“A town we all know well”: A Collaborative Review of What It Done to Us by Essy Stone
In this collaborative review, Allison Pitinii Davis and DJ Morgan, an instructor and a student at Tennessee Wesleyan University, examine What It Done to Us (winner of The Idaho Prize 2016 ) from East Tennessee, the region explored in the text. While reviewing Stone’s examinations of Appalachia, we considered our own relationships to the region and our narrative distance as readers.
Allison: In the end of “My mamma used to call me a black-hearted child,” the speaker references The Lost Sea Adventure, America’s largest underground lake. It’s located twelve miles from the university we’re writing from. The speaker is annoyed by “All the tourists fucking around/with their flashlights, & what I want is to frighten them back.”
We are readers who live near the locations Stone writes about, but I feel like a tourist in these poems—my gaze is as problematic as “all the rich white men gulping mugs of American beer” at Hooters in “The Argument.” Yet Stone’s speakers urge readers to keep looking—they are nothing if not hospitable. In “They come looking for blood,” men approach a Hooters waitress to use her blood in a violent ritual, and the waitress welcomes them— “I said come in please misters.” The waitress agrees to let the men scrape blood from her ankles with a nail file because “It is a truth universally acknowledged that someone’s gotta bleed” and “I’d hacked my legs up shaving anyways.”
"I feel like a tourist in these poems—my gaze is as problematic as 'all the rich white men gulping mugs of American beer' at Hooters"
These female speakers endure violence, yet in the end, they win by attrition. In “Among the Prophets,” the speaker appeases the patriarchy in order to avoid abuse—“Daddy, yes, we’d be dead without you, we’d be dead on the streets like rats, yes, we is like rats exactly”—but then reworks her prostration into a Trojan Horse: “I seen an army fall before, & in the end it was the rats who swallowed every last gilded thread on their bodies & chewed up the bodies too. Come judgment, the littlest is the largest.” When televangelists or Californians or readers try to “save” or pity these speakers, the speakers wield submission like a weapon. In the masterful rewrite of William Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell, a jock on a subway in California sexually harasses the speaker and asks her to dominate him because it will make her feel “empowered.” She replies, “I don’t wanna be empowered—to me violation is the sexy part of sex.”
While these poems make it clear that “these is hard economic times”—“no resale value on a trailer home, but you keep the acreage unless the government dicks you down,” “all the money from the pill industry goes out of state; you never see it here,” “a trailer-park rager…/a gun up your ass when you sit/between cushions on the couch”—the poems save the most vicious critique for the self and its endurance. In the final poem, “The Angel Wants to Know What Fear Is,” the speaker shows her difficult survival no pity: “Still you look so pretty with your own flesh in your teeth.” This final line makes the reader understand that yes, we are tourists here and in way over our heads. We appeal to Stone for help, but her brutal gaze has shifted from the reader to the self.
DJ: Her writing seems to be just the abrasive, hard-hitting truth that modern Southern readers have been needing and pining for. As we say in the South, she told it like it is, both boldly remonstrating the failings of small Southern Tennessee life as well as defending and highlighting the facets of religion, neighborliness, and behavior that defines and enriches us all. I am immensely proud of where I come from and the experiences I have had; I don’t not want to leave you with the impression I despised coming from a small town.
The first few lines of “Fast Car” immediately establish an emptiness—she mentions it should have been filled with love—that envelops her so much it is “burning you up & pounding between your ribs.” The following description of the need and want to fill this emptiness struck me particularly hard. Coming from a small town (we didn’t even have a red light), there were definitely moments I felt destined for more or just desired something greater. I believe this is where she is going, especially when she calls herself an “outsider.” The poem itself, her work as well, is easily identifiable and comparable to any small-town citizen, whatever their age.
My favorite part of this prose poem is her praying the dam will break loose because something has to be released or awakened. How fitting she made this comparison! Yet the finality of the poem, the resolution, finds her in the arms of a boy and his fast car, dressed in her cashier’s uniform, hearing promises from this boy that he will take her far away, yet knowing it isn’t true. After reading that, I felt a certain dryness inside myself. She paints the small town life well, not necessarily painting a morbid picture but being careful to show the prison-like qualities of it, of being stuck in a mire of complacency.
