Louise McNeill (1911–1993) was an accomplished American poet, short story writer, and essayist. She served as poet laureate of West Virginia from 1979 until her death in 1993. In 1988 she was awarded the Appalachian Gold Medallion by the University of Charleston. Her writings and papers are preserved at the West Virginia Region and History Center.
Introduction by Maggie Anderson
Musically complex and intellectually sophisticated, Louise McNeill’s imagery and rhythms have their deepest sources in the West Virginia mountains where she was born in 1911 on a farm that has been in her family for nine generations. These are rooted poems, passionately concerned with stewardship of the land and with the various destructions of land and people that often come masked as “progress.”
In colloquial, rural, and sometimes macabre imagery, Louise McNeill documents the effects of the change from a farm to an industrial economy on the West Virginia mountain people. She writes of the earliest white settlements on the western side of the Alleghenies and of the people who remained there through the coming of the roads, the timber and coal industries, and the several wars of this century.
The reappearance of Louise McNeill’s long out-of-print poems will be cause for celebration for readers familiar with her work. Those reading it for the first time will discover musical, serious, idiosyncratic, and startling poems that define the Appalachian experience.
The Milkweed Ladies is written out of deep affection for and intimate knowledge of the lives of rural people and the rhythms of the natural world. It is a personal account of the farm in southern West Virginia where poet Louise McNeill’s family has lived for nine generations.
The Milkweed Ladies is filled with memorable characters—an herb-gathering granny, McNeill’s sailor father, her patient, flower-loving mother, and Aunt Malindy in her “black sateen dress” who “never did a lick of work.” McNeill writes movingly of the harsh routines of the lives of her family, from spring plowing to winter sugaring, and of the hold the farm itself has on them and the earth itself on all of us. McNeill juxtaposes the life of the farm with the larger world events that impinge on it, such as the destruction from lumber companies in the 1930s and World War II in the ’40s.
With her poet’s gift for detail and language, McNeill creates a particular world forgotten by many of us, and to some of us, never known.