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Shambhala Sun | November 2013

About a Poem: Christopher Martin on
Byron Herbert Reece's "Mountain Fiddler"


I took my fiddle

That sings and cries

To a hill in the middle

Of Paradise.

I sat at the base

Of a golden stone

In that holy place

To play alone.

I tuned the strings

And began to play,

And a crowd of wings

Were bent my way.

A voice said

Amid the stir:

“We that were dead,

O Fiddler,

“With purest gold

Are robed and shod,

And we behold

The face of God.

“Our halls can show

No thing so rude

As your horsehair bow,

Or your fiddlewood;

“And yet can they

So well entrance

If you but play

Then we must dance!”

Byron Herbert Reece (1917–1958) was a poet of moderate success in his lifetime, though today he is nearly forgotten, especially outside his homeland of the north Georgia mountains. His work emerged as an expression of the natural world around him — what he called a “speechless kingdom” to which he “pledged his tongue.” Once, after his publisher urged him to leave north Georgia for New York in order to be at the center of the literary world, Reece replied that the slopes and valleys around Blood Mountain were just as good a place for wrestling angels as any other. Though at times he left home for writing residencies and teaching positions across the country, he never stayed away for long. His family’s farm on Wolf Creek and the mountains around it always held the poet close.

Reece was bound to his home by necessity as much as anything else. Both his parents contracted tuberculosis in the 1930s, so he assumed full responsibility for the farm at the height of his literary career. Because he never found financial success through his writing, he always depended on farming for income as well as sustenance.

But Reece’s connection to his homeland ran much deeper than necessity. He belonged to the north Georgia countryside physically and also spiritually, as “Mountain Fiddler” and many of his other poems suggest. Yet in Reece’s work, the spiritual and the physical are not as dualistic as Western traditions often render them.

In “Mountain Fiddler,” Reece takes us to a clichéd vision of heaven, a place where everything is made of gold. He carries a homemade fiddle with him, though, and the homemade — that which arises from its locality — can never be cliché. It is commonplace to paint heaven in terms of mythological extravagance and duality, but good poets remind us that heaven abides in that which surrounds us. And so it is the angels, though they initially greet the fiddler by scoffing at his lowly “horsehair bow” and “fiddlewood,”who end up dancing to the earthly music. The heavenly harp holds no sway.

Christopher Martin is the author of the poetry chapbook A Conference of Birds and founding editor of the online literary magazine Flycatcher.


From the November 2013 Shambhala Sun magazine. To see what else is in this issue, click here.

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