What Lives in Me

by | Dec 28, 2020 | December 2020 Writing | 10 comments

My Mamaw was tomato dumplins

and nine youngins proud

dirt floor but we ain’t poor proud

Kentucky bluegrass and get off your ass proud


This ain’t no elegy

this is what lives in me


green hills horseshoe

the cabin down the holler

Papaw’s coon dogs

forage on furrowed hills

he rests on the step

of the back shed

removes his corncob pipe

from the pocket of his overalls

surveys my proudly displayed mud-pies

I hope he will speak

he nods only, salmon hair

reflected by sunlight, voice

silenced by moonshine


Mamaw knows about mothering

cooking, canning, surviving

fighting the men’s legacy of too much drink

we drive her up North Route 23 to Ohio

our first house with central heating

carpet that spreads wall to wall

the vacuum’s relentless whirring

frightens her to take refuge in the back room

we coax her out to watch TV

fail to convince her that people who die

on the Soaps really aren’t dead

she shakes her head, her mind

confused by transition, body

swollen by fatigue


Mamaw and Papaw prefer

life simple as fireflies

on a muggy Kentucky night


I’m learned my ABC’s in an outhouse proud

coal stove heat and bare feet proud

it’ll get better if we’re together proud


This ain’t no elegy

this is what lives in me


you might laugh out loud

but I’m Appalachia proud


  1. Rogan

    Jennifer, I love this — the voice, the persona, how it opens on Mamaw. You’re leaning into those end lines on “proud.” I have two thoughts. Either stick to your guns, it’s a deliberate choice and just lean in as you are. The second thought is that you could, without changing the words, change where your lines end so you’re not pounding proud into the ground. But then maybe that’s the point, and I return to the first thought. I do love the closing couplet.

  2. David O'Connor

    Sweet. A song really, I could hear the beat and a melody tinkering away. Also, I just watched Hill-Billy Elegy and except for Glenn Close’s acting chops, this poem has more to be proud of… Love the power, resilience, and musicality!!

    • jennifer vanderheyden

      Thanks, David…I had the same reaction to the movie. There are a lot of things I identify with in the book, but I also understand the negative reactions it receives from Appalachia and Appalachian writers. I guess this is my answer/reaction. Glad you heard the beat and melody!

  3. Sara Comito

    This narrator is someone I’d want as a friend – resourceful, proud, fun. Maybe look at ways to make it more succinct and punchy to stay in the rhythm of your beautiful poem-song. For instance:

    Mama knows mothering
    cooking, canning

    (“about” serves to remove, “surviving” is what mothing + cooking + canning equal in the algebra of life)

    I really savor what you’re writing here and LOVE many phrases such as this:

    Papaw’s coon dogs
    forage on furrowed hills

    Beautiful work. Thank you.

    • jennifer vanderheyden

      Thank you much, Sara…your suggestions are spot on….I had removed “about” and then put it back in, so I’m learning to listen to my intuition. Happy and healthy 2021!

  4. Martha Jackson Kaplan

    Jennifer, Beautiful, a song of a personal Appalachia that takes us to its very special world with a music outside the loud rhythms of our homogenized urban day to day. Several lines here give me shivers, hair stands on end as test of true poetry: “green hills horseshoe/ the cabin down the holler” for example. The more I read this poem, the more it gives back. I have only one moment where the grammar jumps out to me, takes me out of the story, “he nods only, salmon hair.” I wonder if it would hurt if you merely switched only–“he only nods, salmon.” I would love to hear you read this poem. Jennifer, thank you for taking us to this world. And, yes, Hillbilly Elergy, always a little too simple.

    • jennifer vanderheyden

      Thank you so much, Martha…as I said in our online with Robert, I’ve decided to embrace and write about my roots. I, too feel that the line about salmon hair needs work. Originally I had “He only nods, his salmon hair,” I was also trying to somehow work in the Irish ancestry (not sure a reference to red hair is enough!), but I’m thinking of writing a series of poems so I can work that in at some point. I look forward to reading your work next year!

  5. Suzanne van de Velde

    Jennifer – I often feel other people have stronger tribal ties, but rarely ties as intense as in this beautiful piece. The voice is a million miles from a carping elegy, this is a defiant, complicated anthem of love. Thanks for this – hope to see you next year.

  6. Robert Vaughan

    Hi Jennifer, what a lovely tome, and the use of regionality of voice as anthem, as song, as carpe diem!!! This is lovely, and I love how Martha and I were in that ZOOM, in which you spoke about your Appalachian upbringing and now we can read about it in this epic poem. I’d love to read an entire chapbook of pieces in this vein, this voice- I think I’d mentioned Bill Soldan, who has come to our BG retreats and writes similarly from his Ohio ‘rustbelt” roots.

    The other thing that I feel is unique, is that through all these years of our friendship, I never realized that these are your roots, this is your essence. And the way you embrace it brings me tears of joy. Happy New Year, Jennifer. All good blessings in 2021.

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