Debut poetry collection from Rachel Danielle Peterson gives voice to Appalachia

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Rachel Danielle Peterson is emerging as a unique, poetic voice of Appalachia. While regional narratives have traditionally been misrepresented or overlooked, she seeks to change that by writing candid work that mixes the compassion characteristic of a native with an unflinching honesty only possible with the critical distance of an ex-patriot. Her lyrical poetry illuminates the things we keep in the dark with haunting imagery and originality, bringing a fresh perspective to an unsung community.

Peterson’s debut collection of poetry, A Girl’s A Gun, chronicles one girl’s growth and exploration of life as she wrestles with society and yearns to find herself and her place in the world. Drawing inspiration from world history, cultural tradition, Greek mythology, personal experience, and a touch of rock ’n’ roll, Peterson weaves together a full-fledged bildungsroman in a series of poetic vignettes. By touching heavily on themes as varied as violence, sexuality, institutional corruption, love, and loss, the reader sees the transformation of one girl’s mind in intimate detail. Peterson chronicles the maturation and development of one woman in verse that mimics the cadence of speech. Through twenty-six poems, her creative and evolving sentence structures highlight the narrator’s growth and startle the reader into new ways of thinking.

Born in Harlan County in the mountains of eastern Kentucky, Peterson pays homage to her roots with poems that anchor the reader in the landscape of the Appalachians. “Black Mountain, named after coal, / the thick, fern-fingered ridges that show / my first birdsong, yellow finches, / in the cradle-space of Harlan County.” Similar quatrains celebrate the natural environment and the creatures that set her little postage stamp of native soil apart. The collection moves seamlessly into a more critical appraisal of small town society, and Peterson’s poems strain towards a broader world of experiences, beliefs, and traditions very different from those of her youth. In heartbreaking stanzas, she details disillusionment with a fantasy of home, writing, “Janis, the edge can be slippery. / We have both fallen from dreams we made. / Dreams are overdone, set them free tonight.” She moves between sharing concrete and abstract details to interrogate the concept of “truth” in a community that insists upon a rigidly defined system of beliefs.

Peterson composes a one-of-a-kind poetic language, infusing regional dialect with the prosody of childhood to render an authentic portrait of youth. “Somehow,” she writes, “this small pulse / will tense up quite at any doctor too too close ta throat, / toes, all me then blurree, before he gives me paired spectacles.” The voice matures through the poems, and the narrator recalls scenes from earlier days with fondness and clarity of speech, as she does when remembering another trip to the doctor: “In the same hospital, the same headboard / my mother and I fell into florescent lights, / while the same blood reddened the same linoleum.” With great sleight of hand, Peterson shows how the questioning of childhood blossoms into fully-formed thoughts and definitive actions towards personal healing and wholeness.

Unconventional in her approach, Peterson’s work is breaking new ground for underrepresented narratives and voices. Using a delicate combination of intimate revelation and syntactical rearrangement, A Girl’s A Gun tells a tale as universal as it is personal. Her story speaks not just to the Appalachian, not just to the woman, but to the human in all of us.

Rachel Danielle Peterson is a contributing editor at Poets’ Quarterly and a member of VIDA. Her work has received numerous honors and has been featured in Front Porch, Literary Imagination, Arsenic Lobster, Midwestern Gothic, Los Angeles Review, Upstart, Her Royal Majesty, the Inspirer, and Revolver.

Burn

by Rachel Danielle Peterson

Just sneak. Smoke with me. Turn upward, imagine billions of star
system, galaxies minute as violet flickerin’ at dawn or sunrise.

Beneath us? Fumes from the tip arches there, beyond even this.
Dangerous as fire is, but who can settle when worlds come a
knockin’?

Solid as a door, ya stretch, glimpse long, eye-full ‘a solar wind,
The heft of it whispers like a minster’s child. Bad is flesh! Bad—
!
Yer reply? Ya puff as that cigarette heats against two splayed fingers,
measures yer gawddamn mistakes, beyond countin’.

A hair pulls fire from the ash. Ya ain’t no dandy-man ta claim ta
know the pure from the stained. Not yer strength, girl.

Breathe, all ya know is this small thing. Lighters, if yer brazen,
will hurt some lips even if ya burn nothin’ but cleanest kerosene.

From University Press of Kentucky

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