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Backtalking a guy who tries to get your number by saying youre not what I expected out of a west virginian, not a redneck at all


It means to get drunk in a bedroom lit with Christmas lights
in August and there’s a girl who very clearly wants

to have sex with you, but instead we’re talking the origins
of the term “white trash” and the sterilization

of Appalachian women in the first half of the 1900s. It means to lose
cell service in the middle of an important conversation.

It means to lose cell service at the exact moment you’d like
to be done talking. It means

to leave West Virginia. It means to try to come back. Getting directions
to a bonfire, someone says, You’ll smell it, but you won’t see it.

It means it’s part of an infrastructure problem.

It means never having had coal dust beneath your fingertips. It means
hating those with coal dust beneath their fingertips.

It means loving your father and cousin and neighbor who go to sleep
with coal dust beneath their fingertips and in their lungs

carrying coal dust into their blood stream and their brain and onward
into the canals where they hide dreams.

It means Skyping with your friend in New York because neither of you
live in West Virginia anymore. It means

feeling guilty every time it rains
for leaving. What’d you expect? Skinning deer and possums— 

Well, there’s that too. Watch one
try to cross the road. Watch its dead body bloat on the side of the road.

Watch my hands sketch that in art class in high school.
Watch me write poems to West Virginia each time I call my mom on the phone.

It means loving your father who blames the War on Coal for the lack
of dust beneath his fingertips. It means responding

to a flood. It means walking knee deep in grace, knowing no one will change
their Facebook photo when your people die. It means people

in your country will find more in common with the poor of other countries
than their own because, at a party, the guy hitting on you

asks, Where are you from, and he thinks
the incest joke is going to get him laid. And he thinks we fuck

our cousins, because yeah, maybe we did
fuck our cousins like the royal British we come from,

we that started the first unions and women’s movements to fight
the degradation of our bodies

and our topography so you could have
resources. We, the uneducated, stupid, and lazy. But let’s be clear,

now we only go home
with those who can understand that redneck was a movement,

a bandana tied as a sign of rebellion against the yellow-dog contracts.
And when a lover crisscrosses their legs between ours,

it means we are thinking of rolling mountains,
of being swaddled, of our mothers and fathers, our cardinals and honey

bees and black bears, the coal towns where all the houses used to be
white. You can count the years since

their last painting like tree rings.
It means mining is not just an impact that happens in space— 

it happens in depth. We have been leveled, half
as flat as we were before. That’s not even poetic exaggeration.

It means not being believed until Duke University does a topography study,
and in their dialect says southern West Virginia is forty percent flatter than before

those men started blasting our mountaintops, doing more damage
than the millennia of wind and rain

and tectonic shifts. It means Don Blankenship
gets sentenced to a year in prison

for a coal dust explosion that killed thirteen miners from a mile away.
It means a man with an enterprise

is far more dangerous than a man with a gun.

I wish his jail cell is so dark he forgets the way sun moves across his skin,
and I wish his year stretches long as a vein of coal. 

And you out there, you who put the mountain dew in our hands,
you legalized opiates and made my people rats to see how long it would take

for us to die, or to kill or to grow
tumors in the places where our kidneys once lived.

To write a poem about West Virginia is to remember
my grandmother's voice and forget her secrets. It means going off

to college, and when you come home, you get stoned and drive through town
with all the others that return on weekends

because you know here, your degree isn’t good, so you all order munchies
from the Mountaineer Mart window because it’s late

and it’s gotten robbed so many times
they have to slide your chips and pepperoni rolls through a metal door.

It means you never want to believe the robbings are for pills,
oxies, but know they are. Something too pure

is killing us, they’re bringing it in from up north.
It means never having had coal dust beneath your fingertips. It means

hating those with coal dust beneath their fingertips.
It means loving your father and cousin and neighbor who sleep

dreaming coal dust beneath their fingertips.




This Poem Is Ours Now


beneath cloud mouths opening, this poem
was a foreign city for watching horses running like people so many

miles from the Derby when it was easy for her
to confuse heart for feet, meaning, “I’ve forgotten where I’ve put…” meaning: believe me

eight years ago this poem begins with a memory
but, upon further examination, this poem begins with a lie perpetuated by a movie.

six years ago this poem came for the first time
and didn’t even know what to do with itself but lie back and close its eyes and stop rushing

forward a while. this poem forgot the word “whip” and forgot the taste of
crushed mint and forgot too her face

after years of trying to carve it. this poem
restarts five years later trying to win some cash at the blue moose café.

