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In Memoriam: Sabbath Country poet Charles Semones, 1937-2015

And All the Layered Light: Last Poems by Charles SemonesGuest post by Gregg Swem, antiquarian book dealer and Wade Hall’s life partner

Kentucky poet Charles Semones died on September 13, 2015. He was 78. Although he lived in Harrodsburg in his latter years, he was originally from the Deep Creek community of Mercer County, Kentucky, west of Harrodsburg, a rural landscape of stark ridges and hollows which informed much of the writer’s work. He was the author of And All the Layered Light: Last Poems, published in NewSouth Books’s “The Conecuh Series” in 2007.

Wade Hall, who wrote the introduction to the collection, was a longtime friend and literary mentor of Semones. Hall edited Kentucky Poetry Review in Louisville for many years, and Semones was a frequent contrbutor to that publication. Semones’s poems have appeared in numerous literary journals, general magazines and religious publications. Hall, a native of Bullock County, Alabama, where he returned in 2006 after a long teaching career in Louisville, often referred to Semones as “Kentucky’s finest living poet.”

In 1973, Kentucky Poetry Review published Semones’ Witch Cry, his first collection of poetry. And in the spring of 1992, the last issue of Kentucky Poetry Review was dedicated to Semones, featuring 10 of his poems. The issue also included poems by such literary figures as Thomas Merton, the famous Trappist monk who had lived at the Abbey of Gethsemani near Bardstown, Kentucky; James Laughlin of New Directions, which published Merton’s works; Wendell Berry, James Baker Hall, Sarah Litsey, Jane Mayhall, James Still, Jim Wayne Miller and Jane Stuart.

Charles Semones

Other volumes of poetry by Charles Semones are Homeplace (1993), Hard Love (1994), and Afternoon in the Country of Summer: New and Selected Poems (2003). He is also the author of a book of essays, A Storm of Honey: Notes from the Sabbath Country (2004). In 2003, he was given the inaugural Kentucky Literary Award for Excellence in Poetry.

Harking back to the earliest days of his association with Charles Semones in Kentucky, editor Hall points out in And All the Layered Light that he soon discovered he was “a talented, driven poet” unlike others he knew. “He seemed to inhabit another land, another country. Most of his poems were grounded in a place in Central Kentucky he called The Sabbath Country, which I discovered was based on his native Mercer County, and in particular, the rural inhabitants. . . .” In what was to be Semones’s last collection of poems, Hall found “a world of longing and desire, of passion and pursuit, of rapture and depression.” Furthermore, he states, “In his reclusive, gospel-drenched, haunted world of draped mirrors and desperate dog days of summer, the poet-lover moves along his lonely route seeking and hoping for at least a brief respite from the Gothic horrors, internal and external, that curse his journey. Semones’s own autobiographical travels and travails, which he has translated into a universal poetry of the soul, will resonate deeply with anyone who thinks deeply about the human condition.”

And All the Layered Light is available from NewSouth Books or your favorite bookstore.