Friday 15 January 2021

Pack Horse Librarians

by Kari Gunter-Seymour

I mean no disrespect when I say,
during the Great Depression
Eastern Kentucky was a sundered area.
Surrounded by mountains and waterways,
no easy access in or out, nor any proper
education, until the WPA employed
our grandmothers to packsaddle
literacy to the underserved.

This would be the only good thing
coal would do for Kentucky,
coal and the Presbyterians,
donating books and endowment,
twenty-eight dollars a month to any woman
with a horse or mule, and the spunk
to stand up for progress, brave the weather,
backwaters and hollers, to deliver emancipation
by means of bound dissertation.

You need to understand, this was Appalachia,
just before the war to end all wars.
Only women of disrepute were considered
working women by the church.
Christian women labored in the kitchen and fields,
birthed, prayed, died in them, albeit
many Christian women were taught to read,
if for no other reason than the Lord’s word
could be used to hold her back.

But this was the New Deal and all bets were off.
Imagine my grandmother, top of her head
barely level with the saddle’s front rigging dee,
flaming red hair, a brand of sass all her own.
Packing up at the Pine Mountain Settlement School,
Harlan County, creek beds as roads,
on foot, single file, across crag and clifftop,
sleeping in barns or lean-tos against the cold.
Deliberate as any lineman or mail carrier,
every treatise she carried, a nugget
of gold inside her saddlebags.

* * * * *

"Pack Horse Librarians" is part of A Place So Deep Inside America It Can’t Be Seen (Sheila-Na-Gig Editions 2020)

Kari Gunter-Seymour’s poetry collections include A Place So Deep Inside America It Can’t Be Seen (Sheila-Na-Gig Editions 2020) and Serving (Crisis Chronicles Press 2018/2020-Expanded Edition). Her work is firmly attached to her home soil and is an examination of the long-lasting effects of stereotype and false narratives surrounding Appalachians. Her poems appear in numerous journals and publications including Verse Daily, Rattle, Still, The NY Times and on her website:
. She is the 2020 Ohio Poet of the Year and Poet Laureate of Ohio.


  1. Puts the righteous into hardscrabble.

  2. I've always loved this poem for itself and a history which includes you, Kari. This grandmother would be as proud as the good book allows.