Image of bird by Matt Manley

Station to Station

Jesse Graves


Clouds move at the leisure of the wind, whether urgent and gusting or placidly seeming painted upon the sky. Like eagles and falcons, rivers and the wind itself, clouds have provided a permanent and inexhaustible image for freedom. I find it hard not to envy them, yet I would feel unmoored and unnerved by such complete mobility, something like “the unbearable lightness of being” as Milan Kundera characterized it.   


“Plaintive Lives” was written at a time soon after my family and I had moved to a new town. We missed living in the familiar city that we loved, in a little house where we always felt at home, and in jobs and schools that challenged and satisfied us. We had departed from one comfortable station, yet had not arrived at the next. We could not settle in, could not get fixed in our new habitat. We had more, but felt we had less. Such feelings, luckily, can change as quickly as the direction of the wind, or the shape of a cloud, but in this poem, the in-between-ness seems like it could last forever.  


I have spent a great deal of time, from long before writing my earliest poems, imagining voices, imagining perspectives, and trying to get hold of how my life might appear if I could see it from the outside. I am interested in the role the speaker plays in poems, and all the varied experiences one might incorporate by expanding the canvas of possible voices. I hope that “Plaintive Lives” is about more than cloud watching, and that if the clouds could address us so directly, they would be kinder and less derisive than my poem portrays them. Though if they did feel a bit superior to us in our solid states, planted in our heavy shoes, who could blame them?   

"Plaintive Lives" appeared in NAR issue 302.1


Plaintive Lives


Somehow I am still here, taking careful dictation

From the evening clouds, who shape-shift

Suddenly out of sight, always changing their minds,


Always hinting at rain showers and sunsets

That build quickly into luminous shelves of color.

They ask rude questions, like, Why aren’t you


Walking under the radiant street lamps we see

Clicking on, at this very hour, in one of the cities

We skittered across on our journey here?


Why aren’t you sitting at a burnished oak-top bar

Drinking whiskeys neat with clever people

Who wear clothes as lovingly made as Persian rugs?


Or at least wandering some back country lane,

Beasts in the fields living plaintive lives beside you?

The clouds hurt my feelings, mock my life


With no regard for how steadily it moves away.

I suppose they love me, but the clouds never tell me

Things I can use, like how to change, and into what.

Picture of Author Jesse Graves

Jesse Graves was raised in East Tennessee, forty miles north of Knoxville, where his ancestors settled in the 1780s. His first collection of poetry, Tennessee Landscape with Blighted Pine, won the 2011 Weatherford Award in Poetry from Berea College, Book of the Year in Poetry Award from the Appalachian Writers’ Association, and the Thomas and Lillie D. Chaffin Award for Appalachian Writing. His second collection of poems, Basin Ghosts, won the 2014 Weatherford Award in Poetry, and his poetry has been featured on The Writer’s Almanac with Garrison Keillor. Graves received the 2014 Philip H. Freund Prize for Creative Writing from Cornell University, and the 2015 James Still Award for Writing about the Appalachian South from the Fellowship of Southern Writers. His poetry collection Specter Mountain, a book-length collaboration with William Wright, will appear in 2017 from Mercer University Press. Graves has coedited several volumes of poetry and scholarship, including three volumes of The Southern Poetry Anthology (Contemporary Appalachia, Tennessee, and North Carolina), and Jeff Daniel Marion: Poet on the Holston. He is currently at work on a new collection of poems, and the forthcoming Complete Poems of James Agee (University of Tennessee Press, 2018). He is Associate Professor of English and Poet-in-Residence at East Tennessee State University.

Illustration by Matt Manley. Matt has been working as a freelance illustrator for over twenty years. His illustration is primarily figurative and symbolic with surrealist leanings, and past client work includes editorial, corporate, medical, book, and higher education. Though in the end his work is technically digital collage, the process integrates both traditional and digital media. Collage elements are original oil paintings and drawings, with occasional scanned found objects and photos added to the mix, all united in Photoshop.