Lenore McComas Coberly comes from a long line of poetry lovers.
Lenore McComas Coberly’s new book of poems, For I Am Mountainborn, is simple, gentle and profound.
Coberly, now 90, has lived in Madison since 1964, but her book begins in the West Virginia mountains on Big Ugly Creek, where she spent much of her childhood in the 1920s and ’30s. She grew up hearing the music of the creek and her family’s stories of hardship and old medicine.
“My Grandpa Hager feared I wouldn’t survive when I was born, so he sent for Grandma McComas, who was Cherokee,” says Coberly, sitting in her sunlit kitchen. “She strapped me to her chest for five days and five nights so I could feel her heartbeat.”
Coberly’s poems have appeared in prestigious journals, anthologies and many newspapers, including Isthmus. She has also published other books of poetry and fiction, including my favorite, Sarah’s Girls: A Chronicle of Big Ugly Creek. She comes from a long line of poetry lovers, beginning with her mother, Ida Hager McComas, who loved the works of Edgar Allan Poe. Coberly says her Northern Baptist upbringing also stressed poetry through hymns and the King James Bible.
With such a diverse literary background, it’s no wonder that Coberly is a poet of stature. In the 1970s, she was president of the Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets and started its sponsorship of the Wisconsin Poets’ Calendar. Despite her many accomplishments, she is soft-spoken and humble.
While the spirit of Appalachia flows through Mountainborn, it is not Appalachia-centric. Poems cover vast territories — Indonesia, the Philippines, China — places she visited with her late husband, Camden Coberly. He was a professor of chemical engineering at the UW-Madison from 1964 to 1992, when he retired to emeritus status. Mountainborn is dedicated to him and the people they loved.
In “Late Summer in Wisconsin,” Coberly uses vibrant imagery and subtle rhythms.
Further on, blue asters wink
yellow eyes against
a sun-brightened bank of stone. . . .
I am struck by her strong sense of place and understanding of what makes us human. She reminds me of other American poets, such as Fred Chappell and Wendell Berry, who share Coberly’s concern about mountaintop removal, a contentious coal mining practice in Appalachia. In “Glory” she writes:
The creek is smaller now,
its tributaries choked by falling debris
from mining that promises coal and jobs.
Fracking is next for gas and jobs. . . .
Glory is everywhere
but not forever.
Big Ugly Creek was both beautiful and difficult, secluded and wild. But her experiences there gave her insight into faraway places. The final poem, “Changsha,” takes place in China, where Coberly sees a man struggling to pull a cart on steep roads surrounded by honking cars and modernity.
I think I know this place,
for I am mountainborn.
Lenore McComas Coberly will read selections from For I Am Mountainborn at Arcadia Books in Spring Green on Sunday, April 26, at 3 p.m.