Poetry & Novel Reviews
What People Are Saying About Lana K. W. Austin
“This is a novel about the light of vision, and music in the blood. Emmeretta has the ‘mountain gift’ of synesthesia, and she sees with her ears as well as with memory and imagination. But Like Light, Like Music is also a mystery story about uncovering secrets of the past, of family bonds and family ghosts. It is about the pain at the heart of country music, and joy in the place the music comes from. It is a story of the complexity of family ties and romances, and of the way confronting painful truths can make us free. It is a ballad of a novel, both timely and timeless.
—Robert Morgan, Author of Gap Creek & Chasing the North Star
“Austin has written a highly original and captivating novel filled with the mountain music and lore she loves so much—haints, broonies, banshees, shades, and revenants share the stage with all the memorable real characters of Red River, Kentucky. Contemporary issues merge with a developing romance in this spellbinding story, truly a ballad itself.
—Lee Smith, Author of Fair and Tender Ladies and The Last Girls
Walt Whitman once advised young poets to “Be outrageous! Be outrageous! But not too damned outrageous.” Lana Austin’s Blood Harmony has exactly that balance of old and new, of the immediate and the distant, of challenge and embrace. Her Kentucky landscape shows as familiar as a family heirloom and the music of her poems is as clear as a harpsichord in a meadow. This first collection reminds us how the soul is always seeking, in its dream of place, the final character of one’s identity, one’s home. The Gospel says abide and these poems are enactments with bold, electric, convincing authority. Lana Austin’s is a new country music worthy of a great readership. Let it be.
Attentive to history, place, pitch and character, the poems of Lana Austin’s Blood Harmony find bonds in music that dovetail with chords in family and community. Her lovely and passionate verses interweave precise knowledge of traditional mountain and CW music with marvelous invention which renders a mandolin “an amulet of sound” and describes listeners to Emmylou Harris as “embered… into incandescence.” These poems are handmade and heart-carved with a luthier’s canny expertise. Anyone wishing to go, as her opening poem invites, “In Search of the Wild Dulcimer” need look no farther than this collection where kindred sounds blend beyond description. In thrall to depths of the spirit, her poems are also sweetly free. Blood Harmony will make you sigh and sob, clap and stomp.
—R. T. Smith, recipient of the 2014 Weinstein Prize in Poetry, author of Brightwood, Outlaw Style & former Editor of Shenandoah.
Blood Harmony introduces a lively new voice to Appalachian poetry. Lana K. W. Austin celebrates the bonds of memory and blood in poems of both harmony and drama, remembering the blood spilled in the coalfields, and the struggles of families with loyalty and courage. The poems pay tribute to the place and soul of the region, the music of blending voices, adolescent desire, and the exuberance of motherhood, the enduring legacy of Jean Ritchie and Bill Monroe, and the mountains where the music was born.
—Robert Morgan, author of Gap Creek, Dark Energy, and Chasing the North Star
Blood moves like music in the body of this book and you can hear it as you read. In Search of the Wild Dulcimer celebrates physical and invisible grace—all that gives life to art and to us. Austin makes us hear the sound that thrums inside us—a song that is a story. Here are poems of country ways and Southern melodies “divined from a vast river.” What a joy to hear her sing.
--Steve Scafidi, Author of Sparks from a Nine-Pound Hammer, For Love of Common Words and The Cabinetmaker's Window
An ecclesiastical thread runs through this fine book, in that everything has its season, and everything—including joy and grief—goes together. Austin’s poems achieve through their own high and lonesome registers what we expect from the best blues or hillbilly music: the human experience in this weary world is affirmed, even dignified. I am glad these refreshing, bone- and blood-deep poems are in the world.
—Maurice Manning, author of One Man’s Dark, The Common Man, and Bucolics
The great circle is unbroken in Lana Austin’s first full-length collection, Blood Harmony. The arc of mothering and hard unmothering, Kentucky floods and wanton drink, the luthier one with the carved grain and sorrowed ballads. In poems birthed from paradox, Austin’s fierce coupling of alto and effervescence infuses and uplifts family and community portraits and tributes to the high lonesome of her upbringing—Jean Ritchie, Bill Monroe, Emmylou Harris. Her own unshakable voice prevails amid the downbeat of wounded genealogy, love’s aching counterpoint and antidote to loss. So put your hands on the radio still warm and faintly glowing, scoot closer to hear Austin’s “damned salvation of sound.” The circle thrums as it bends toward that stubbornly joyful noise, the chord so deep and alive within us.
