

Those last two lines are so powerful, suggesting the spiral chain of DNA contains shared memory (genetic memory), and the idea that memories are held in your body at the cellular level. 

Many of the poems examine memories and various ideas of legacy. In “The Barn or Housing Kentucky Burley,” where the Kentucky burley hung to dry, is now a place where “a wake of turkey vultures roosts / in the ruin, nesting on rafters forty feet // above the ground.” 

In “Legacy North,” the poet speaks of, and to, her Grandfather Christoph, who emigrated from Silesia: 

            For all I know Silesia is all vampires and werewolves,
            Like Kentucky is all creationists and toothless meth cooks.  
            Like Kentucky, it’s a backwater.

            Like Kentucky, it’s known for mountains and cursed with coal. 

Further in the poem, she again brings up her family’s, Kentucky’s and our nation’s complicated history: “I am from those enslaved. // I am from those who enslaved others.”  

Several poems present her family history through the gaze of old photographs. In “Chandler Brothers, 1936” her father, “bent under the propped-up hood” of a “broken-down Buick,” “is a shadow obscured by deeper shadows.” Her Uncle James, “his body half out of the frame, / cud in his jaw…looking back to confront the camera.” The poem, “Father and Children in Sepia, 1937,” opens with a question as to what her sister is “looking at, off to the right,” and closes with that same sister “ready to run / to whatever it is that’s out of the frame.”  

Music threads through many of the poems. In “Rhapsody in Common Time, Episode 1,” she tells of a grandfather who plays the mandolin. “Rhapsody in Common Time, Episode 2” describes a great-grandfather as follows: “to survive a 19th century amputation, / chugged straight bourbon anesthetic, / his bone bisected by a bona fide sawbones / as he lay on the kitchen table singing.” 

The poems that explore the complexity of a troubled Kentucky and U.S. history are echoed in the personal history poems about difficult relationships. In “No Last Words” she writes of her father dying:  

“…in those struggling months I learned that old
and breathless men are not thereby made mild.
Those wasted stringy muscles hold 

the imprint of a power, a will both wild
and ordinary, strength enough to punch
a nurse. 

The poem goes on to reveal she wasn’t present when he died, and there was “No chance for deathbed drama, no chance to say / what we would not have said, our softer fealty/sealed in a steel-gray coffin, a church-yard grave.” There is such emotional intensity in the ending stanzas: 

            No chance to overwrite the day I failed
            a father stripped and strapped to a plastic chair
            without a sheet or curtain to hide his frailty, 

            the day I learned love can be trumped by fear,
            that I had no resources that could tame
            the alien eloquence of his hate-filled stare, 

            and since I could not speak to him of shame,
            I don’t remember that we spoke again. 

There is such power in the phrase, the image of  “the alien eloquence of his hate-filled stare,” through the odd pairing of “alien” and “eloquence,” along with the seeming contradiction of a “hate-filled stare” being “eloquent.” This complexity and duality of the phrase perfectly mirrors their fraught relationship. In “Little Man,” she talks about several generations of men (son, grandson), her husband (“my engendering lover is now the Old Man.”), and her father described as: 

            …my smoking, drinking, roofbeam-walking,
            mean-as-hell one-and-only-father,
            who would not have said those two words, [Little Man]
            but taught his sons what he knew:
            to build a barn plumb and never show fear            

The poem “Lost” contains another memory of the time her mother lost her solitaire ring down the drain. She says, “Daddy offered / the diamond with his promise of good behavior / after twenty-five turbulent years.” The poem ends with her musing: 

            …I like to think the ring washed
            all the way out onto the hillside slick, that it remains,
            claimed by clay and sod, leached like greasy water,
            an emblem of her union with the man, the house,
            the ridge, and me, the child that hard clay bred. 

The poem “Resolved” feels as if it’s set in the present day, resolving the past. It begins “This year let us hear our whispering better angels. / This year let us see from a more forgiving angle…” Then the poem shifts into a past memory: 

            When I was a child I’d hang from my father’s boat,
            up to my ears in the river. While he ran his trot 

             line, I listened to the grunting speech of carp and buffalo,
             he song the river sang when the sun was low. 

The poem ends with evocative images and again the wish to let go of what we can’t resolve, and a desire to see things in a different, kinder light: 

            How easy it was, at nine or ten, to float
            along the plane between, neither in nor out. 

            This year let us cut the knots we can’t untangle.
            This year let us see from a more forgiving angle. 

The last poem in the book, “The Monster Opens its Eyes While the Closing Credits Roll” takes place squarely in the present, speaking of a man who only ever wanted “a farm and a family,” who “expects to prove himself. Like his father / and his grandfathers, he wants to be / what he knows how to be: a good tobacco man.” The poem, and the book, ends with the following stanza: 

            For setting, housing, he hires brown-skinned
            immigrants he calls Mexican. Who cares
            how many borders the fake news says they’ve crossed
            or why –no one else will work like slaves
            in August heat at wages he can almost afford.
            Not slaves, no chain gangs, no coiled whips
            or shot guns. The bottom line:  he has to have
            cheap labor. Tobacco is making a comeback.   

These lines echo this legacy of the hard life and the dilemmas faced, of the tobacco grower now and in the past, as examined throughout this book. They also suggest to me that this hope for a tobacco comeback is in reality a false hope, which mirrors the idea of bringing back coal—a newer, clean coal—just one of the false promises made during the campaign of our current president. 

The poems in Sherry Chandler's Talking Burley capture tobacco farming, culture, and industry of the past that factored into forming our nation, seen through the eyes of various people who experienced it. She brings our country’s, Kentucky’s and her personal history alive through clear-eyed examination peppered with wit and humor. These poems are infused with multi-layered rhythm, imagery, and emotional depth, unflinching in their honesty and vulnerability, instilled with tenderness, longing, and a reverence for the land and our connections to it and our ancestors.

 Here are links to some of Sherry Chandler’s poems:

If you want to hear Sherry Chandler talk about her book “Talking Burley,” listen to this interview on Katerina Stoykova’s  Accents, A Radio Show for Literature, Art and Culture. 

Karen George retired from computer programming to write full-time. She lives in Florence, Kentucky, enjoys photography and visiting forests, museums, cemeteries, historic towns, and bodies of water. She is author of five chapbooks, most recently the collaborative ekphrastic Frame and Mount the Sky  (Finishing Line Press, 2017), and two poetry collections from Dos Madres Press: Swim Your Way Back  (2014) and A Map and One Year (2018). You can find her work in The Ekphrastic Review, Heron Tree, Valparaiso Poetry Review, Juniper, Thimble Magazine, South Broadway Ghost Society, and Gyroscope Review. She holds an MFA from Spalding University, and is co-founder and fiction editor of the journal, Waypoints. Visit her website at: