Sue Weaver Dunlap’s “Place Names”

A Walk to the Spring House, Iris Press

I received a wonderful surprise in the mail last week in the form of Sue Weaver Dunlap’s newest collection of poems, A Walk to the Spring House, published by Iris Press. Sue Weaver Dunlap is a retired teacher who lives deep in the Southern Appalachian Mountains near Walland, Tennessee, where she and her husband Raymond live and work a mountain farm. She has published poems in venues such as Appalachian Journal, Anthology of Appalachian Writers, Pine Mountain Sand and Gravel, and Southern Poetry Anthology, and elsewhere. “A Walk to the Spring House” includes many beautiful poems, but one that especially caught my attention is “Place Names” which I’m sharing here.

Place Names

from “A Bear Hunt in the Smokies”
Our Southern Highlanders by Horace Kephart

Mountain men slide through place names, their bear dogs ready.
They rest at Siler’s Meadow, slap cold water on stubbled faces
at Fortney’s Creek, camp at Rip Shin Thicket near Gunstick Laurel,
head out at day’s first break, think to find meat at Clingman Dome.
They don’t cross Sugarland Mountains, follow sign from Little River
near Thunderhead and Briar Knobb, track an old fellow around
Devil’s Court House, Block House, and Wooly Ridge near Bear Pen.
Dogs take chase between Briar Knob and Laurel Top, end him near
Saddle-back. Two shots. His parts shared among highlander hunters.

After reading this poem several times, I wrote Sue to ask her if she’d share the background of this poem. Here is what Sue was kind enough to write back to me:

“My first memory is of me standing between my parents in our Chevrolet truck, Dad driving us back from visiting my maternal grandparents. It’s December, 1956. A Sunday. We’ve left Ducktown through the Boyd Gap and across the White Bridge, and then along the Ocoee River Road, flanked on either side by the Big and Little Frog Mountains. I know this because Mama wrapped my memory in place names, places my people rooted long before I was born. The complexity and beauty of mountain language hypnotized me then and now. My mama grew up in places like Turtletown, Ducktown, Isabella, and Farner. The train depot was at Postelle. My Poppy worked mines in the Copper Basin, mines with names like Burra Burra and Mary. Place names like these girded me. In college, I listened to my older brother talk about his hikes in the Southern Appalachian Mountains, his love of places like Siler’s Bald, Gunstick Laurel, and Clingman’s Dome. All those place names rolled off his tongue like the language of our people. I also encountered the writings of Horace Kephart for the first time, especially his Our Southern Highlanders, his comprehensive accounting of his time spent with the people and places of our region. Over the last fifty or so years, I continue to visit Kephart’s book, a beautiful written reminder of what threads through my DNA. It was one of those “pick up the book and open to a random essay” entitled “A Bear Hunt in the Smokies” that I was inspired to write my poem “Place Names.” I could see those mountain men on their hunt for bear and hear the dogs tracking the scent. The catalogue of places they passed through became part of my own catalogue of place names. And then the poem was born, basically as it appears on the page.”

Many thanks to Sue Weaver Dunlap for sharing the history and inspiration of her poem “Place Names.” In my next post, I’ll share a writing exercise based on “Place Names.”

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