—Linda Parsons, author of Mother Land and This Shaky Earth
The poems in Lana Austin's In Search of the Wild Dulcimer sing out with an Irresistible energy. Music is their theme, and their abiding metaphor, the tissue connecting our lives to the past and to the present. In poems like "Sex at the Ryman" and "Highland Elegy," Austin brings us to that place where the body and spirit meet. She hears the "simple incandescent strand" of her Kentucky roots in the ballads of Jean Ritchie, the plaintive tremolo of the dulcimer, and the "hybrid harmony" of blood relations singing together. Lana Austin invites her readers to follow this strand, and in doing so offers a reminder of the rich and varied ways music and poetry move us.
--Jesse Graves, Author of Tennessee Landscape with Blighted Pine & Basin Ghosts
“Like Light, Like Music captures the way the past haunts us and shapes our reality. With the help of their ancestors, the resilient McLean women are determined to prove the innocence of one of their own. The pulse of this lyrical novel beats: Believe women. Believe women. Believe women.”
--Savannah Sipple, author of WWJD and Other Poems
Exile’s Return to a Place of Violence and Prejudice But Also Unlikely Wonders”
-- By Don Noble
Published November 23, 2020 at 1:42 PM CST Alabama Public Radio/Multiple Alabama Newspapers
Lana Austin teaches writing at UAH. “Like Light, Like Music” is her first novel and it is impressive and unusual.
The action all takes place in October, 1999, in Kentucky, mostly in the fictional town of Red River, population 5,000, and partly on Black Mountain. Our protagonist, Emmeretta Finnegan McLean, called Emme, 28 years old, has been working in Washington, D. C., as a reporter/photojournalist.
She loves her family and her home place, but had felt compelled to leave Red River, to leave Kentucky, because she cannot stand the narrowness, the prejudice, both racial and sexist, and she has some problems of her own to sort out.
Then there is a sensational and peculiar “occurrence,” as it is called in the novel, and she returns mainly to help her cousin Kelly who has been arrested.
Strange things have happened.
For years, Kelly has been beaten and raped by her husband, Cyrus. Everyone knew about it, including the sheriff, but he refused to act.
In Kentucky, the sheriff argued, it would be impossible to indict a husband for raping his wife.
But husband Cy’s death was odd to say the least. He had beaten Kelly nearly to death, smashed her face and broken her upper arm. Then Cy was himself picked up and smashed against a high wall, nearly 20 feet above the floor. No mortal could have done it, least of all a small woman with a broken arm.
And, that very night, 27 women in Red River went mad and sick—screaming, vomiting, shaking, running high fevers, many hospitalized, and claiming the town had been invaded by banshees, the brunaigh or broonies, angry female ghosts, perhaps witches. Mass hysteria? Mass poisoning? No.
To Emme this is less unbelievable than to us. Emme herself and her aunts and great aunts and many of her kin have what they call the “mountain gift”—Emme “had seen things when she heard music, and heard music when she’d seen things.”
It’s more than synesthesia; these women and some few men, all Scots or Scots-Irish, also receive visions of the past, sometimes of the future, and can sense powerfully when something important is happening to a kinsman.
(I have read that there are villages in Northern Mexico where the people can all see one another’s aura. When they meet on the street there is no reason to ask “how are you?” They already know.)
Emme concludes that the broonies are furious at the misogyny and the race prejudice in Red River and will invade again if necessary.
In the course of things, we learn of Emme’s youth, her childhood friend Evan, an African-American mathematical genius Emma cared for but could never have a relationship with for fear she would put him in mortal danger, and we meet Evan’s savant daughter, Mattie. Emme reconnects with Aiden, a boy she knew in childhood briefly but to whom she is mystically connected.
This novel comes praised by both Lee Smith and Robert Morgan, two novelists devoted to Appalachian life and folkways, and it is no wonder. We see the creeks and hollers. The folk eat the traditional food and even have some magic moonshine. We hear the speech, which still has some eighteenth-century Celtic in it after centuries, and listen as the women all sing, beautifully and often, Child Ballads and especially the Scots ballads of broken hearts, and female death and drowning.
Unusually for a first novel, the story is told almost entirely in dialogue, as Emme talks with one character after another, examining the past and planning her next move.
A fault one might find here is that Emme discusses the same subjects with ten different people and that gets repetitious. Less would have been better.
“Like Light, Like Music” is full of wonders, unlikely wonders, but we should surrender to it. The reader’s skepticism might be answered as Hamlet answers his skeptical buddy Horatio after Hamlet has spoken with his father’s ghost.
“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
Don Noble’s newest book is Alabama Noir, a collection of original stories by Winston Groom, Ace Atkins, Carolyn Haines, Brad Watson, and eleven other Alabama authors.
“Like Light, Like Music is a novel full of divergences that pursues the loves, lives, and lore of kith and kin. In it, a town’s haunting is a reason to delve into community’s stories—full of ‘despair merging with magnificence.’”