“The Joke” by Zoe Yates

Today a joke sits heavy on my shoulders,
The room running wild with laughter.
The punchline?
The sound of my voice
Or, rather, a cheap imitation–
What they think we sound like.
Laughter scrapes my skin like
Too-tight wool in the summer heat.
It’s said that it’s a hell of a joke, a biting satire
Of those we should never wish to be.
And it’s just a coincidence that ‘those people’ sound like me.
Their joke is my best friend’s voice
Caring for me when I’m sick
And it’s just me and her.
The joke is my mamaw the last time I ever saw her,
Telling me how much she loves me and making plans we won’t keep.
The joke is my girlfriend’s sleepy voice, molasses-rough
And soft as a blanket.
The joke is my childhood home, a trailer by the train tracks,
It’s driving through winding backroads with the windows down,
It’s my lineage–the one I fought to love.
It’s my mother and my father,
My trick-or-treat and my Christmas morning.
The joke is the smartest professor I ever had,
My favorite neighbor knocking just to say hello,
Aunt Cathy’s best cake on my birthday, or just because.
All this flattened until unrecognizable, a punchline,
A forceful reminder that I should be ashamed of where I come from,
That I’m right to hide the real sound of my voice.
Today, this joke conjures the memory:
‘almost heaven’ disappearing in the rearview mirror,
And I’ll wonder why I ever left.
But tomorrow, that joke
Will remind me why I will always return.


Zoe Yates is a multimedia artist and writer from southern West Virginia. She presently lives in Cincinnati, where she is an MFA candidate at University of Cincinnati. Both her written and visual work are concerned with exploring the intersecting elements of identity, and both are specifically concerned with her experiences as an Appalachian. She has previously presented as a panelist at the 2022 Writers Conference of Northern Appalachia, where she spoke on authentic written representations of Appalachia, specifically Appalachian women.  

**Featured image by Tumisu from Pixabay


  1. Zoe , I’m so proud of you and I love you Aunt Cathy.

  2. Beautiful words from a most talented young woman. I am forever astonished by you and your amazing talent. I am so very proud of you.

  3. This poem so beautifully portrays the identity dilemma that I think many of us experience as Appalachians, and then very effectively takes the shame and turns it on its head.

  4. Love your writing. Never be ashamed of being from Almost Heaven, WV. We love you very much. God Bless.

  5. What a wonderful piece, and hits very close to home. Thank you!

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