“Schawan” is an inanimate intransitive verb, meaning ‘it is smoky air’ or ‘there is smoky air.’… Adding the locative suffix gives us “schawangunk” (‘in that which is smoky air’ or, more simply, ‘in the smoky air’). This word has no relation to those signifying ‘south’ or ‘southerly,’ etc.
- Ray Whritenour
In the valley of the Shawangunk Ridge,
By the old grist mill, where
Shawangunk Kill met
Wallkill River and
tumbled in the tumult
of water and words,
all the old Lenape-Dutch
Weeds creeping up through slats
on shuttered slaughterhouse windows.
In peeling paint on the cinderblock
wall a cow holding a tray of steaks.
Across two lanes of blacktop,
the bowling alley, half deserted,
alien in the pasture.
The manure stink of horse barns
and cornfield fertilizer.
In high school we'd cut class
and ride out to the ridge
where nothing touched the tight,
weightless feeling of looking out
over cracked rock and scrub pine
to the valley below—of falling
without moving, walking back whole.
Last April the ridge burned.
I ran out into the night and saw
its orange glow against the horizon,
wondered if I'd recognize it at all,
when the fire was through.
In June I followed the mountains
south, to another valley
carved from the same Appalachian
bedrock. Traded Shawangunk
for Great Smoky.
Settled where Suttree walked
on down the line, under the old steel
bridge and out from the shadow
of the bluff past a lumberyard.
Built my home in the arms of Agee’s
great cedar, and the colors
of limestone and of clay;
the smell of wood smoke and,
in the deep orange light of the lamp,
the silent logs of the walls.
By November it was like reading
the same news. There were fires
in Gatlinburg. Rumor said ruin
and Murfree: A great cloud of flame
came rolling through the sky toward them,
golden, pellucid, and showering
down upon the dark abysses below.
In the morning, I couldn’t see Knoxville
for the smoke hanging low over
the Tennessee River.
i'm trying to say something about the human condition
maybe i should try again
The painter Beauford Delaney
was born in Knoxville in 1901.
He learned to draw on the back
of Sunday school cards
in his father’s church.
Learned to paint in
Boston, Harlem, Paris.
In 1969, Delaney made his
last visit to Tennessee—
a long ways from Paris.
He painted Knoxville
a tangled mess of green
and brown. Black lines
for tree trunks. Jagged
greens for hogweed
or bull-thistle. Walls
of leaf and vine.
Skies blue or goldenrod.
If you lean in close enough,
you can read his epiphany,
written in each wild
To return is a submission
to holy terror, to a primal
fear of the insensate eater—
the slaughterhouse door—