David Till: Seer


This week I am featuring David Till, one of the older voices in the contemporary poet community. Till is the emeritus professor at Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, TN, and he has taught literature and poetry at this institution since 1971. A few years later in conjunction with the university, Till founded and became the editor of APSU’s literary journal, Zone 3, a nationally recognized magazine dedicated to highlighting native poets and nonfiction writers. The journal happily reached its 25th year in 2010 and continues to grow in talent and influence. Though he accumulated degrees from universities across the midwest, he has settled in Tennessee, and we are glad to claim him as one of our own.


I had been looking for my fatherʹs face,

not the one, with its little whiskers, rubbed

against mine before I was ʺoldʺ‐‐that face

made me loved.


And not the one, of course,

in the photograph‐‐any one. Which face,

then? I think the one I surprised in the toolshed

before he knew I was there‐‐Iʹd come so quietly

through shadows of late afternoon.


It was

thoughtful, and sad.


Behind the shed, the river

went by gathering light it carried along.

My father raised his hand to salute, or dismiss,

or wave farewell to a random idea he had,

and then he turned, maybe, to where I was,

and what I saw was no face at all, was an oval

of dusky light the shape of a face that had gone

where the river goes. That one.


The first time I encountered this piece, I heard myself breathe in sharply as I read the last line. I wasn’t prepared for the concluding feeling that stopped my thoughts so abruptly. In the brief number of lines which Till moves the reader through so smoothly, he is both recounting a single moment and touching on different stages of his father’s life. When he searches his memory for a look his father had left him with, he remembers the moment that preceded the look–one that is crystalized in the enjambment of, “It was/ thoughtful, and sad.” Because I am a watcher of people, faces, and, consequently, a little bit of their souls, I know the instance that Till has described very well. I believe I have even exhibited such an oval to those around me before. This blank look is an expression of the moment when you lose yourself in the quietness of your surroundings and in the noise of your thoughts, however heavy or light they might be. The simplicity of Till’s language flows and allows him to pull the reader through the short poem effortlessly and, then, with a two-word sentence, “That one,” the reader is suspended, halted, and standing next to a river in the light of the afternoon. As readers, we stop because we know–we know that we too have seen this look, if we have ever observed someone long enough to catch a glimpse of them lost in thought.

To purchase a copy of David Till’s gracious book of poems titled, Oval, try here for options on Amazon.

Jesse Graves: Tied to the Land

Jesse Graves, a descendent of German immigrants who settled in the Tennessee hills, understands the connection our ancestors used to have with the land far better than most people in the 21st century do. Like the roots of a pine, Graves’ tie to his ancestral grounds is deep–since he was raised just miles from where they originally emigrated to–and, thankfully, he allows this strong sense of place to permeate his work. Graves has collected a Ph. D. in English from the University of Tennessee and a M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Cornell University, and he now teaches English at Eastern Tennessee State University. Tennessee Landscape with a Blighted Pine (2012) is his first book of poems and features today’s selected piece.

Johnson’s Ground

We sit under the awning and watch them descend in unison.
A flock of thirty or more down through the heavy rain
We weren’t supposed to get, pecking where grass is thin
For what the moisture turns up.
They look like the sound of the word
Grackle, these scavengers with wings muted black as painted iron rails,
As wet tar, their empty beaks flashing a bright citrus smear.
Memorial Day weekend and the weather drives us for cover,
Beating down plastic flowers and darkening the family gravestones.

Each year we arrive, like any family, to admire new babies
And find out who has changed jobs or gotten married,
I come to see who’s left to sit in the shaded chairs
Where my grandmother sat with her oldest sister Minnie
For the last time, neither of them able to name the other,
Both staring as if into a clouded mirror.
In the memory of their faces
I see pillars of stone, pillars of stippled salt,
Where the hammer of time drives the chisel of living,
The opaque blue of their eyes, each pair reflecting the other,
Sky blue buttons threaded through a dark blue dress.

Homecoming at the cemetery: they never let us go, even the ones
Laid under before our births continue to make their claims,
To draw the interest on their spent lives.
My grandfather waits here,
A Houston buried in Johnson ground—such is the appointment
He made with them. He was dead two years before
I was born, but who do I remind the old people of?
Whose picture did I stare into above the living room fireplace?

My great-uncle Gene tells my father and me about the base
He served in Korea, how bombs sounded hitting the village,
While a hundred feet away is my cousin Gary,
killed in Vietnam, telling his story into our other ears,
into the soles of our shoes.
The foraging birds drag worms
Out of the ground; we pull dark meat from the bones
Of chicken thighs and split boiled potatoes with plastic forks.

Damp air hums in our lungs and old people begin
Covering dishes—the rain always seeps in,
Even under shelter.
I offer my hands one more time
To the company who packs their leftovers and drives away,
And to the company who stays behind, under the tall grass,
Left in the restless turning of what we remember of them.


Graves’ recounting of his family’s Memorial Day gathering leaves the reader with a feeling similar to that of humidity–an odd mix of heaviness and hope. He sways back and forth from present to past to present as he weaves a clear picture of all who have convened, “even the ones/ Laid under before our births.” Save for the mention of new children added to the family, Graves does not mention the young, but focuses on the elderly–those who linger to tell of the past and those who have already passed from life to death. This poem caught my attention because as I read it,  I remembered a similar day, the day we buried my great-grandmother. Though we shared the rain in common, it was a much colder February afternoon that we gathered in the heavily cedar-wooded plot where generations have said their goodbyes. I felt at home in Graves’ keen awareness of the impact that his forefathers have had on the ensuing generations they were not privileged to know.  I often search for my own connections to the past and try to piece together a history that will keep in this fast-paced world of technology and transience.

Jesse Graves will be speaking at the Southern Festival of Books on October 12th, so be sure not to miss the opportunity to meet him there. For further reading on Graves or his poetry, visit Chapter 16 for this interview, Town Creek Poetry’s interview, and his personal site for poems and other info. His two books: Tennessee Landscape with Blighted Pine: Poems and The Southern Poetry Anthology, Vol. 3: Contemporary Appalachia can be purchased on Amazon.


I desire this blog to introduce and showcase contemporary Tennessee poets– because poetry is a language the modern populace needs to hear and speak more often. Because carefully placed words can form a new thought that my soul says “Yes” to. Because when I drive Tennessee’s country roads for hours every day, I can’t help but write lines about their beauty. Because these voices deserve to be heard.

In addition, some of the posts will highlight two major events in Nashville: The Southern Festival of Books (Oct. 11-13) and local poetry readings at The Scarritt-Bennett Center (every fourth Thursday night of the month) by featuring authors who will be speaking at the fast-approaching festival and specific poets that will grace the stage at Poet’s Corner. Each week I will recognize a poet from my beloved state by describing their connection to Tennessee, introducing their work through a selected poem, providing a balanced analysis of the piece, and finishing with my personal response.

I am thrilled to put my hand to this new project. It is my great hope that many of you will join me in this endeavor to acknowledge and celebrate the hearts and labors of my fellow Tennessee writers.