In his debut collection, In the Hands of the River (Hub City Press, 2022), Lucien Darjeun Meadows’ poetry is richly textured with layers of imagery and verdant detail that explores the complexities of growing up queer in Appalachia, a place marked by contradictions and misconceptions—the nexus at which the speaker exists. Through exacting and lush lyric poems Meadows spins a delicate, haunting, and dauntless delineation of this difficult yet beautiful place and what it’s like to grow up queer there. While many poems touch on difficult subject matter, Meadows skillfully intersperses kernels of light and hope in the midst of tragedy and fear by turning to the effusive beauty of nature, “We are always searching for light / And finding a hoofprint, a heartbeat, the moment / A hill disappears and the tunnels of your blood / Vibrate a golden song just a little too late.”
The speaker exists at an intersection of identities that are ostensibly at odds being that he is of both Cherokee and European ancestors and is Appalachian and queer. He reaches back into thorny memories of a haunted childhood, bringing his ancestors, both long past and immediate, back to the hollers with him as a way of reconciling the difficulties of his upbringing as a “boy made of shards.” It is clear that things like queerness are not often discussed in Appalachia, “Ten thousand silenced stories / Under every tree, / a home / For a tongue: our exchange.” People’s stories and pain are swept not just under the rug, but underneath the earth. Ultimately, the speaker comes to a resting place with himself—realizing each seemingly disparate shard makes him who he is and he can indeed be all of those things at once.
These poems sprawl across time as vestiges of the past cling to the speaker’s present and the impact of humans threatens the future for all species. Meadows explores multi-generational trauma both in human and environmental terms as he glides effortlessly through temporalities of experience. He is attuned to the flow and the strife of the flora and fauna around him and his ability to compress time is remarkable. In the opening poem “Rust,” Meadows captures feelings of nostalgia: “These yards become indistinguishable— / Porch swing, tomato patch, kiddie pool— / No matter if the kids have grown and gone—” then hits us with the gnawing ache of loss and change with “No matter. Every plastic swimming pool turns / From its original blue to rust pink in a year or two.” Childhood, growing up and leaving home condensed into a few lines. Near the end of the poem, Meadows makes a connection with nature, and the collection’s titular river, “Down by the river’s edge,” in order to link the distant past, “we slip back to Biblical,” with the ever-presence of death looming in the future, “See death as the ultimate baptism—whether lungs fill / With the grit of a collapsing tunnel, riverwater, / Or both.” Meadows uses the long time of the river to elucidate the short time of humans, while also speaking to the reverberations of human exploitation of the landscape with the collapsing tunnel.
Meadows embodies the environment and writes with such precision and care for it. In the poem “Dragonfly,” Meadows writes: “I steal your body from a clutch of blue lupines.. And I swoon into my future corpse, my body / Your body, here, splayed under unforgiving light. / I detach your wings,” shrinking the perceived distance between humans and the natural world, reminding us that we are not hermetically sealed off from it, and ever-so-gently reorienting us with the interconnection of everything.
I would categorize this collection as queer ecopoetry, an unofficial new limb of poetry that reimagines the heteronormative relationship between humans and the environment. In this unflinching yet tender work, Meadows presents us with a new relationship between humans and nature: a queer relationship. This collection illuminates a way of interacting with nature that is not about control, violence, and endless extraction; that is not patriarchal, heteronormative, and capitalistic. Rather, Meadows provides a path through the Anthropocene landscape of Appalachia, that has been muddied and polluted by mining and greed, that is steeped in love, attention, and care.
Meadows is doing important work in this collection in bringing to light a queer narrative from West Virginia, a place that is too often overlooked. This collection comes at a crucial moment and is much-needed as queerness and transness are increasingly under attack. Stories like this show the multitude of queer experience. Queer people exist everywhere and this collection underscores the importance of poetry and stories from places like West Virginia that are largely neglected or dismissed due to prejudiced assumptions. In this soaring and incisive debut, Meadows challenges the dominant narratives of West Virginia by providing a precise and aching view of life in a place that is marked by hardship and brutality, yes, but also by the fierce resilience of the people and other species that call the scarred yet luscious and beautiful landscape home.
Max Stone has an MFA candidate in Poetry at the University of Nevada, Reno, from where he also has a BA in English with a minor in Book Arts and Publication. He is originally from Reno, but has lived in many other places since including, most recently, New York City, and hopes to leave again soon. He has a chapbook, The Bisexual Lighting Makes Everyone Beautiful, forthcoming this summer with Ghost City Press. His poetry has been published in fifth wheel press, &Change, Black Moon Magazine, Sandpiper Review, Night Coffee Lit, Caustic Frolic, and elsewhere. Max is also a book artist and retired college soccer player.