Chandler’s poetry shines a light

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Georgia: On her mind

By Georgia Green Stamper

Ernie and I will soon be married 44 years, and until last week I’d never seen him read a book of poetry. But I’d carefully placed Sherry Chandler’s “Weaving a New Eden” on the table by his TV chair so that he could at least glance at it to say he had.
Sherry has been our chum since school days at Owen County High, and I thought he was obliged to flip through it. He’d also helped her a little with some genealogy research a few years ago, and I thought he might enjoy seeing what she’d done with her Roots-Web digging.
Well, he read straight through the book without putting it down. When he finished an hour or two later, he looked up at me and said, “This is remarkable.”
 His reaction to Sherry’s words reminded me of Emily Dickinson’s definition of a poem: If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.
Sherry does what the best writers have always done since storytelling and verse got together around the campfire a millennium or so ago. Her words connect in a visceral way with her readers. Listening to her characters tell their stories is a lot like going to a really good play or movie. When it’s over, one has experienced what the characters felt, from hunger, grief, loneliness and poverty to the joy of laughing, loving and dancing “to the figure of the Black-Eyed girl” —
Now let me hasten to add that Sherry has enough academic credentials to impress the snobbiest reader.
A professional editor at the University of Kentucky Medical Center for decades, her poems have been published in dozens of literary journals over the years and have won a bushel of awards.
Out last month, “Weaving a New Eden” has already been reviewed in The Courier Journal and received high praise from the likes of Maurice Manning, who was a short list finalist for the 2011 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry.     
There are many reasons the critics admire this book. Even a casual reader will recognize Sherry’s mature mastery of craft, from the precisely chosen word to the disciplined and intricate forms that shape her poems on the page, and the historical research she has done is impressively thorough. The title, itself, is a nuanced metaphor, layered in multiple ways in theme and format throughout the collection.
But readers with local roots should pick up this book – it’s at the Owen County Public Library – because this is our story, one seldom told at all, much less so eloquently.
“Weaving a New Eden” is a saga of Kentucky’s rural women from their migration into the wilderness in the 18th century, through the harsh 19th, and well into the 20th. These were the women who followed their men, willing or not, often “without shoe or stocking,” into the wilderness after the Revolution, then labored, one generation to the next, in obscurity and often poverty to pull a livelihood from the soil.
Though Daniel’s wife, Rebecca Boone, and other early historical frontier women are given voice — compelling voices I would emphasize — it is Owen County’s rural women who seize the stage, speaking up at last to record their forgotten lives for history. Sherry’s family settled in what would become Owen County before 1800 and remained there. Though details will differ from family to family, many readers like me who trace their history back through generations of local Eden Shale soil, will recognize these women as their own people.
Since this project traces its beginnings to Sherry’s desire to preserve her mother’s family stories and to research her genealogy, it is not surprising that the shape of Sherry’s narrative has the feel of a family tree chart — or perhaps the ultimate family reunion. In a series of dramatic monologues reminiscent of Edgar Lee Masters’ “Spoon River Anthology,” her ancestors tell their stories, stepping forward like figures in a Greek chorus “in zigs and zags, a looping/Ragged line of mothers and grandmothers.”
She begins with her mother, “Kitty” Katherine Keith Chandler, who lived all her 91 years “on three hills and all in sight” on the Brissey Dirt Road. She winds backward through time until we hear the voice of Elizabeth France (ca 1757 – ca 1813) who walked into Kentucky from Virginia with Elijah Craig and The Traveling Church and Lettice (last name unknown, born ca 1774) who “Emigrated from North Carolina with babies in the saddle bags.” Lettice and her husband Samuel, who “kept a Kentucky tavern,” lived on the Dry Ridge Trace, and her descendants would deed nine acres to establish the Pleasant Ridge Baptist Church in 1836. Elizabeth settled on Eagle Creek and her family would be members of one of Owen’s first two churches, Mountain Island Baptist.
Unlike many family historians, however, Sherry doesn’t varnish the truth. Here you will find old gossip about tensions between mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law, of family feuds, of negligent fathers, misspent lives, and a miscreant mother who gives her son the name “Friendless.” There’s even a dramatic Civil War era hanging — that failed to take. But mostly these are stories of sturdy women, who persevered against difficult odds and by enduring, prevailed.
On Thursday night, May 19 — about 6 I think — Sherry is coming home to Owen County to read at the public library. She is a compelling reader, and a natural teacher who can explain complicated historical movements and events in an entertaining and accessible way. If you can clear your calendar to be there, you won’t be disappointed.

Daughter of all of these, I would sing for these women
Like Virgil – strong arms and the women –
Except of course that is not their style.
Rather I’ll call you a dance in the figure of the Black-eyed Girl.
 — from “Weaving a New Eden” by Sherry Chandler (Wind Publications, 2011.)