twenty minutes later this poem becomes the poem wherein I did not win money
while reading this poem aloud and the horses

didn’t win neither, and maybe this poem should have just been her name
repeated until it forgot race tracks and

the slap of skin, but the clouds are the only thing open
at this hour, watching the poem break its ankles during a time when we still

put our animals down, meaning, “Hold still just a while longer…” meaning:
gun to the head. and this poem wants you

to imagine a wrist broken being the death of you, the procession
of candlelight, hundreds and thousands of Japanese women and children singing in a language

in which you understand everything
and nothing at all, and you’re in a hospital bed and your language’s word for grief

does not exist yet, and this is the poem
that lent its paper to be folded by a child into a paper crane, and this poem wants a mother

like my grandmother’s mother who warmed
her bed at night with her body, who would place jello on the windowsill of her daughter’s room

and in the morning the layer of frost on the top of the jello is what my grandmother talks about
when I ask her, “What was it like

growing up in Cassity, West Virginia?”
a coal town that died 50 years ago, wiped with the back of a dirty sleeve. this poem

begins with leveled towns, in a foreign country,
and in the movie version of this poem, the child doesn’t finish folding the 1,000 cranes

and so dies of cancer, and in the movie version,
children from all around the world mail in paper cranes after she dies to help cure her cancer

but in real life she finished folding
the thousand cranes and died anyways, and we still teach children our god exists

when our only proof is the perennials
blooming each spring. forty-five years later I learned to pray and three years after that, this poem

begins and I call it prayer. at a gas station in Ohio when this poem was still about fear,
I was eavesdropping on a child speaking to God,

who happened to be on the television above the cashier. she wanted to know where,
she had a theory: “when in the dark,

the dark is inside you. it’s a little clock painted blue.”
when this poem was still about love it started Kentucky sounds nothing like Indian summer.

and Kentucky still sounds nothing like Indian summer
and neither does this poem, so many years later now, but in this poem, the sky is a field,

as is the lean-to and the thin horizon of wheat. the she
in this poem still believes in signs: rivers, love, green paint, fortune cookies, snakes

warming in the sun. everything we discovered together
was a sign at least once, was there before us, and now you and I share this

freeway stretching and stretching across Pennsylvania, where nothing
is home. this poem

is the brief violence of a cardinal’s coat,
the tired horse carrying its rider along the side of the road we now share too,

beneath the clouds with their mouths hanging open, beneath
the overweight and broken down moon.




Passed a road sign that reads: Prepare to Meet Thy Go, and I think the d got painted over.


See, I don’t have demands so much as questions.
Like, what was the last song you listened to, God?

Do you keep up with current hits,
or does the music of the underground resonate on high?

Dear God, I want the delicates mixed in with everything else.
Dear God, truth or dare?

What’s your blood type anyway, God? Have you considered donating?
God, would you ask for forgiveness from God, for not donating?

I won’t even tell anyone that you don’t donate blood,
but I’ve got a lot of other things to ask you, God.

For starters, if you have it in you, I’d like more rain

for the flowerbed I left my mother
when I moved from West Virginia.

I’d like to know why you made so much evil.

God, you ever read Aimee Bender? I bet you’d like the way
she tells her parables.

God, don’t tell me I’m supposed to find you under a stone or some shit,
I’ve looked.

Have you seen what white phosphorous does to the face of a child, God?

Truth: I stay up at night, God. Tell me what it all means:
the serpent, the cherubim ostrich wings, the buildings we’ve built

to judge the people that praise you.
God, make the rain hover or

raise my father from the dead.

Show me how to love better.
God, give all children ostrich wings

and tell them they are beautiful, a mouth
full of words that will change the life

of a person very near or very far from them, like our chaff
we sell to people who sell it to other people

so other people can make bread in Morocco.

God, you give such shitty gifts sometimes, but so does my uncle,
and I’m all about forgiveness these days.

It’s not like you can just abandon your uncle, God,
even if he is a shitty gift giver.

Look, here’s the thing—every morning, I fill my dog’s bowl,
and every now and then, I’ll check her gums,

rub her nose to make sure it’s wet.
Now why aren’t you

checking our gums, refilling our bowls
and the bowls of your children? God, why aren’t you asking,

Is this amount okay?





Isabelle Shepherd.jpg
Keegan Lester photo credit Christopher Jackson.jpg

© Christopher Jackson






Isabelle Shepherd and Keegan Lester met at a house party in Morgantown, West Virginia, in 2012. That night, they read poetry to the wall and then to other people and then to each other, quoting and reciting Mary Ann Samyn, the professor they took nearly 6 years apart. Reconnecting years later after leaving West Virginia, Isabelle now in North Carolina finishing her MFA and Keegan in New York City chasing that dolla dolla bill poet life, both got real lonely in their respective locations and missed West Virginia and the mountains and rivers and shit river smell, and decided to write a book together, about West Virginia, and have been writing and Skyping and watching WVU football games together, but apart, ever since. Their poems have appeared or are forthcoming in the The Atlas Review, The Adroit, Boston Review, BOAAT Press, CutBank, DIAGRAM, Ilk Journal, Ninth Letter, Phantom Books, Poem-a-Day, Sixth Finch, and elsewhere. Keegan’s first collection of poetry this shouldn’t be beautiful but it was & it was all i had to i drew it was selected by Mary Ruefle for the 2016 Slope Edition’s Book Prize.