“A Hillbilly, A Woman, And A Poet”

The Highlands Voice March 2012  wvhighlands.org


By Hugh Rogers

This was Irene Durrett McKinney: “I’m a hillbilly, a woman,

and a poet, and I realized early on that nobody was going to listen to

anything I had to say, so I might as well just say whatever I wanted


Irene didn’t shy from exaggeration. She could call herself a

hillbilly—she grew up on a hardscrabble Barbour County farm—and

no one could deny her femininity and poetry. But it wasn’t true that

nobody listened. As the best poets must, she trained us to read her,

and her audience grew. Not to mention the many students who hung

on every word. As for saying whatever she wanted to, all she really

wanted to say was the truth.

Among the purposes set out in the Conservancy’s by-laws is

to promote appreciation of our state’s natural resources. Irene, who

died on February 4, was West Virginia’s Poet Laureate and a natural

resource for the nation.

We had the luck to meet Irene when we moved here in the

mid-70s. She liked to say that she had been born in the 19th Century.

I was struck by her piece called “The Pig’s Head,” a memory of life on

the farm, intimate with animals, even those she’d rather avoid, and

how by slipping on a floor all greasy from a pig-sticking she’d become

the butt of an unintended practical joke. It was all so physical.

She would return to her childhood many times over the years:

“I wanted to walk without clothing in the woods beside the creek, and

to come to the barn at night and sleep beside the horses, curled in

the smell and scratch of hay with the bitch and pups.” Her mother,

hard-pressed, abused the useless pets that “ate the food and dirtied

the floor.” Irene planted her flag early: “If we must choose sides,

I said as a child, I take the side of the animals.” (From the poem,

“Atavistic”; line breaks aren’t shown, a breach of etiquette that is,

however, consistent with how Irene said her poems aloud.)

Her older sister Eleanor told me, “Irene never did the chores.

She was off in the woods or the barn, reading whatever she could

find.” Their mother, Celia, had described Irene as “an independent,

ornery little thing.” The red hair set her apart. She wore it as a warning.

But their father, Ralph, read her Emerson, Wordsworth, Poe, and

Pinocchio. When the time came for her return, he gave her thirty

acres of the farm, and she built a perfect little house/library/gallery

near the berry barn. By then, the family “who I imagined could never

understand me” was a great comfort. In a wonderful eulogy, Maggie

Anderson said: “Only one so deeply rooted and held could afford to

be so wild.”

Irene saw broader implications of the way she’d grown up:

“Whatever direction this state takes, my deep hope is that the sense

of self-sufficiency will hang on, not just for us but because there are

a lot of mainstream people that look to cultures like this to see how

you do it. They know that somehow or another their background

hasn’t given that to them, and they want to look to cultures where

people still feel that it’s a virtue to be self-sufficient, not a weakness,

not a psychological peculiarity, not a neurosis; but a virtue, an


Irene was already a mother of two when she decided to go

to college. She had been making poetry that wasn’t good enough—

she needed training, she needed to know more. From West Virginia

Wesleyan in nearby Buckhannon, she went on to West Virginia

University (M.A.) and the University of Utah (Ph.D.). English-teaching

and writer-in-residence positions took her far away: Albuquerque,

New Mexico; Bellingham, Washington; Santa Cruz, California; Delhi,


On sabbatical from a college in upstate New York, she came

home: “It was a choice I didn’t know I was making, in my rational

mind. My unconscious knew better.” She began to build the house. It

would take years. In 1986, she returned to Wesleyan as Professor of

English. Her poems were published in major journals and six books.

Her Selected Poems, “Unthinkable,” came out in 2009. Next year,

we’ll have a posthumous collection titled, “Have You Had Enough

Darkness Yet? No, I Haven’t Had Enough Darkness”.

“I am formed by this place,” she said in a 2005 interview on

West Virginia PBS that was rebroadcast after her death. Writing

about that was the best way to see and say who she was. It wasn’t

all pretty: “The roads get lost in the clotted hills, in the Blue Spruce

maze, the red cough, the Allegheny marl, the sulphur ooze. The

hill-cuts drain; the roads get lost and drop at the edge of the strip

job. The fires in the mines do not stop burning.” (“Twilight in West

Virginia: Six O’clock Mine Report”) She told people like us, who had

moved here with somewhat romantic notions, “The positive side is

nothing without the gritty side.” In “The Durrett Farm, West Virginia:

A Map,” she wrote, “Nostalgia has a sticky flypaper surface and we

can’t afford it.”

Irene thought loneliness and isolation were intrinsic to life in

the country. Although solitude enabled her work, she called herself

“a malcontent”.

She relished road

trips to conferences

with fellow poets

and teachers; then

she would hole up

again. Especially in

the years after she

got sick, her family

and friends pressed

against her hermit

tendency. She

taught us yoga; we

cooked her dinners; she taught us how to live and die.

From her late poem “Daytime”: “However, as I’m fond of

saying, or addicted to saying. Nothing need follow that. I have

entered the realm of however, have wholly occupied however since

the diagnosis that my bones are colonized by cancer cells.”

Death was not a new subject. See “Sunday Morning, 1950”:

“Outside, the shaven hilly graves we own. Durrett, Durrett, Durrett.”

And “Visiting My Gravesite: Talbott Churchyard, West Virginia”:

“Maybe because I was married and felt secure and dead at once,

I listened to my father’s urgings about ‘the future’ and bought this

double plot . . . I plan now to use both plots, luxuriantly spreading

out in the middle of a big double bed. –But no, finally, my burial has

nothing to do with marriage, this lying here in these same bones will

be as real as anything I can imagine for who I’ll be then, as real as

anything undergone, going back and forth to ‘the world’ out there,

and here to this one spot on earth I really know.”

On February 8, in persistent snow, we buried her there. After

a meal in another nearby church we went back to her house with all

its books and masks and “gee-gaws,” her name for the incredible

density of stuff. Upstairs we stood in front of her low altar, the things

most carefully chosen, “Displayed,” she had written, “to help me

remember the great gift, this precious human birth, this life like no


The Highlands Voice March, 2012 Page

About Sam's Branch

I joined the Peace Corps in 1961 as West Virginia’s first volunteer. Go to Amazon.com to order my book Imagonna: Peace Corps Memories. I am the eighth generation of my family born in the Big Coal River Valley of West Virginia. My father and grandfather were underground coal miners. I have a chemical engineering degree from West Virginia University (WVU). After training to make sidewinder missiles, I joined the Peace Corps and taught chemistry and coached the track team at a secondary school in Nigeria. Since that time, I was WVU’s first full time foreign student advisor and worked in urban outreach, organic farming, construction labor, and high school teaching. I recently retired from the board of directors of the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy (wvhighlands.org), and recently retired from the board of directors of the West Virginia Kanawha State Forest Foundation (ksff.org). I am still on the board of the Labor History Association and the West Virginia Environmental Education Association and recently joined the board of the West Virginia Civil Liberties Union. I am active in the campaign to stop the destructive practice of mountain top removal strip mining in the Appalachian Mountains. You may contact me at martinjul@aol.com or my blog samsbranch.wordpress.
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