New enlarged edition of ‘Stark County Poems’ released

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Consisting of over fifty poems, from short lyrics in a variety of forms to lengthy blank verse and free verse narratives, “Stark County Poems” portrays the history of a small rural county in central Illinois, along the upper Spoon River valley.

Chronologically arranged, and incorporating letters, newspaper articles, obituaries, family stories, early county histories and diaries, the poems cover a century of the county’s history, from the 1830s through the 1930s.

Map, illustrations. 59 poems. 225 pages.

BJ Omanson was raised in the Spoon River valley of Stark County, Illinois, where both sides of his family have lived and farmed since the mid-19th century.

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Populism

In the autumn of 1893,
      Alpheus Wheeler Appenheimer
and his wife Olive arrived in Stark County,
      Illinois, after having traveled
from their earlier Illinois home in Pike County
      by way of Leoti, Kansas.

They arrived in a covered wagon drawn
      by a pair of worn-out mules conveying
a girl and two boys, implements, blankets,
      a plow and scythe and a chest of clothes,
tinware pots, some kerosene lamps
      and a Mason jar of seeds interred

in early May and exhumed in August,
      still unsprouted— it’d been that dry.
They almost starved on their journey back.
      In Missouri they stopped at a lonely farm
and asked at the house if they might pick a few
      ears of corn to boil for supper.

Go ahead, help yourselves, the woman barked.
      No one else even bothers to ask.
It was hog cholera that had wiped them out
      and sent them westward to make a new start,
and it was drought and the ’93 Panic
      that wiped them out for the second time

and sent them back east to begin again.
      They’d gotten their fill of living in sod—
dirt in your soup and dirt in your bed.
      Their youngest son was born on a night
in January that covered the state
      in three feet of snow as the mercury plunged

to twenty below. He was kept from freezing
      by his mother’s warmth and a crackling stove
that was fed from a pile of unshucked corn.
      At three cents a bushel it made more sense
to burn it than sell it and, anyhow,
      the buffalo chips were long since gone.

In later years, when anyone asked,
      old Alpheus never had much to tell
about losing two farms in two different states.
      In an unguarded moment he said aloud,
You can pray to God. You can vote for Bryan.
      In the end it don’t matter a hill of beans.

Reading & Reception by Jared Carter at Fruitlands Museum in Harvard, Massachusetts, on July 22nd

Fruitlands_croppedA poetry reading by Jared Carter, followed by an informal reception, will take place on Monday, July 22nd at 7:30 in the Wayside Community Gallery in the Fruitlands Museum, located at 102 Prospect Hill Road in Harvard, Massachusetts.

Fruitlands was the short-lived agrarian utopian community established in the 1840s by the Transcendentalists, Bronson Alcott and Charles Lane.

Jared Carter recently published a collection of poetry and photographs with Monongahela Books (The Land Itself, 2019) and a selection of poems from three decades with the University of Nebraska Press (The Darkened Rooms of Summer, 2014).  Both books will be available for purchase at the reading.

Carter received the Walt Whitman Award for his first book, Work, for the Night is Coming, and the Poet’s Prize (awarded annually for the best book of verse by a living American poet), for his second book, After the Rain. He has received literary fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation, and was a recipient of the Indiana Governor’s Arts Award.

Additional information about the reading and reception may be found on the Fruitlands Museum website.

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See also two other posts about Jared Carter on this blog, What is left after nothing is left and Jared Carter and American regionalism.

What is left after nothing is left


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Summit

Small towns. A few houses and a general store.
The map might show only one road going through,
but if you keep driving around long enough,
you begin to understand how they’re connected.
There are back roads running in all directions.
You just have to get out and look for them.

People living out there have known each other
for a long time. They still have family reunions
in late August, on plank tables under the trees.
Places with names like Hadley, and Springtown,
and Coatesville. Most of them manage to keep
a grain elevator going, maybe a post office.

