poet Jesse Graves discusses his fourth collection, Merciful Days | Books
In our day, especially, we yearn for mercy, that fullness both given and received in times of loss and uncertainty. Such benevolence and kindness permeates the fourth collection of East Tennessee poet Jesse Graves, Merciful days. The title is a phrase his mother used often. Despite his many losses – father, brother, a favorite uncle – Graves is rarely alone in his native valleys and ridges of Sharps Chapel in Union County, an ancestral land rich in spirits and stories from great-great and beyond, each “a large old imprint.”
I have known Jesse Graves for many years, since he was a student at the University of Tennessee. I have admired his poetry and critical work over time and am proud of his work now as a Poet in Residence and Professor of Literature and Creative Writing at East Tennessee State University. He answered questions by e-mail.
You face many losses in Merciful days while keeping the right balance between emotion and restraint. Are you aware of maintaining this balance and avoiding sentimentality in your work, especially in poems from memory?
Thank you for recognizing the balance that I hope to continually maintain. I realize the danger of sentimentality with my subject, and even with my way of seeing and treating the world. A lot of people and places I care about are gone and won’t come back. I always remember something the great Jack Gilbert said in response to one of my poems in a workshop: âSentimentality is the risk that is most worth taking in poetry. He said poets should be prepared to go where their true feelings lead them, because that is where the most important discoveries can be made in poetry. I have realized over the years that most of the poems that I really love and care about, from passages from The odyssey to Joy Harjo’s âRememberâ, take that risk.
There are ghost stories and hauntings galore in Merciful days. How do hauntings work in your writing, especially if they’re steeped in Appalachian lore?
Well, I was brought up in a traditional Appalachian “dark howl” where we couldn’t see or hear our nearest neighbors, and the road that passed was named after an early 19th century woman who would have been a witch. I love the folklore of the community, but I also had a pretty scary childhood not to want to say for sure that none of this is true. I can’t explain everything I saw.
Ghost stories, however, aren’t just about the past for me. I have been fascinated for years by this concept of “hantology”, which has its origin in the Marx Specters, and the idea of ââ”lost futures” as described by Mark Fisher, who spoke of a nostalgia for all possible futures that have been closed to us by circumstances. I see it everywhere when I visit the Sharps Chapel. I calculated this recently: almost half of the boys in my small elementary school who were in my class and a class above and below me either spent time in jail or died. It’s strange to think of a lost generation and the haunted state it left behind.
IIn the poem “Wind Work”, you indirectly mention the occurrence of the Norris / Norris Lake Dam, which submerged your family’s land. How has this loss reverberated through your family from generation to generation, and what metaphors does this bring to your writing?
The changes brought about by the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Norris Projects have been a lingering theme in my writing – the title of my second collection of poems, Basin ghosts, comes from a verse from a poem on VAT reductions. These changes are also fundamental and ongoing, with most new developments at Sharps Chapel taking place in gated communities on the shores of Lake Norris. It amounts to a kind of rural gentrification that I haven’t seen much written about.
I think the effects on my family gave me a feeling of impermanence to live there. The earth itself is changing, and our relationship with it can change drastically and suddenly even if we don’t want it to happen. It also helped me reflect on how Sharps Chapel was disputed land and the Indigenous people who lived here before my ancestors arrived. When I was a kid it was exciting digging in creek beds and finding arrowheads, but it gave me an idea, even then, of how much things could change over time.
To read an extended version of this interview – and more local coverage of the books – please visit Chapter16.org, an online publication of Humanities Tennessee.