In “Hedge Ghosts,” the opening poem of her first full collection, Elijah’s Farm (Pecan Grove Press, 2008), Tennessee transplant Rachel Jennings shares a familiar familial yearning: “Like anyone I wanted / elders and epic heroes / and not such ghosts as these ... ”
These family ghosts, she reveals in her signature picaresque tone, set a Jennings family trail to Spanish Texas with “youthful forays into foreign lands / that climaxed explosively / with bowel bursts in the scrub brush / of Nuevo Santander.”
Them vaunted Tennessee volunteers of our high-school Alamobotomies are Rachel Jennings’s kin. And as kinfolk go, she knows that each time they “hem and haw” about their heroism, they’re just covering up shit. Jennings’s poems offer this ground’s-eye view of the real flesh-and-blood people others have used to create grand heroic narratives. These folks might have something different to say about what really happened, and why, if anyone would just stop and listen. As poet Sandra Cisneros proclaims in her back-cover blurb, “It’s to the survivors she pays homage, the barrio rednecks, the hillbilly women, the folks who don’t think they make a difference in this world.”
Jennings, a member of the Macondo Writers Workshop that Cisneros founded (and of which I, too, am a member), has lived in Texas on and off since 1999. After receiving her Ph.D. in Irish, postcolonial, and Chicana/o literary studies at the University of Texas at Austin, Jennings pursued teaching and editing stints everywhere from Tennessee to Minnesota to Texas. She currently works part-time as an adjunct composition professor at San Antonio College, and this semester she is teaching in a special re-entry educational and college-scholarship program for high-school drop-outs.
“It’s tough,” she says of trying to maintain discipline in the testosterone-laden classroom of primarily Chicano students. “They just don’t realize the opportunities they are jeopardizing.”
Jennings knows that life affords few second chances, and sometimes no real chance at all. Her poem “Mill Girl” is a feminist shout-out to clerical workers preyed upon by “this lawyer / over my shoulder,” who “ is so much like / a floor boss / in her leather heels / not from Payless.”
The poem ends with a challenge to herself, her Appalachian community, and the broader community of readers she has cultivated over two decades of writing: “What is it / with hillbilly women / that we don’t file lawsuits / but manila folders, and / it’s not a difference we make / but coffee / and // copies, copies, copies, // rhythmically, // just like that?”
Jennings’s poetry is not an overt call to arms — after all, she says, she still is trying to live down the fact that her great-great grandfather fought for the U.S. in the Mexican War. Rather, she offers a poetry of witness, and of the wisdom of mountain folk who have made a culture and identity out of scarcity, neglect, and defiance.
Her signature poem, “The Gag Order,” recounts a personal encounter with the anti-choice zealotry that continues to sweep through parts of the nation as it did in Knoxille, Tennessee, in 1986, where the poem is set. It recalls
when the affluent young doctor
frowned testily, sized me up
as they do, then untied
the thin white mask
that divided us, all because
the deferential mountain girl
would not be dismissed
with stern words
or some official ban on maps
(simple directions to a clinic)
but instead, without warning,
square in the eye
to demand with some fieriness
a place to go.
Pecan Grove publisher H. Palmer Hall has built a reputation as a local talent scout. While none of his writers have yet to cross into the mainstream — few poets from any press ever do — Jennings is a rare author who welcomes her exclusion from the canon.
“That’s not where my people are. My kinfolk and my spiritual and political kinfolk live on the margins,” she says with the fervor of an old-time gospel preacher.
Jennings has been a member of the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center Board of Directors — the Conjunto de Nepantleras — which means “a gathering of women in between,” as in between peoples, groups, and struggles. Prior to joining this grassroots community arts organization, Jennings had a long history of activism, which is inspired by a family of proud yet populist Appalachian educators and activists. Belying the stereotypes popularized by Li’l Abner-style caricatures of the ignorant hillbilly who can’t count or manage his land (all the better to enable multinationals to strip-mine and pollute the region), her father is a high-school mathematics and special-education teacher, and one sister works in the nonprofit sector in support of Appalachian community organizations.
But her family also has a legacy of addiction. She neither pathologizes, romanticizes, excuses, nor denies it. Instead, she writes these people into history, such as in the poem “Hermitage,” which recounts her encounter with a humble “wino” at the estate of former President Andrew Jackson, renowned as a champion of the “common man.” She was a young girl at the time, and Jennings recalls the derision that even her own family had for the man — much like their soiled-breeched ancestors in Nuevo Santander.
Jennings is no flag-waving patriot. Her poetic vision arises from her political activism and insights as a scholar of working-class and anti-colonial literatures. Yet she is never overly didactic. On the contrary, her poetry manages to blend a cerebral complexity with scatological realism. Her aesthetic functions immediately, like a swig of Kentucky’s finest, and its images linger on the tongue after each reading.
When she writes in the poem “Barrio Rednecks” that “My uncles were / rednecks, that’s all,” she is not denigrating nor moralizing, but simply situating these characters in the socioeconomic class structure that links them to other “rednecks,” including those signaled in the title; think Little Joe’s polka hit “Redneck Meskin Boy.”
Jennings isn’t alone, of course, in reclaiming and expanding the political resonance of this epithet. Unlike Jeff Foxworthy, who never gets beyond the stereotype in his tired “you know you’re a redneck” joke series, Jennings offers an impressionistic meditation on the political economy of race and class.
In Deer Hunting With Jesus: Dispatches From America’s Class War (Crown 2007), author Joe Bageant similarly notes that these long-denigrated rural white workers have more in common with immigrants, black dockworkers, and the Mexican-American proletariat than with middle- and upper-class Whites. The failure of the left, Bageant argues, comes from its inability to appeal to the justified rage felt by these displaced and exploited rural folk. In the absence of a coordinated organizing effort, this rage turns to bigotry. The so-called white progressives even gain cultural capital from this stratification.
While Bageant offers a bleak vision of the future possibilities for rapprochement, through poetry, Jennings seeks to uncover the common ground, and preach the inevitability of a cross-racial union of the poor and working classes. Many of the mentors she signals in poem dedications and titles are Chicanos, including Américo Paredes and Tomás Rivera, as well as the Mexican folk figure Don Pedrito Jaramillo.
But the soft-spoken, deferential mountain girl ain’t gonna let nobody get ’bove their raisin’. Her poem “Chicano Studies” opens, “Muy estimado / Don Profe Chicano, / I mean no disrespect, / but ... ” and proceeds to call out an unnamed Chicano professor at her alma mater for his “silly banter about / Kentucky trash, inbred / fools, possum folkways. / My whole past, that is.”
This is why the poet never enrolled in his classes, she confides, nonetheless ending with her signature appeal to building bridges: “I have wondered always / whether sitting at that table / might have felt like family. // ¿Por qué no, profesor? / Let’s imagine it.”
Jennings previously has published an artisan chapbook, Hedge Ghosts (LaNana Creek Press, 2003), and currently is working on a new collection, Knoxville Girl, which takes its title from the series of morbid mountain ballads about the murder of an Appalachian woman who dared defy patriarchal strictures. These poems, like those in Elijah’s Farm, stitch a complex quilt that blends her love of Appalachia with incisive cultural and political critique.
This balance is illustrated in the nostalgic poem to her mountaineer heritage, “The Old Schoolhouse,” which is followed by a much more dramatic, some might say heretical, poem about her more infamous ancestry, “Eulogy for Davy Crocket.” It opens with what may be the best damn line of Alamo literature ever written: “Burn in Hell, Davy. Git!” •
B. V. Olguín is a poet, educator and frequent contributor to the San Antonio Current.