I’m a real-estate appraiser. These days
I spend a lot of time out looking at farms.
I’ve got a bunch of good maps in my car;
old ones, too. You don’t want to come back
to town and admit you couldn’t even find
the place you were looking for. Or got lost.

One day last September I was driving along
a gravel road between Clayton and Hadley, using
an old county map. Up ahead was a little town
called Summit, that had been a flag stop once,
on a spur slanting off from the main line
to Terre Haute. That spur’s been gone for years.

Summit was gone, too. But I found it, after a while,
figured out exactly where it had been,
right at the top of a long rise you could see
stretching for miles across the countryside.
Nothing out there now but lots of beans and corn,
blue sky and clouds. Not even fence rows anymore.

You could almost imagine the train heading west,
up that long grade, pouring on the coal, making
for high ground. When it finally pulled in,
and the telegraph man came out for the mail,
there would be a couple of little kids sitting
on the baggage wagon, waving to the engineer.

I walked up to the only place it could have been.
Right there, at the crest of the hill. Somebody
had kept it mowed. There was a strong wind blowing.
I searched around in the grass for a long time,
but I couldn’t find anything. Not a trace.
Only the land itself, and the way it still rose up.


Jared Carter

 

Jared Carter and American regionalism

TheLandItself_cover7_reducedThe following is excerpted from the Introduction to Jared Carter’s new book, The Land Itself:

“That Jared Carter, among living writers, is one of America’s premier regionalist poets is a claim few who know his work well would dispute. Yet describing any writer as regionalist in the second decade of the 21st century is in some ways problematic. The last high-water mark of American regionalism, the 1930s, was already on the wane by the time Jared Carter was born, and regionalism’s death knell was already being sounded by such critics as Lowry Charles Wimberly – who saw in the spread of national brands and national standards the inexorable homogenization of America’s regions. At the same time, John Crowe Ransom and the Agrarians were analyzing the slow death of Southern regionalism due to the spread of industrialism, the migration from rural areas into the cities, and a host of inter-related cultural trends.

After the end of World War II, the homogenization of America’s hinterlands, due to the spread of the interstate highway system and television, received a quantum boost, with its effects becoming more far-reaching and virulent with each passing decade until, by the digital revolution of 1990s, it had come to seem as though regionalism could only legitimately be spoken of in the past tense.

And yet it was through these same decades, when so much of what was most distinctive about America’s heartland was vanishing, that Carter was turning out poem after poem, portraying characters, situations and locations as singular and sharply defined as any in literature, and he was doing so with a honed plainness of style that left no doubt as to their veracity and authenticity.

Beginning with Carter’s first book, Work, For the Night is Coming (1981), readers were introduced to a region which was at once literal and mythical: “Mississinewa County,” somewhere “east of Spoon River, west of Winesburg, and slightly north of Raintree County,” as Carter himself has explained.  It is a fictional county named for an actual river (the Mississinewa, a tributary of the Wabash) which, like the fictional town “Spoon River” (also named for an actual river), Faulkner’s “Yoknapatawpha County,” Frost’s rural New England,  Robinson’s “Tilbury Town” and a long list of other literary regions, is rooted equally in the American continent and the American psyche. Mississinewa County is a multifaceted, multidimensional “place” of such symbolic and allegorical richness that its hinterlands and far boundaries – despite several decades of appreciative commentary – remain largely unexplored. Altogether, Carter’s books contain much of what one has come to expect in a regionalist body of literature from the American Midwest: pool halls and funeral parlors, dilapidated barns and covered bridges, barbershops and taverns, and miles of highways, telephone poles and open country inhabited by farmers, druggists, drifters, drunkards, undertakers and real estate developers. Turning to any of the early and late poems in the current collection, one is struck once again by the assurance and authority in the poet’s voice. Carter’s descriptions are rendered with a pitch-perfect precision that can only come from long familiarity with his subject. He is a plein-air poet, portraying his region with a sharpness of focus and an eye for inconspicuous but telling detail that cannot be achieved at second-hand.

