Her Secret Song

Her Secret Song

Nominated for Appalachian Book of the Year

hsscover216Her Secret Song captures the life of the author’s aunt who died of cancer. But this book also shows that even when close to death, it’s not too late to touch others. Aunt Ruth and her nephew Jim Minick didn’t know each other well since they lived far apart. But during her last six months, the poet visited often and even after she died, he came to know, admire, and love this woman. Her Secret Song tells her story of living with the “elephant man’s disease,” as well as the growing friendship between nephew and aunt. And through beautiful photographs, it also explores Ruth’s early childhood and the family that shaped her.

Her Secret Song may be purchased from your favorite bookstore, from on-line vendors such as Better World Books, Amazon, or Barnes & Noble, or from the publisher. Or support your local bookseller. For a list of independent bookstores, visit www.indiebound.org.

Her Secret Song
Motes Books
ISBN 978-1-934894-04-0

What others say:

“[Y]our book…is very moving. To tell the truth I find a lot of books of poems easy to ignore, but yours I read right through. It’s a most telling story.”

— Wendell Berry, in a letter to the author.

“Reading Her Secret Song is like finding a locket on a city street–scuffed and silver and private. Imagine then the surprise of finding your own face there in miniature when you open it. It is that strange and lucky. Jim Minick fits a whole life story into this heart-shaped thing. Fine unforgettable poems.”

— Steve Scafidi, author of For Love of Common Words

“Minick awakens all the senses, smelling and tasting and touching no less than listening and seeing, so that what in turn awakens in the reader is compassion. Minick does not try to fetch such responses; he merely conveys the human condition, literally warts and all, and the difference love and caring can make as seen in little things, like steadying hands on elbows of another. Much poetry today seeks to portray irony, a quality of intellect. Minick’s aim is in another direction, to illustrate by powerful metaphor through vehicles of the senses the “old verities.” Toward this end he renders delicately the sweet, sad song of his aunt, gives shape to the growing darkness around her, providing in memoriam a triumph for ties of love in life and death.”

— Jack Higgs, author of Appalachia Inside Out

“It is too simple to call Her Secret Song an extended elegy, because these poems do not lament the death of a beloved yet inscrutable aunt. Instead, these poems discover through the intimacy of dying, a final honesty, a calm understanding of what one life has meant. Jim Minick looks back on that life mostly through the lens of small moments and realizes the meaning, hard and unbeautiful at times, goes on.”

— Maurice Manning, author of Bucolics

“In Her Secret Song, Jim Minick goes to care for his Aunt Ruth, who is dying of cancer. We are led into this collection by old photos, which appear throughout. In poem by fine poem, he uncovers different aspects of an unsung heroine. Despite a disfiguring disease present since babyhood, she is funny, spunky, vivid and brave, having born ‘the heft/of seventy years,/the extra load of mirrors and stares/that tell only the/surface truth.’ Minick tells her story and to some extent that of her family with acute observation and immediacy. I have not read another poet with such unbelievable tenderness. This compelling collection touches your heart without being the least bit sentimental. I could not put it down.”

— Noel Smith, author of The Well String

“In this collection that honors the living and dying of a beloved aunt, Jim Minick invites us to see the world as she sees it. With one eye covered by what the world would call deformity, Ruth’s vision turns inward and outward, looks straight at the end of life, and does not turn away. A beagle dog named Bonnie, Lindt chocolates, tumors that are benign—all blessings are gratefully accepted into her world, and in turn, passed on by the poet to bless our own. Like Ruth before him, Minick loves his way through the grief. He offers us an unflinching vision and a model of connection that promises, for Ruth and for us, an answer to that last, hard question: But who will sing for me?”

— Diane Gilliam, author of Kettle Bottom

Excerpts from Her Secret Song


“Oh we have to go to the Lindt store,”
Ruth plans with glee on my first visit.
“Lint?” I ask. “Like a place sells what lives
under my couch?” “Oh no!” she giggles.
“This is chocolate, Swiss-made, the best.”

I am surprised at her tickledness,
her energy, despite the cane and naps.
The doctors said the last round of chemo
“didn’t work” and “six months at best.”
Ruth rests on the edge of her towel-covered couch
beside Bonnie, her beagle, who takes up
most of the space. “We always nap like this,”
she cradles her dog and kisses its nose
and ears and head, dramatic smooches
Bonnie ignores and returns to snoring.

