Literary Heritage

Kristin M. Distel on Debra Allbery’s Walking Distance


In 1991, the University of Pittsburgh Press published Debra Allbery’s first collection of poetry, Walking Distance, as the winner of the 1990 Agnes Lynch Starrett poetry prize. Allbery’s youth, spent in northwestern Ohio, informs the majority of the collection and serves as a compelling backdrop to her comments on small-town life. Readers will notice similarities to Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio and James Wright’s examinations of Martins Ferry. Allbery herself spent part of her youth in Clyde, Ohio—also the basis for Anderson’s book. Allbery establishes her own voice, distinct from that of Anderson or Wright; indeed, her writing bears little of Anderson’s disdain for or Wright’s ennobling of Ohioans.

I, too, grew up in Clyde, Ohio and have long been fascinated by the strangeness and idiosyncrasies of this small town. As a young college student, I flaunted my copy of Winesburg, Ohio in my hometown’s library, coffee shop, anywhere that I could display my coveted contraband: the town has denounced Winesburg, Ohio and its thinly veiled caricatures since its publication. Allbery’s book, like Anderson’s, is concerned with the ways in which a childhood spent in a small town shapes one for life, no matter how far a person eventually strays from his or her town. While Anderson’s book employs the journalistic strategy of an exposé, Allbery’s approach is a more generous examination of rural Ohio life. Hers is a gentle, less acerbic aesthetic.

In the tradition of Winesburg, Allbery’s Walking Distance invites readers to lean in while her speakers whisper tales of strange characters who loom large in the town’s collective consciousness. And as a native of Clyde, which Allbery calls “Enterprise” in her book, I am fascinated by her recollections of this small town, though an appreciation of Walking Distance transcends one’s connection to the specific area about which she writes. The collection is characterized by Allbery’s flowing, free verse sentences, heavy enjambment, and adept inclusion of dialogue. As a whole, Allbery is particularly skilled at examining her hometown’s quaint beauty while criticizing its small-mindedness, thereby avoiding clichéd observations of what she has termed “Enterprise, Ohio.”

Walking Distance is the anthem of small-town adolescents as told through the voice of a nostalgic, wise adult.

The overarching theme of the collection is the varying ways in which people try to leave a small town and why it is difficult to do so. The collection begins with a poem titled “Sherwood Anderson Walks Out,” thus immediately establishing a connection to Winesburg that she revisits occasionally. Allbery succeeds, though, in making these references sufficiently understated, avoiding parody or dependence on Anderson for clarity. Subtly, she even seems to reference Anderson’s George Willard, writing, “The local papers change / or stay the same. … Where do the stories happen in this vacant place?” This serves as an effective framework for Allbery’s various speakers who express a desire to flee their small town. She revisits this concept in poems such as “Starkweather,” “Possible Endings,” “Forgiveness,” and “Instinct.”

Even though her poems largely reflect on her own life, Allbery’s poetry is lyrical, not confessional. She generalizes her speakers’ experiences without losing their qualities of insightfulness and detail. Walking Distance is the anthem of small-town adolescents as told through the voice of a nostalgic, wise adult. Perhaps the best example of this is “Carnies.” She writes, “But don’t you know how deep summer crawls inside you in a town like that,” a representative statement of her invitation to join her speaker’s experience. The phrase “a town like that” is significantly stronger than would be a phrase such as “in that town”; her diction makes the poem about Small Town USA, not Clyde (or “Enterprise”) only. Placing this poem near the beginning of the collection establishes the approach that Allbery takes throughout: it is not solely her book, but that of everyone who grew up in a similar location. Allbery’s descriptions of the American Midwest are lyrical explorations of shared experience. Indeed, her work is an excellent example of Joan Aleshire’s definition of strong lyrical writing: “The poems focus on the self only so that the ‘you’ will be better seen, so that the experience will be fully convincing.” Indeed, Allbery captures the collective voice of a region with aplomb.

The poem “The Reservoir” is Allbery at the peak of her abilities. “Reservoir” masterfully examines how the inertia of a small town like Clyde/Enterprise causes one to age prematurely. Through an examination of multiple townspeople (again, a possible nod to Anderson’s technique), she explores the town’s cyclical nature and its power to restrain generation upon generation. The speaker of “Reservoir,” who is jogging atop the reservoir and looking down at the unchanging people and area, notes, “It’s only from this height and pace that she can love her town.” Here, Allbery strikes a clear balance between the frustration and admiration the town evokes; her examination is beautifully complex and authentic.

Allbery’s Walking Distance is a valuable collection, one that will resonate with anyone who has matured to adulthood amid small-town ennui. Almost seventy-five years after the publication of Winesburg, Ohio, Allbery’s descriptions of Main Street, the local elementary school, and the town’s myriad churches blend with and complement Anderson’s classic and still-controversial narrative. When I visit my hometown, I often recall poems from Allbery’s volume, particularly the closing lines of “Walking Below Zero You Tell Yourself”: “At the edge of town the wind dies. / The stillness here is before everything. / You want to go on, into the trees.”  Walking Distance is a book to savor and to contemplate, to carry in one’s pocket while walking the brick sidewalks of small-town Ohio.

Kristin M. Distel earned her Master of Fine Arts degree in poetry at Ashland University, and she is currently a doctoral student of English literature at Ohio University. Her poems have been published in DIN, Coldnoon, The Minetta Review, Flyover Country Review, The Broken Plate, and The Stockholm Review of Literature, and she is the poetry editor of The Critical Pass Review. Kristin’s article on Toni Morrison’s Paradise was published in Women’s Utopian and Dystopian Fiction (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2013). Five articles on Theodore Roethke, Edgar Allan Poe, Natasha Trethewey/Larry Levis, Phillis Wheatley/Mather Byles, and William Faulkner, respectively, are forthcoming. She has presented papers at The University of Oxford, The Sorbonne/École des Mines, The University of Manchester, the American Literature Association, and many other venues.

Walking Distance by Debra Allbery • University of Pittsburgh Press, 1991 • 96 pages

Photo courtesy of Micah McCrary

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