The first time we met Bertie she was sitting behind bottles of apple butter and pickled vegetables laid out on a wooden table in the green outside Sharp’s Store in West Virginia. The bottles were lined up in serried ranks, just as I imagine soldiers in gray uniforms had probably stood there when Robert E. Lee was served tea by the Sharp family.
“I’ll have one of those,” I said, pointing at a bottle reflecting the golden afternoon of early fall.”
“Y’all from otha parts?”
“Not at all.” I said, before realizing my reply must’ve sounded really stupid with a BBC accent. “We have a place down Dry Branch where we love spending time.”
She noticed Lucinda was flicking through pages of a little book from a pile carefully laid beside the bottles. It was titled, Poems by Bertie Jane Cutlip, on the lemon yellow cover.
“They’s ma poems.”
When Lucinda paused at a page, I craned to read over her shoulder.
“I’d like to buy one of your booklets too,” I said. While opening my wallet she inscribed the title page: Thanks, your friend Bertie Jane.
After I read the poems at home I squeezed the thin booklet on a shelf where it was lost from sight between tomes of my favorite poets – Tennyson, Eliot, Frost, among others. I had almost forgotten our casual encounter with the country poet on the Seneca Trail until last week when I returned to the store.
A gray-bearded man in leathers whose Harley was parked outside was checking something in a display on the counter. After he had finished I drifted over to see what had caught his attention. It was a collection of Bertie’s work. There was the original volume in the same yellow cover, and beside it were four more volumes containing over seventy new poems in all. I opened the original book first, remembering how it had triggered the memory of a book I had once made for a school project, stapled inside a paper cover and complete with typing errors. There was an imprint on the title page of her book, © Bertie Jane Cutlip, which she was probably advised to add as the minimum flag to protect her rights.
The covers of her new books were in different colors and inside there was some artwork and grainy photographs. They were more polished productions than the first volume, although still looked home-made. I opened a random page from Book 4 to read a poem called, Sago Mines. The sixth verse goes:
There has been an explosion
At this mine as the miners were going in
Some of them got back out
But some were trapped within.
One of Bertie’s sons was working in the mine that day, but not on that fateful shift. Something about her art tugged at me, so I took copies of all four new volumes to the counter where Tom the store owner, a friend of ours, was waiting.
“Last time I heard Bertie reciting her poems a big, grizzly-looking mountain man was reduced to tears,” Tom informed me as we closed the sale. It didn’t sound from the description that he was an aficionado, but the image of the man was more touching than amusing. After hearing that her poems can move mountains I asked Tom how Bertie was doing, but he hadn’t seen her since she had been in the hospital in Charleston. He hoped for the best as she was a sweet lady whom he said should be nominated as poet laureate for the state.
After that endorsement of her poems, or perhaps it was after reading the new ones, I felt a strange impulse to call Bertie. I didn’t have to wait long for a reply. Yes, she was feeling better, thank you, and recovering slowly after surgery. No, she wouldn’t mind signing the other books if I visited her the next day.
Bertie lives along a quiet country road which is barely wide enough for vehicles to pass (nearly all trucks). It had recently received its first coating of asphalt over the gravel, which I heard was intended to make it safer but had in fact raised the average speed by 30 mph! The road wound round the low mountains following a bubbling creek lined by low trees and long grass where the sunlight broke through the canopy. Anyone who knows Appalachia can imagine it.
As I pulled up on the grass verge beside her mailbox I saw an arm waving in a window, and returned the greeting. I admit I was surprised to find her living in a mobile home, but it was a foolish thought because so many folk in those parts do and many are comfortable. Yet I felt sad that in old age, and now infirm, she was confined in that remote spot, and often cut off by heavy snowfalls in winter. But on that warm summer day it was a pleasant, even inspiring, arrival, with a nicely clipped lawn and orchard trees fringing the creek – perhaps the very ones that yielded fruit for the apple butter.
Bertie didn’t recognize me as she swung open the screen door, nor should she after a brief encounter long ago. She nevertheless beckoned me inside without hesitation like a friendly neighbor, leading me past bottles of fruit and beans readied for sale to the sofa beside a window.
When she disappeared for a minute, I had an opportunity to look round at the framed pictures hanging on her walls, wondering how many of the subjects had figured in her poems. Was that her mother who now rests in the family cemetery at Silver Creek? Were those her children, two who had already passed away, and Chad the foster boy who was killed in a road accident? Surely there was the son who worked in the mine? And perhaps that was her Sunday school, and over there the old abandoned home where she grew up? If tragedy and loss lubricate a poet’s pen, she had plenty of ink. And the heartbreaking history of Appalachia at large provides so much more to write about – from early entanglements with Indians to the Civil War which split West Virginia to the carpet-baggers arriving afterwards to mining and logging disasters, and now the despoliation of beautiful landscapes by blowing up mountaintops for coal.
Bertie had been in her tiny kitchen and when she reappeared she offered to prepare something for me to eat. I begged her not to go to any trouble because I had only come for her signature and to check how she was doing. It is so much more rare and precious nowadays for strangers to be received with such natural hospitality, and without any trace of suspicion.
I began to feel guilty because she was still recuperating, but she put me at ease by saying that I had come on an important day. It was the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the founding of West Virginia, her beloved state.
“Did you read ma Ode to West Virginia?” she asked.
I knew it was one of the poems in the yellow book, composed in the 1970s, so I nodded. Without more ado she took a deep breath, lifted her head, and began to recite the poem, giving her whole heart to it, like the hermit thrush that sings outside our home. Afterwards she told me she knew all her poems by heart, nearly a hundred of them, and had recited most of them to other patients in Charleston. On the day she had packed her bag to leave the hospital four doctors lined up in the corridor refusing to let her go until she had recited “just one more.”
I then remembered Tom’s remark about making her a candidate for poet laureate and wondered if she really was qualified. If creativity and productivity were touchstones, then, yes, she was worthy. And if admirers were needed, then, sure, she already had plenty. But if the laureate must write in a fashionable or erudite style that required a second or even a third reading to “get a poem,” then she would never be given a place on the short list of candidates. Anyway I mused, I am rather glad she probably doesn’t even care to know that she composes her work in heroic couplets of rhymed lines of iambic pentamer, or that she often writes in the common ballad meter. She expresses the pure and unaffected feelings of a country woman for things she cares deeply about – nature, joy, grief – her art tumbling out spontaneously in old-fashioned rhyme. She’d get my vote every time, for she has the poet’s heart.
She casually mentioned that she must go back to the hospital again soon. I tried to make light of it by saying that her doctors needed her as much as she needed them, but perhaps she was hiding a concern because she had lost a lot of weight and her old energy was gone. When I stood up to leave, she held up a hand to stop me while the other reached for a sheet of paper that had been carefully placed in advance close-by.
“I’ve got something for you,” she said, passing it to me. I sensed it was important so I read it aloud to make sure I understood her unfamiliar hand-writing. It was a poem titled, A True Story.
“I like this story about the raccoon very much,” I said, handing it back.
“It’s my last poem”, she said, refusing to take it. “I want you to put in book number six.”
“Not your last – you mean you’re latest poem? I can’t possibly take something so precious.” But she was quite insistent. I don’t know why someone who is almost a stranger to her should have been given this commission, but the poem now rests in a more honored place than the original book on my poetry shelf.
[Bertie approved this post. The following is my favorite poem]