Charting Appalachian Migration


By Matt Prater

You've heard of the country mouse and city mouse,
how their ways were infungible, but equal and eternal?
Well enough for them, I guess. I'm glad they're happy.
But other mice are caught between. Never comfortable
in Buckhead or Fairfax, VA, they're still more welcome
in Buckhead and Fairfax than any of their cousins,
so they move there. They’re miserable, but they move there.
The work they do goes well there, though they’re miserable.
And if they go back home, now they’ll be city mice. So they stay.

Plus, here, one does not have to call her wife her friend.
So she lives well enough without soup beans for a while.
But then there are incidents, most of them small—
a young man in a Squidbillies ballcap and LEGALIZE METH
t-shirt, eating a vegan burrito in the next booth over
has a theory about the average Republican voter;
it is not nuanced, involves someone like her uncle.
There are certain minor incidents like that. Still:
she does not have to call her wife her friend.

You know, by now, who I love. You know, by now,
my thousand declarations. You know, if anything of me,
that the marrow in me is the mast of redbud laurels.
You know I am gentle. You know I have looked on
every bald and ridge as the curves of a sensuous body,
and on all bodies with the awe I give to mountains.
You know I would move slowly over either. And yet:
there is always something on the tip of our tongue—
some slip, like now, where we stop at polite cliché.

Thousands have called our mothers’ house a shack.
But I’ve lived in that house no longer than I’ve wanted,
as to me they painted every wall with burnished gold.
And I am still here, and I am not displeased.
If even my wake is on the old copper bed
of my borning, even then I will not be displeased.
From mothers, I was given a mighty house,
with views of transcendent vistas on every side,
and mighty, enormous, columned porticos.

But what I cannot say is this: those porticos
were columned with fiberglass and asbestos;
and the contractor is dead; and I do not know
the way to fix old buildings. Do you know what I mean?
Has this ever happened to you? Have you,
like every one of us, walked out your life in code?
Have you had to walk by the neighbors
for the next forty years, and now there is
something you will never be able to say?

What you say is this: I once lived next to Roy Debord.
He worked thirty years for NASA running quality control,
threw first pitches to Nolan Ryan when the Astros
held Spring Training, played ball on the Saltville
championship team in ’38, & mayored Cocoa Beach.
What you do not say: another neighbor I would visit,
we’d have tea after I ran her errands, & she’d tell me
how her husband knew the Bible very well, how
he taught her all about the Mark of Ham.

The problem is, both of these stories are true.
One can be what they want in a small town, if only
they’re the right kind of mouse. One kind loves
the place they come from, though it spurns them;
another spurns the place they’re in but never leaves.
Another makes the long commute and lives for weekends.
Another pisses in the wind and says they like it,
for they have eaten the cheese at the end
of the maze, and it makes even refuse sweet.

Currently an MFA candidate in poetry at Virginia Tech, Matt Prater's work has appeared in The American Journal of Poetry, Appalachian Heritage, The Honest Ulsterman, and The Moth, among other publications. He lives in Saltville, VA.