Hunting Pennies: Poems from an Appalachian Childhood

Hunting Pennies CoverBy Errol Hess. Wetknee Books, 2015. 69 pages. $5.99/paperback.

Hunting Pennies reminded me of going for a dip in a local swimming hole. You’re not expecting anything fancy or elaborate; you may encounter mud, muck, and silt along the bottom; and you’ll probably come back with a few bug bites—but man, is that cold water refreshing!

This “memoir in verse” covers Hess’s childhood in the small Appalachian town of St. Marys, W. Va., between 1941 and 1959. Hess was a war orphan whose father was shipped out to the Philippines, leaving behind a two-year-old son and an emotionally absent mother. It was a time of physical hardship, when a grandfather’s coffin would be by far the most expensive and luxurious piece of furniture in the family living room, and every half-crust of bread was put aside for catching fish. There was emotional hardship too: to a neglected young boy, every woman who “said hello / with soft voice and a smile” was a longed-for maternal figure. The poem “Substitutes” ends with the shattering question:

How many bits of women does it take to make

a full-time mother when yours is absent,

knotted around her own misery?

Although it doesn’t mince words or shrink from pain, this is a gentle, elegiac collection that portrays a Tom Sawyer-like childhood, full of streams, skinny-dipping, squirrel hunting, treehouses, and discovery. I recommend you read it in one sitting, giving yourself time and space to inhabit Hess’s world of memory. I imagine an adult narrator sitting in a rocker on an old porch, trading tall tales with his neighbors, or a young boy bragging about his adventures to scoffing but admiring friends.

Take a listen to Hess’s yarn and learn about (or remember) days when time passed slowly, people did backbreaking work, and pennies retrieved from the deep end of the swimming pool opened huge vistas of possibility, for example:

Buy a big pretzel after swimming all afternoon.

Nibble off the salt, one piece at a time.

Dissolve it from one end in your mouth,

tasting what salt remains, savoring the crisp crust

and dry crumbs inside.

I can almost hear that rocking chair creaking now.

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