Shelby Stephenson reviews the work of poet Hilda Downer



(August 27, 1956 – )


Poet Hilda Downer

Poet Hilda Downer









  • The gravitational pull of our ancestry,

the part of us that killed the Cherokee,

the part of us that is the Cherokee,

we drag through seconds of a concentration camp,

medieval wars in single red gulp.

From “History reflects itself as an old man,”

Bandana Creek

The melting pot aglow,

coal and feldspar,

mastectomies of the mountains

Native Americans revered as gods,

what if your Mohawk nose

does not serve up the American Pie?

From “America, the Beautiful,” Sky Under The Roof

Hilda Downer’s come out with another book (Bottom Dog Press, Huron, Ohio); I look

back almost four decades to an event I loved, Hilda Downer’s Bandana Creek, a startling, tough gift from Charlene Swansea, at Red Clay Books. Swansea could not write a “Letter of Regret,” regarding Hilda’s poems; Swansea’s mind was set. Charmed by the poet’s talent, she took the book and published it.

Now I hold Downer’s Sky Under The Roof. I see Reba’s here again, Reba Vance. Hilda writes, “my best friend all of my life.” “Towheads”: “Reba and I observe the way we used to stand at eye level with daisies, stepping stones up and down for walking on air as far as we could see

across the field. Butterflies test landed tiger colors for an instant takeoff.”

In the Introduction to Bandana Creek, Charlene Swansea keeps her pitch: “Hilda spent much of her childhood in solitary exploration of the blue Appalachian Mountains. Her wonder at the

co-existence of beauty and cruelty in Nature watered her secret writings like a spring.”

Would not we readers all be Voyagers sailing with Hilda Downer’s inspiration and imaginative guidance.


Sky Under The Roof starts in mouthfuls of folly: “Picking Cherries up Howell Hollow”:

“Unlike hybrids darkly marooned in stores, / these cherries glowed a delicate red from within – /

translucent white when unripe. / Little Rudolph noses, their guidance / balanced us on that tight wire, pulling us / to higher branches to reach more light.”

Touch and taste – smell – and seeing, hearing: “My tongue felt for the seam of the pit / long

after the last rags of fruit had weathered. / Near sandy ruffles in the dirtroad, / I smelled where a spring poked its finger out the bank. / Then, I spit out all possibility / deep from the dark / deep in the mountains / deeper still in childhood / attempting to see into Who I have and have not become.”

“A woman is segmented as an ant,” Downer writes in Bandana Creek: “I wait as a woman waits. / I like my own smell. / No man has known me beautiful / when I am alone and woman, / still or stirring, / a drawing power in the shoulders, / waist hidden from vertical glance, / breast to hip.”

And from “What is Under my Dress” (Sky Under The Roof): “I might lift the hem on occasion.”

“What Is Under My Dress” seems too long to quote. I choose these words as notes from the poem: “An editor once summed up / my poetry as merely listing, / told me to put that under my belt, / and would I drive with him to Vermont. / Here’s another list: / I don’t wear a belt; / I wear a vintage prom dress; / I refuse to face life like a man.” She does not: “and I’ll make up my own mind, / if there’s any room left, /about what to put under my dress next.”

Bandana Creek’s last poem is a hymn to jars: “Looking up from inside a jar, the stars / Are holes”:

Hilda Downer: “I want to call mama / when my mother strode / down the gravel driveway / like a man.” These lines are my close companions. I want to call my mother, too, through the oaktrees on top of my Paul’s Hill; like Hilda Downer’s Bandana Creek, a stream the mountains sing, I long for breath to keep her words “wondering why I’m not satisfied, / when all I ask for is the thirst and the water.” I am drawn to my own fishing holes. Deep down in wonder, experience orders change to build a bridge to another side. Far from Bandana Creek, I feel like a terrapin coming up for air at the Rock Hole on my Middle Creek.

What else can I say to show more truly the intricacies of the cruel, sweet beauty of

Hilda Downer’s gift for lines, her ways her pages move words like “the blue fixed waves

of mountains” which turn in her eyes and on her tongue to “the only ocean we had ever seen, and even a scant shell,” she writes, “was rare”; so “we listened to the ocean from a mason jar.”

