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"Barrels of Tar" (1936) by Carl Mydans from the Library of Congress

Issue 103, Winter 2018



It’s not what you think, not a back-tease aerosol of a band 
head-banging to a half-cracked amp nor the flame-decal of a beater 
revving the gravel lot out back, hungry for a big-tiddied girl to stumble
out cork high and bottle deep. No, the 80s are long gone, just like 

these two-foot writhers jerked from the waters by fishermen 
who boot-crushed their harmless catch on the shore, fearing them 
venomous, naming them for the ugliness they saw—a hellbender, as in bent 
on returning to hell, as in a snot otter or a lasagna lizard, as in a miracle 

of a salamander that needs mountain streams clear and cold, a remnant 
of that other world that hasn’t been safe ever since the early settlers 
thickened that water black with buckets of tar to slow redcoats coming their way— 
a tale that got us our own derogatory name—tar heels— 

even good old Walt thumbing his nose at the South, calling us tar boilers, calling us 
trash. Ain’t it a shame, though, how we forgot one name and let it die 
along with the being that we gave that name, while the other name 
we reclaim, painting it blue across our faces and chanting it at football games? 

Nickole Brown reads “Hellbender.”

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Nickole Brown

Nickole Brown is the author of Fanny Says, which received the 2015 Weatherford Award for best book of poetry in the Appalachian tradition, and Sister, which will be re-released in 2018 in a new edition by Sibling Rivalry Press. She lives in Asheville, North Carolina, where she volunteers at several animal sanctuaries.