The answer, then, to the question of whether a genuinely regional literature is still possible in the 21st century, when America’s regions have been all but homogenized, suburbanized, industrialized and digitized out of existence, is to be found in the pages of any of Carter’s books, where the poems, like palpable artifacts plucked from field or creekbed, constitute clear evidence of a region still very much alive. Precisely how America’s regions have survived a century of destructive “progress” – at what cost, and in what fashion – are complex questions beyond the scope of this essay. But one index and proof of their survival is to be found in the literature they produce, and Carter’s books are as strong a piece of evidence as one might hope for.”


BJ Omanson

Life and Death in Spoon River Country

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Last Stand

When he woke in a cloud of pain to find
that he’d been installed in a narrow bed
in a strange room, a part of his mind
returned to the morning he lay half-dead
in the Argonne Forest, awaiting help,
expecting deliverance, counting upon
a fellow Marine— but no such hope
supported him now. He was on his own.
He ripped that abomination, that tube
and needle, ripped it out of his vein
and, laying hold of the lamp like a club,
he raised a thunderous shout till a rain
of running feet on linoleum poured
indignantly down the hall to his door.

Like Bowie near death at the Alamo,
propped against pillow with pistol cocked,
the old man waited for faces to show
in the open door and launched his attack,
hurling bedpan, lamp and telephone
at the scrambling nurses. They had him packed
and escorted home within the hour.
That evening, dug in like a cornerstone
on his own farm, resolutely locked
against all reason, lord of his tower,
he defied his family’s threats and pleas
till they crow-barred the door and found him dead,
draped in a coat, sitting upright in bed,
a Winchester rifle across his knees.
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Nowhere to Nowhere

When they sold off the farm she took the child
and caught a bus out of town— as for him,
with everyone gone and everything grim,
he opened a pint of bourbon, piled

pictures, letters and clothes in the yard,
doused them in kerosene, struck a match
and watched as they burnt to ashes, watched
and worked on his whiskey, working hard.

The next morning he caught an outbound freight
heading god-knows-where and he didn’t care—
he was down to nothing, a gypsy’s fare—
down to a rusty tin cup and a plate,

dice and a bible, a bedroll and fate,
down to a bone-jarring ride on a train
through country dying and desperate for rain,
running nowhere to nowhere and running late.

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Proprietress of the Party Line

It wasn’t so much that she listened in
on our every call, it was that she took
not the slightest trouble to mask the din
and clatter of pots and pans as she cooked,
or bothered to set the receiver down
as she bellowed out the door to her boys
or cursed a pig off the porch. All the town
had to talk above or around the noise
of Lucinda’s chaotic life, and yet,
we’d not have embarrassed her on a bet
by letting her know we knew she was there—
the dullness and drill of her daily fare
had left her, like most of us, deadly bored;
whenever she blew off steam, we just paused
and held our tongues till the turmoil passed:
we wouldn’t want her to miss a word.

* * * * *

The Prodigal

In the end the thing that disturbed him most,
the thing he remembered most through the years,
was when he returned to the family place,
to the hard unforgiving acres where
his father still farmed, and recalled again
the inherent knowledge he once possessed
simply by being his father’s son—
a knowledge foregone, consigned to the past,
till he saw it rise up in his father’s face
as a look of reproach: that nothing gained
by talking has worth, that cattle and land
are the only wealth befitting a man;
that a landless man is like Adam cast
from the Garden, shamed, and forever lost.

* * * * *

There Are Stories

There are stories you know without knowing quite
how it is you know them, stories without
any point to speak of, except the point

of their own peculiar strangeness, stories
as empty of purpose as any abandoned
barn in these barren fields, enduring

against all likelihood or good reason.
One such story took place around here
a lifetime ago. An old couple died—

whether, as may be, by Providence
or simply by luck— they died, either way,
on the very same day. He died before lunch.

The daughters decided to tell her nothing.
She appeared to take no notice of sharing
her bed with a corpse, except to complain

of his icy feet. She was dead before dark.
And that’s all there is to that story.
No one recalls anymore who they were.

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