The American Journal of Poetry
"Strong Rx Medicine"®


Matt Prater

A Short History of Appalachia


Once, a great sea ruled the mountains.
Then the great sea receded,

and the Mastodons ruled. Then
the mastodons receded,

and the Mississippians ruled. Then
the Spanish explored,

and the Mississippians receded.
Then the Buffalo ruled.

Then the Cherokee took over,
and the Cherokee and the Buffalo ruled.


Then the Africans came,
escaping the English;

and the Germans came,
escaping the English;

and the Scots came,
escaping the English;

and the Cherokee said
ya’ll come on in now,

and the Cherokee said sunrise,
and the Cherokee said fuck out of here,

and the Cherokee said shit this is
getting out of hand, all at the same time.

Then the Cherokee were receded,
and the Germans ruled. Then

the Germans were turned into Americans,
and the Scots ruled. Then the Scots

were turned into Americans,
and the Appalachians ruled.

Then the Appalachians were turned
into workers, and the barons ruled.

Then the barons took their business
overseas, and the Americans ruled.


Before the beginning, the Cherokees’
cousins and the Caddos’ cousins

had had cities bigger than contemporary London—
Cahokia, for example, housed over 15,000 in the 1100s.

Multi-story houses. Agricultural research. Women popes.
National highway systems. Good sex lives. Socialized medicine.

Ecumenical religious structures. Low infant mortality rates.
LGBTQ equality. Feminism. Mentor-based,

low student-teacher ratio educational pedagogy.
Division of labor. International trade.

Low elder abuse rates. Low crime rates.
And a culture of sustainability.

Women were choosing their second husbands
based on penis size, and everyone was living to eighty.


In the beginning, the Germans wished
to worship God eccentrically. The Scots

wished to get as far away from the Royalists
as possible. The Africans could not go home,

but did not want to stay where they’d just been.
The Cherokee and the Yuchi and the Shawnee

didn’t want to put up with any of this,
but some of the Germans and some of the Scots

and some of the Africans were alright.
The Germans, homesick for plum butter,

turned to apples. The Africans, displaced
from cassava, stewed wild greens.

The Cherokee boiled down squash
and fried salt cornbread, then boiled

grape dumplings in iron pots they’d traded
from the Germans with deerskin britches.

Sometimes they shot each other
and sometimes they humped each other,

and later when the Germans called themselves
Americans and one of them had too many freckles

and curly hair they’d say their great great Granny
was a Cherokee (but she wasn’t a Cherokee…).


In the beginning, they all drank hard apple cider.
The Asburys came through on horses and told the Scots

to stop crying that God did not hate them that God
did not kick on them that God did not like their whiskey

but that God had always liked them. The Asburys
came through on horses and told the Germans

to stop redunking to stop being weird to stop
not having sex to stop their eccentric meditations

that God was not a savant that God was not a hippie
that God was not a Bohemian. Then they all

came through the Cherokee towns and they told them
that if they were good boys and girls, God would make them white.


There were so many Mountaineer Unionists—
though Cyrus McCormick invented the reaper—

so many Mountaineer Unionists—though
they had to fill up the factories with Quakers—

so many Mountaineer Unionists—though
they massacred the Black regiments at Cedar Branch—

so many Unionists—though the Cumberland Gap
changed hands twenty thousand times—

there were so many Mountaineer Unionists—though
the Cherokee nation fought against the Union—

there were so many mountaineer Unionists
that Stoneman’s Raiders couldn’t shoot them all.


Then Roosevelt reinstalled the policies of Asoka,
and ten thousand mountaineer boys macheted trails.

Ten thousand mountaineer boys planted border laurels.
Ten thousand mountaineer boys put down rocks.

For a dollar a day, as entire ridge was turned into a playground,
and tourists in tents stopped in the woods on their way to See Rock City.

Farms were shuttered and their valleys dammed
and the whole thing became an electric plant,

and Bobbie Socksers swam in bathing suits on top of them.
Nobody mentions how much sex is going on,

because it is not yet the 60s—
but it’s just about as much as the 60s.

& everybody mentions who could get into the pool.
But I will mention it again, because it needs saying.


The chemical plants in Virginia close.
The furniture plants in Carolina close.

The underground coal mines close.
The dams in Tennessee are not kept up.

The plants in Pennsylvania close.
The car plants in Ohio get furloughed.

The car plants in Tennessee are bought by Germans.
The chemical plant workers turn to Walmart.

The furniture plant workers turn to the county road crew.
The underground coal miners turn to trucking.

The Tennessee utilities turn back to coal. The coal mines
turn back to the mountains and dig from the top.

The plant workers in Pennsylvania go back to college.
The plant workers in Pennsylvania learn about nursing.

The plant workers in Pennsylvania learn to frack.
And there is so much more to say than this, entirely.


It’s hard to explain the theft a pen does
when so much has already been done in West Virginia;

but now I, who have no more right to steal the story
than anybody else will talk about McDowell County.

First came the settlers with their farms, then the timber barons,
then the mines, then the blast caps on the mountains;

and every time something falls down or fills up
when or where it shouldn’t, cameras come

from cities in the East; then the pens behind the cameras
tell a basic story, usually the same: these people

worked hard, work hard, or would work hard,
if they had a chance. But they’ve got no chance,
and never have. Actually, they’re fairly destitute.
There are broken Little Tikes toys all over their yards,

and they can’t stop having babies. It’s the Republicans
that tore into Planned Parenthood! They’re not very educated,

but that really isn’t their fault. We who have so much,
what can we do to save them? (OK, maybe it is their fault.)

Usually they also talk to one kid – ask Diane Sawyer –
who could get out of there if she just had the resources,

and her folks just weren’t so scared of the college
with its evolution and like witchcraft
. Read it

in the weekend New York Times: there are places
in this very country where for less than the price of a coffee

you can assuage your existential guilt. Though it’s hard
to talk about the theft the barons and the cameras and we do,

it’s easier to theorize the people. Look! In the face of one
who is almost you – their skin is white, there is a cell phone

on the counter (and shame on them for that!) –
is the future you could have had yourself,

if you didn’t have such a great work ethic
or have such pearly teeth. Now what do we do with them,

in their ancient slice of America? Nobody
who’s known them seems to know,

though they went there with a church group once,
after a storm or mining accident, and saw

the third world destitution for themselves.
That’s just the way it is there, so we’re told.

They vote against their better interests,
and still won’t let us save them from themselves.




MATT PRATER is a poet and writer from Saltville, VA. Currently an MFA candidate in poetry at Virginia Tech, his work has appeared in The American Journal of Poetry, Appalachian Heritage, Crannog, and The Moth, among other publications.



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