“Chocolate is an antioxidant,”
I add in the store. “Oh, I know, I know!”
she chimes. “We have to buy a bunch.”
And we do as Ruth points and points.
Most she buys for gifts for neighbors and friends.
The bright reds of milk, greens of mint,
crinkly paper and fancy tins, and of course,
free samples—“Did you try this?” she asks.
“Oh this is fabulous,” and I’m not sure if
she means the store or her last bite of extra dark.
When we leave, I am overwhelmed by smells
of sweetness and can hardly carry all her gifts.

That night as we watch the news, she leans to me
and whispers, “We need some truffles, don’t you think?
Get us two from the fridge.” She doesn’t hold it
on her tongue, no sucking soft the globe.
But always that twinkle and smile, slightly skewed,
with a dab of chocolate on the lip.

At the next commercial, she leans
again to say, “I think we need another,
don’t you?” In silence, we hold this
dark moment of bitter sweetness
before the swallowing, the letting go.

Cleaning Out and Finding

In the garage, tin cans full
of seed—marigold,
honesty and sunflower—

too many to take home.
Only Ruth knew
when last these living lights grew.

I save some of each
then bless
the garden with the rest,

cover the dying
with slender wings,

delicate needles,
of hope. I splinter

each dial of sun,
scatter seed
like here yesterday morn

on this same rich wash
of soil, I spread
the dust of her fertile ash.

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Next Big Thing Blog Hop

“The Next Big Thing” is a blog hop where writers around the world share what they’re working on by responding to ten questions. Thanks to Denton Loving who invited me to the game. You can read his post at http://www.facebook.com/notes/denton-loving/my-next-big-thing-interview/ I’m tagging Frank X Walker, Abigail DeWitt, Dana Wildsmith, Neil Sagebiel, and Jane Sasser. We’ll see their answers next week.

What is your working title of your book?
Fire Is Your Water, which is a line from a Rumi poem. The full line and epigraph of this novel is “If you are a friend of God, fire is your water.”

Where did the idea come from for the book?

My great-grandmother, Ida Franklin Minick, was a healer. When the family barn burned in the early 1950s, she, her daughter-in-law (my grandmother Sarah), and my uncle were the only ones home. The three of them ran into the blazing building and saved all of the animals. In the process, my grandmother severely burned her hands. Afterward, though, Ida did not heal Sarah’s hands; another relative was called in to do that. The why behind this has fascinated me for much of my life. Was Ida too shocked by the fire? What happened to her in the burning building that she could not heal? Or put another way, who heals the healer?
And then later, this question emerged: What happens when the healer, a devotedly religious person, falls in love with a non-religious person? These two questions drive this novel.

What genre does your book fall under?
Novel/Literary Fiction.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

Since this takes place in the early 1950s, let’s just make this Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn. They always had some amazing sparks in the movies they made together.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
How fire transforms people.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
I plan to send it to my agent, Paige Wheeler of Folio Literary Services. Hopefully she’ll find it a home.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

The first complete draft took roughly 1-2 years; I’m working on the eighth draft right now. I’ve been working on this book (interspersed w/ other books) for over a dozen years. First, I thought it would be nonfiction, but eventually I saw the need to combine several family stories that cover four generations and thirty years. To do so required the use of fiction. Since this is my first foray into this genre, I had a lot to learn in the process. But that’s the whole point, the process.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
It’s easier to call up writers who have influenced me. These include Cormac McCarthy, Ron Rash, Jeannette Walls, and John Casey, along with Darnell Arnoult, Fred Chappell, and James Galvin. Barbara Kingsolver’s Poisonwood Bible has also been a touchstone.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?
It’s impossible to really answer this question—do you start w/ all of the teachers who nurtured you along the way, including your parents and sis who taught you to read, your grandparents who gave you room to roam—or your wife who has read every page with a sharper eye than many editors? And don’t forget about the giant oak you touch every morning or the hoarse crow you listen for every afternoon. Or do you count up all of the many books and writers who have shaped you over the years, from Wendell Berry, Terry Tempest Williams, and Jim Wayne Miller to Thoreau, Abbey, Dickinson, to my favorite contemporary poets, Thorpe Moeckel and Maurice Manning. And I’m sure I’ve missed many others here. Or really, do you focus inward and realize that you can’t not write? To do so is insanity, and so the inspiration comes from a deep need to every day touch a little of that universal peace that resides in all of us.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
Cicero, the talking raven, will bite you if you don’t watch out. Because the verb to raven means to hunger.

Coming up next week, five writers (Frank X Walker, Dana Wildsmith, Neil Sagebiel, Abigail DeWitt, and Jane Sasser) will share their projects. They’ll post their responses next Wednesday and tag some new people.

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