The Courier-Journal Louisville, KY
Sunday, June 11, 1995
MOUNTAIN POET TO BE HONORED
MOREHEAD -- Poet Albert Stewart of Hindman will receive the Appalachian Treasure Award during Morehead State University's 19th annual Appalachian Celebration, June 18-24.
Stewart grew up in Knott County and was educated at Berea College and the University of Kentucky. He was a teacher at Morehead in the early 1960s and has since served as scholar-in-residence for the Appalachian Celebration.
Last year the Berea College Press published a book of his poems, "The Holy Season: Walking in the Wild," a summing up of his life and career.
The Courier-Journal Louisville, KY
Saturday, February 4, 1995
A LIFE IN POETRY
SPECIAL TO THE COURIER-JOURNAL
The Holy Season
Walking in the Wild
By Albert Stewart
Berea College Press
The reviewer is a poet and professor of English at Bellarmine College in Louisville.
SUMMING up a man's poetry is like summing up his life. It can't be done, especially if it's a rich and productive one like Albert Stewart's. But stop with me for a handful of minutes, and I will tell you what I can.
First, you should know Al Stewart. Born in 1914 at Yellow Mountain in Kentucky's Knott County, he attended Hindman Settlement School. From the local high school he went on to earn degrees in English from Berea College and the University of Kentucky. Since then, his life has been dedicated to teaching, writing, encouraging and publishing other writers. As the founder of Appalachian Heritage magazine -- now published at Berea College -- he was for some 12 years an important voice and vehicle for Appalachian opinion and expression.
In 1962 he published a slim volume of poems called The Untoward Hills, which earned him a reputation as a significant Kentucky poet. Now he is back with a second volume, The Holy Season: Walking in the Wild, a summing up of his life and his career as a poet. It is a welcome gift from a generous man, who in 1983 willed his 300-acre farm and home to the University of Kentucky for research and preservation.
In these poems are the wise and thoughtful words of one who has looked at life hard and long. He shows himself to be an erudite man blessed with the honesty of a Diogenes and the words of an Orpheus singing in the wilderness, for Al Stewart is a maker of things. Against the ruins of time, he has placed drawings, found objects, dulcimers and poems -- all of which have a presence in this book.
This is the earth.
This is where life takes place.
Walk gently here.
So he begins, inviting us to accompany him on a metaphysical and literary walk-quest:
My ancestors sleep within my bones and somehow wake to nudge me to lands
I must move to know.
It will be a daring trip as this "seeker and sayer" boldly looks "into the eyes of holy fire."
From the perspective of his "homely hills" in all their holy seasons, he can see designs and mysterious tracks left by wildflowers, by the Sunday morning deer, by the underside of a sycamore leaf. In these and other ordinary objects he seeks for clues to "an ancient mystery," but he is no true believer. He is, rather, a doubting pilgrim, hunting for an elusive God, to whom he confesses, "I have looked for you always." With Stewart as guide, we are introduced to an imagined God with a sense of humor and joy.
He is an Appalachian God who made everything, from the lush magnolias to the reticent arbutus and is so pleased with His handiwork that He returns to admire it:
And I bet He comes back every spring
with His winter jacket unbuttoned,
looking and wondering, pondering and mumbling
to His Everywhere Self, saying: By golly!
Look at that now, won't you? I cain't believe
I done it. Hain't it a caution, though?
It is a pilgrimage without final answers or a Holy Grail. If we are lucky, we will find a few "not-too-sure conclusions" and "half-way marks," occasional insights and illuminations, and perhaps most important, the wisdom that holiness is always present and available. There is, moreover, an awareness of a force moving behind and beyond all creation, giving it shape and perhaps some kind of re-cycled permanence.
Such poems are heavy loads for lovers of easy platitudes. This poetry demands an engaged consciousness and a willingness to adventure into deep and sometimes dangerous jungles and deserts. The poems come in various moods, forms and styles, and may seem at first glance traditional, even old- fashioned. But be warned. Their familiar appearance is deceptive. It is but a facade behind which the poet is waiting to seduce us, surprise us, tilt us off balance so that we will look at what we've often seen and know it now in a new way -- whether it be human hands, lichens, a new mule, an aging woman, or Faulkner's noted murderess Miss Emily Grierson.
But ideas and concepts do not make good poems. Words do. In one of the epigraphs that grace his pages, Stewart quotes the English poet Robert Graves, who maintains that "in poetry there are no synonyms; there is only the exact word."
The Holy Season is fortunately filled with a lifetime of exact words. They are the words of a wise and aging man who knows, as did the late actress Bette Davis, who, surrounded by betrayals and the decay of her life, once asserted that, after all is said and done, what we really have is the work we leave behind. If that be true, the treasures of Al Stewart's life are safe from decay and loss. His poems enrich all of us who know them and leave a permanent track of the poet. They say, "Al Stewart was -- and is -- here."
Return to Home Page