When you consider that some of us write rhymes; others long and thirst for what they do not know, you may imagine Hilda Downer, this girl who becomes a woman, and dedicates Sky Under The Roof “to my sons, Branch Richter and Meade Richter” (artist Branch did the cover-art, picturing Hilda with a child on her back; Meade’s a fiddler − his band − The Sons of Bluegrass). The mother relishes the artistry of her sons.

Poets may long for difference and sameness. Consider “Jars” – from the last quarter of Sky Under The Roof: “There are no words that work, not under this sky, but maybe – above – ”: (That’s her inscription to me on the title page of Sky Under The Roof); in “Jars” she jots − “City boy who raised his jar to Tennessee – / can anything manmade be more lovely than a singular jar, / refractions like stilts of heaven through the morning / of an invisible forest?”

Bio:  Shelby Stephenson is Poet Laureate of North Carolina.  His play Maytle’s World was recently performed at the Cameron Arts Museum, Wilmington, North Carolina.

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Poetry from Tony Longshanks LeTigre

“Happy Fourth, baby,”
said a woman I didn’t know,
as we passed one another on the Hawthorne bridge
(See, being nice is cool:
you Californians should try it some time*)
This isn’t usually my thing, either—
this jingoistic pageant of stars & stripes
& children with cherrybombs making more noise than usual
& “God Bless the USA” blaring from the publicly funded
& ridiculously underutilized PA system
(Let me pick the music next time—
“Rocket,” by Goldfrapp, shimmering over the water
as the fireworks display crests to its climax!)
Truth be told, I prefer the geese sailing serenely
breastdown on the water to the braying obnoxiousness of human beings;
birds, like most sensible critters,
for all their euphonious prolixity at the ripe hours,
also evince a respect for silence that a writer can’t fail to admire
But for once, I’m going to check all the baggage of my discontent
at the star-spangled door & go with the gaudy flow,
because it’s damn near 100 degrees,
& the river feels like the ocean on Maui,
& they say it’s safe to swim in now,
since they figured out that pumping raw sewage 
& dubious chemicals into the city’s water main liquid artery
—source of all life & our most precious resource—
was probably a bad idea

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Ryan Hodge’s Play/Write column


-Ryan J. Hodge

For someone who enjoys a great story, is there anything better than a narrative that engages you from the very start? Imagine a world so rich you can almost smell the scents in the air, a delivery so clever it forces you to think in a way you never thought you would. I’m Ryan J. Hodge, author, and I’d like to talk to you about…Video Games.

Yes, Video Games. Those series of ‘bloops’ and blinking lights that –at least a while ago- society had seemed to convince itself had no redeeming qualities whatsoever. In this article series, I’m going to discuss how Donkey Kong, Grand Theft Auto, Call of Duty and even Candy Crush can change the way we tell stories forever.

What Videogames Teach Us About Writing for Religion

Those who have committed to even a cursory study of philosophy have probably been introduced to something known as ‘The Allegory of the Cave”. This mental exercise, proposed by the Greek Philosopher Socrates, supposes that is a group of men were restrained from birth to stare at the wall of a cave; their perception of reality would only be that of the shadows reflected on that wall. It further supposes that if one of those restrained were to be released and shown reality beyond the cave, should he ever return to his comrades, they would actively attempt to silence him –including killing him, if necessary.


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Novel excerpt from Giorgio Borroni

Autumn in Horror

By Giorgio Borroni


He picked up a hammer, looking at it as if struck by a brilliant idea: “Can I play with him? Can I nail him down like Jesus?”

Jessica smiled, shaking her head. Now more than ever, they looked like siblings.

“Come on, you idiot!” she told him, “Use the duct tape instead. We’ll tie him to the chair and we’ll make him spill the beans so he’ll tell us where he keeps the money.”

Alfio saw them tie the old man’s hands behind his back, whose thick white hair dangled over his chest, then they moved on to the ankles, which were fastened to the chair’s legs.

When they finished, the light of the crystal chandelier, covered in spider webs, trembled and turned off for a couple of seconds before turning back on again.

Alfio realized that he was not dreaming: this wasn’t a junkie delirium. Everything was happening for real.

This room with rotten green wallpaper seemed to squeeze him, he felt as though his lungs were deprived of air.

While cold sweat dripped down his forehead and locks of hair stuck to his temples and cheeks, he struggled to breathe oxygen, but more than ever that sickly and rank smell turned his stomach.

He looked at his hand, which was still holding the crowbar. It was his own, but by now it hurt because of how much he was grasping it, and he shivered like a leaf.

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