Allison: I’m much newer to the South that you and Stone grew up in, but I’ve seen the stretches where “God quotes himself on billboards along I-40.” Much of the collection alludes to a dark side of Tennessee’s history—in “Among the Prophets,” “the KKK chopped my daddy’s wood for him, winter of 1968—damned if they would see a white boy freeze.” In “Chattanooga Wedding,” a kinswoman mechanically braids ribbons in the speaker’s hair even after there is no more hair left to braid: “she stares into space—/her palms clasp & release, clasp & release, tracing incantations in empty air.” I particularly don’t have access to the deep-rooted religious culture of East Tennessee. In “Sex and Psychosis in the House of Prayer: A Vocabulary,” the collection explores what the speaker and Rolling Stone call a religious cult: “IHOP—International House of Prayer—meant to confuse folks hungry for pancakes.” Yet in poems like “Charismatics in Ecstasy,” the speaker notes the ways in which she and her church still “clasp each other/in secret.” This especially comes through formally—the language and long lines of these poems evoke biblical incantations.
"she cannot truly escape the 'clutches' of the small town; however, it may be that the small town cannot truly escape from her"
DJ: In “Charismatics in Ecstasy,” Stone is easily able to produce both a sour and a sweet picture of church, a staple in the South. Here, the beauty comes from the fact that despite her absolute rejection of it, she still “flirts” with the practice, perhaps realizing it is indeed a much larger and immensely impactful part of her she never truly understood before. I think it can be tied back in to “Fast Car” where she cannot truly escape the “clutches” of the small town; however, it may be that the small town cannot truly escape from her, as she clings on to some small part of her past. Behind the composed face and the façade of knowledge and self-confidence, some small part of her cannot be completely done away with.
Allison: “The small town cannot truly escape from her, as she clings on to some small part of her past.” Absolutely. Reviewers often applaud writers who avoid “regionalism.” As a writer who focuses on the Rust Belt—another misunderstood region—I appreciate how Stone unapologetically presents Appalachia. She explores the area’s dialects, religious culture, and class issues yet also uses these “regional” elements to pull one over on the reader. In his introduction to the collection, Gary Copeland Lilley notes that “Stone has created a southern gothic for today.” The genre is often associated with the grotesque, which reminds me of Flannery O’Connor’s remark, “Anything that comes out of the South is going to be called grotesque by the northern reader, unless it is grotesque, in which case it is going to be called realistic.”
Stone especially manipulates the “grotesque” in the poems exploring waitressing and strip clubs. These speakers are experts at constructing façades for survival. They head back into the bathroom to “adjust our cleavage, growl through lipsticked teeth at the unseen/hand that holds us here./Raise our chins to meet its invisible fist.” These speakers invite us to look at what poverty, fundamentalism, and patriarchal violence has “done to us” and what they do to survive it, but they remind us that they can watch us watching them. “In a Strip Club Called The Emerald City,” the speaker warns the customers “I heard they put cameras/in the bathrooms.” In “Trap House,” the speaker warns her customer “you don’t know that your end of days starts here,/in me, between my legs.” In “Snake Oil,” the speaker and her partner sell tinctures of “Vapor Rub, cigarette filters, chlorinated pool water, & Fresca” and “those fat saps/ate it up like the last supper.”
The final section of the book includes a rewrite of Blake’s A Marriage of Heaven and Hell. In Stone’s version of “Memorable Fancy III,” “The Angel spake unto me & said, how did you recover?” The provided antidote is “I earned some scratch & moved/to California.” Is the answer ditching flyover-America for the coasts? In “The Voice of the Devil,” “The Angel spake unto me & said, your daddy’s hell is California!” to which the speaker admits that “may be something we got in common.”
Note: This review's title is taken from the murder ballad "Knoxville Girl" (below), to which Stone alludes in her collection.
DJ Morgan is a student at Tennessee Wesleyan University in Athens, Tennessee.
Allison Pitinii Davis is the author of Line Study of a Motel Clerk (Baobab Press, 2017) and Poppy Seeds (Kent State University Press, 2013), winner of the Wick Poetry Chapbook Prize. She holds an MFA from Ohio State University and fellowships from Stanford University’s Wallace Stegner program and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. She teaches at Tennessee Wesleyan University and will begin her doctoral studies at The University of Tennessee starting Fall 2017.