I’ve been typing at this for a while now, trying to find my way in. Listen, I need to tell you that when Irene McKinney died in February 2012, she left behind the manuscript for her last book, Have You Had Enough Darkness Yet?, which she wrote throughout her long terminal illness, knowing that she would not live to see its publication. I believe we need to be on the same page about the circumstances surrounding the creation of this book, but the words I’m putting on this page keep spurring off in the wrong direction. For one thing, I feel it is wrong to cast a pall over a book that is devoted, as was all of McKinney’s writing, to the act of unveiling—not by direct exposure, but rather by the indirect revelation that comes from loving the thing that is veiled, loving life’s darknesses and unknowns and seeking them in language. So, please, as you read on here (and later, I hope, as you read the book itself), don’t filter the experience through a pall or a veil. Understand that McKinney’s poems are strung as if with clotheslines: each line laden, drenched in the elements, moving and breathing with the wind. Furthermore, McKinney did not “leave” the manuscript any more than she “left” the world. Her absence is folded into what’s still here. Whipped whites folded into batter. The cake tastes lighter than it truly is. It is truly out of this world.
What do you mean when you say something is “out of this world”? As I hear it, the phrase is typically used hyperbolically, to describe a thing that is so extraordinary as to be foreign, alien. The qualities of something “out of this world” are immeasurable, to the extent that they have exceeded all other units of measure including the whole world. To encounter something that is “out of this world” is to arrive at the edge of difference, on the verge of transport.
But—not so fast, young lady—I can also hear the tug of origin in the phrase “out of this world.” A finger yoked in a belt loop. To say something is “out of this world” might also affirm its earthliness, the fact that it is made, marvelously, of the stuff of this world. A marvel o’ us. No hyperbole here. The thing that is “out of this world” is old news, the product of a recombinant process that carves the thing out, even as it holds the thing in. We couldn’t leave this place even if we wanted to. Simply being alive here and now is its own kind of transcendence. The wind against the skin, the womb. McKinney certainly saw things this way: “Go ahead,” she writes in “Past Lives,”
you are already everything that’s happened.
You are seven years of the moon’s sucking
and pulling back. What happens now
One interpretation sets the marvel on the pedestal, saying (humble-bragging?) You’re too good to be ours! The other tucks the marvel back in its pocket, saying You’re good and you’re ours: lucky lucky.
I once felt pocketed this way (secondarily, by association) at a tribute to Irene McKinney held at the AWP conference in Boston. Drawn together by McKinney’s memory, we packed ourselves into a too-small, windowless room in the middle of the bustling conference center (which was itself located, bizarrely, in a shopping mall), like raisins in fruitcake batter, both expanding and binding together as the event proceeded—so much warmth in that room, I felt us rise up over the rim of a pan.
The only time I ever crossed paths with McKinney off the page was in a room like this one at the conference in Atlanta back in 2007. We were both attending a panel discussion on writing from Appalachia and the “new South.” She sat in the front row, on the right side of the room. Her red hair gave her away. I should have said hello. At that time, halfway through my MFA studies, and 1.5 years out of Appalachia, I was just beginning to recognize how much my ways of thinking, seeing, and otherwise making sense of the world had been honed by the mountain landscape and culture I called home. This newfound awareness of place and identity was energizing my writing, drawing me to the page and holding me there. It was a pathway. Though I recognized McKinney from her book jacket photo, I wasn’t as familiar with her writing as I should have been; I’d sought out the panel to hear the poet Diane Gilliam, whose book Kettle Bottom I had savored and assigned to my freshman composition students so I could read it again along with them. Years later, my own book would be accepted for publication by the same press that published Gilliam’s. Indeed, I was beginning to find my path.
I often say I enjoy attending AWP because it’s an opportunity to be around “my people,” by which I mean other writers. The conference is a site of reunion, the whole space charged by the energy of reconnection. I am interested in that kind of space and energy. I love slipping into the back row during an old friend’s presentation, seeing her familiar face behind the podium and hearing the timbre of her voice amplified uncannily by a microphone. When condensed into the space of a small room, the distances of time, space, and experience that have come between us become prismatic. That said, while the conference is a great place to reconnect, it doesn’t readily facilitate new friendships. No matter the latent kindredness of those thousands of shoulder-to-shoulder stranger-spirits, being around so many of one’s “people” can feel variously dissociating. At AWP, I always feel aware of my own skin, feel my body to be like a capsule—I’m like a submarine, or like the souvenir tote bag I’m living out of for the week—hyperaware of all the limits. These are my people, I’ll sometimes think, looking out at the sea of strangers. Yet I feel out of this world.
All of this is to say that I met Irene McKinney where I’ve met most writers—on the page—even though we occasionally crossed paths, shared a home state and were, I suspect, kindred spirits in many other ways. In the years since that 2007 panel on Appalachian writers where I could have met McKinney, I have written a great deal about/around/through/to/from/out of the region. I have never felt more like I was living inside one of my own metaphors for West Virginia than I felt at the AWP tribute for Irene McKinney. Never mind that we were in a room, in a conference center, in a shopping mall, in Boston, Massachusetts. In our hearts, and in the way we spoke and listened, we were in West Virginia. Not West Virginia the location, but West Virginia the place—McKinney’s West Virginia, my West Virginia, the West Virginia toward which we write and sing. A place that was, like West Virginia the location, isolated and difficult to find, uphill both ways, so to speak. And not just any place, but a home place—a place occupied by shared blood, shared breath, and shared hope. A place committed to memory. For a little over an hour, it felt like everyone who mattered was there—even Irene. Of course, that wasn’t true, but that’s what it felt like. In her poem “During the Night,” McKinney writes “I want to be in another place without // traveling, the dream is of sitting down and doing nothing / and then arriving.” It was something like that.
A few lines later in “During the Night,” McKinney imagines looking down on her home-place from a helicopter. “This time I want to look down on the / house in the woods from above,” she writes.
…I want to find the path to my own place,
seen in the mist of early morning, and the oak leaves
glittering in the morning sun, and my body of words
emerging stretching its arms.
As we homed in around her body of words, lifting it on our voices—loosing her words into in the air and breathing them in—so too did everyone in that room home in around one another.
[This is Part One of "Out of This World: Irene McKinney’s HAVE YOU HAD ENOUGH DARKNESS YET?" Here is Part Two. This is also my first post for the Kenyon Review blog. I'm so happy to be here. Thank you for reading!]