Review by Kait Walser
The years 2017-2020 could fill chapters in American history books, and Margaret Renkl has catalogued her own contributions on that time span in Graceland, At Last: Notes on Hope and Heartache From the American South (Milkweed Editions 2021), an inviting collection of op-eds-turned-essays from the American South.
Writing from her home in Nashville, Tennessee, Renkl has become a trusted voice and a cultural ambassador to the American South through her weekly column in The New York Times. Following her debut essay collection Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss (Milkweed Editions, 2019), Renkl’s second book continues weaving her personal stories—from losing loved ones to finding hope in unexpected places—while tapping into the collective feelings and topics timestamped between 2017 and 2020.
Originally written for The Times during an era of across-the-aisle appeals between friends and family, many of the essays are so brief they could fit in a well-articulated longform social media post. This brevity makes them especially shareable among loved ones and serves to combat the information fatigue so many readers experience when keeping up with the news.
The reader gets to experience these essays not chronologically, but in nonlinear waves—as you might experience memory, love, or grief, as you might experience a beloved song, or a once-familiar landscape redeveloped, or a sudden recognition of complicity within an unjust system. Renkl guides us through all of this and more, grouping more than sixty essays into thematic chapters: Flora & Fauna, Politics & Religion, Social Justice, Environment, Family & Community, and Arts & Culture. These distinct topics cross-pollinate wonderfully, setting the reader up to witness the connections between each subject.
Before readers are introduced to the people of the American South, we meet its flora and fauna: the limestone cedar glades and the resurrected Tennessee coneflower, a young Cooper’s hawk in the author’s backyard and a clever skink in her front yard. “I love the bluebirds, and I also love the murderous hawk who reminds me that the peace of the backyard is only fiction. I love the lizard who looks so much like a snake, and I also love the snake who would eat her if it could.” These lines from the opening essay “Hawk. Lizard. Mole. Human.” share more than the author’s nuanced compassion and love for wildlife. They reflect her tone across the book.
In a time when objective truths are questioned and even talking about the weather can become politicized, Renkl’s writing works to defy polarity. Love, grief, curiosity and other universal emotions ground the lofty topics of these essays. She urgently reaches across the aisle in “An Open Letter to My Fellow White Christians” and recognizes the human dignity of convicted murderers in “Christmas Isn’t Coming to Death Row.” She explores accountability in “Looking Our Racist History in the Eye” and shows the resilience of community in “ICE Came to Take Their Neighbor. They Said No.” But Margaret Renkl isn’t writing simply to talk politics.
“I’m not a political writer,” Renkl said in a 2020 interview for the podcast When We Talk About Animals. “I don’t consider most of the things I write about political, in the sense that politics would presume that there is a point and a counterpoint,” she continued, suggesting that the left versus right dichotomy is a political construct that doesn’t serve people.
In the podcast interview, Renkl shared that she tries to write about politically-charged topics “in a way that is as apolitical as possible” by making them personal. From a craft perspective, her choice to write to the emotional heart of these stories is transformative. By choosing a first-person narrative over an unbiased journalistic tone, she removes the scaffolding of political rhetoric to reveal the relatable. It’s pure alchemy.
There is a deep sense of community within these essays. Renkl acknowledges the incredible impact of local movements, leadership, and cultural figures. From the late U.S. Rep. John Lewis to local activists, from legendary musician John Prine to Rhiannon Giddens, from the Nashville Public Library’s Civil Rights Room to Montgomery, Alabama’s Legacy Museum to, finally, the titular Graceland, we’re ushered into a lively, inspiring and beloved southern community.
Solace and solidarity for this same community are also present in essays like “What It Means to Be #NashvilleStrong,” written about the tornadoes that ravaged middle Tennessee just one week before the pandemic shut down the country. One question from this essay rattled through my mind: “How was it possible for something so monstrous and so nearby to be, at the same time, so utterly invisible?” Written about the devastating tornado, this line could apply to many topics covered in these pages, from the mundane violence of invasive species to the historically normalized brutality of racism.
Renkl writes on life during the early months of the pandemic in essays like “True Love in the Age of Coronavirus,” following a now all-too-familiar story of her son and daughter-in-law-to-be reimagining their vision for a wedding celebration. Renkl’s November 2018 essay, “Remembrance of Recipes Past,” serves almost as an appetizer for the next. Published in November 2020, “All the Empty Seats at the Table” is a Thanksgiving story that will likely resonate with millions of Americans across the country as we face yet another season of uncertainty.
Like her Milkweed Editions pressmates Robin Wall Kimmerer, Aimee Nezhukumatathil, and J. Drew Lanham, Margret Renkl writes about her environment—both the ecosystems of the natural world and the ecosystems within our own societies—from a deeply personal lens, with attention to the ways we impact one another. This genre of naturalist nonfiction lends itself to metaphor, especially in the hands of a poet like Renkl who can evoke social microcosms in her own backyard that resonate with readers across the country.
She moves between the observation of order in the so-called wild world and the chaotic domino effect humans have on both ourselves and the planet. But disaster is not at the heart of these essays. Instead, hope is cultivated to bloom like wildflowers along the southern backroads that take us from one story to the next.
In the pages of Graceland, At Last: Notes on Hope and Heartache From the American South, you’ll find an approachable collection of digestible yet poignant essays and an invitation to open your mind to new perspectives, to take a step back here or take a closer look there, and to revel in the closeness we can discover.