Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Somewhere up in Mississinewa County: photographs and poems by Jared Carter

                Mississinewa County Road

                When you drive at dusk, alone,
                after the corn is harvested, the wind
                scatters bits of dry husk along the road.
                A farmer has draped a groundhog’s carcass
                across the corner of a wire fence
                and the crows have pecked out its eyes.
                Your headlights show these things
                to a part of your mind that cannot hurry,
                that has never learned to decide.
                While the car goes on, you get out
                and stand, with the chaff blowing,
                and crickets in the grass at the road’s edge.
                In the distance there is a dog barking
                and somewhere a windmill turning in the wind.

                Early Warning

                When the weather turned,
                crows settled about the house,
                cawing daylong among the new leaves.
                It would be hard spring,
                folks said, the crows---
                they know. There are folks
                up near where I come from
                in Mississinewa County
                who study such things.
                Folks who believe tornadoes
                are alive: that polluted streams
                rise from their beds
                like lepers, following after
                some great churning, twisting cloud.
                With their own eyes
                they’ve seen a cyclone stop,
                lap up electricity
                from a substation, then make
                a right-angle turn
                and peel the roof off some
                prefabricated egg factory.
                Thousands of hens, who’ve never seen
                the light of the sun, or
                touched earth with their beaks,
                go up the funnel like souls to God.

                After the Rain

                After the rain, it’s time to walk the field
                again, near where the river bends. Each year
                I come to look for what this place will yield –
                lost things still rising here.

                The farmer’s plow turns over, without fail,
                a crop of arrowheads, but where or why
                they fall is hard to say. They seem, like hail,
                dropped from an empty sky,

                Yet for an hour or two, after the rain
                has washed away the dusty afterbirth
                of their return, a few will show up plain
                on the reopened earth.

                Still, even these are hard to see –
                at first they look like any other stone.
                The trick to finding them is not to be
                too sure about what’s known;

                Conviction’s liable to say straight off
                This one’s a leaf, or that one’s merely clay,
                and miss the point: after the rain, soft
                furrows show one way

                Across the field, but what is hidden here
                requires a different view – the glance of one
                not looking straight ahead, who in the clear
                light of the morning sun

                Simply keeps wandering across the rows,
                letting his own perspective change.
                After the rain, perhaps, something will show,
                glittering and strange.

                The Gleaning

                All day long they have been threshing
                and something breaks: the canvas belt
                that drives the separator flies off,
                parts explode through the swirl
                of smoke and chaff, and he is dead
                where he stands – drops the pitchfork
                as they turn to look at him – and falls.
                They carry him to the house and go on
                with the work. Five wagons and their teams
                stand waiting, it is still daylight,
                there will be time enough for grieving.

                When the undertaker comes from town
                he brings the barber, who must wait
                till the women finish washing the body.
                Neighbors arrive from the next farm
                to take the children. The machines
                shut down, one by one, horses
                are led away, the air grows still
                and empty, then begins to fill up
                with the sounds of cicada and mourning dove.
                The men stand along the porch, talking
                in low voices, smoking their cigarettes;
                the undertaker sits in the kitchen
                with the family.
                                         In the parlor
                the barber throws back the curtains
                and talks to this man, whom he has known
                all his life, since they were boys
                together. As he works up a lather
                and brushes it onto his cheeks,
                he tells him the latest joke. He strops
                the razor, tests it against his thumb,
                and scolds him for not being more careful.
                Then with darkness coming over the room
                he lights a lamp, and begins to scrape
                at the curve of the throat, tilting the head
                this way and that, stretching the skin,
                flinging the soap into a basin, gradually
                leaving the face glistening and smooth.

                And as though his friend had fallen asleep
                and it were time now for him to stand up
                and stretch his arms, and look at his face
                in the mirror, and feel the closeness
                of the shave, and marvel at his dreaming –
                the barber trims the lamp, and leans down,
                and says, for a last time, his name.


                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.

                Prophet Township

                Only that it was a place where snow
                and ice could seal off whole sections
                for half the winter, where the ground –
                even when you dug down to it – could not
                be budged.
                                     If you had someone to bury,
                you waited for spring thaw. Children
                died from diphtheria and scarlet fever,
                old-timers came down with pneumonia,
                horses reared up suddenly in the barn.

                The coffin would be kept in the parlor
                for three days and nights. The watchers
                took turns. After the funeral, neighbors
                helped carry the box up to the attic
                or set it out in one of the back rooms
                so it would stay cold but not freeze.
                Before the men tacked down the lid,
                they filled it up the rest of the way
                with rock salt. This was a custom
                learned from their grandparents –
                how to make it through till spring,
                how to handle hardship on their own.
                But there were times when no one lasted,
                fierce winters when the wood gave out,
                when there was nothing left to eat,
                no hay to pitch out for the stock,
                no way to break down through the ice
                on the horse trough, or get the pump
                working again.
                                           With no heat, no money
                for seed, they knew they had no choice
                but to pack up and leave – head back
                to town, try to get a stake together,
                go somewhere else. They brought along
                what they could carry. Everything else
                was left behind: piles of old clothes,
                root cellar full of empty Mason jars,
                strings of peppers tied to the rafters.

                This is a long migration, a traveling
                back and forth, over many harsh years.
                Even now, people move off the land –
                realize they’re not going to make it,
                understand there’s no point in trying.
                The old farmhouses are stripped clean,
                emptied out, made ready for lightning
                or for a final warming fire built
                in the middle of the parlor floor
                by some transient, some jobless family
                camped for the night.
                                                    Grass grows
                knee-high around the pump, the catalpa
                holds up its brown and purple flowers.
                Wind, searching along the kitchen shelf,
                knocks a last jelly glass to the floor.
                Soot bleeds from the hole in the wall
                where the flue once went in.
                                                             By December
                if no fire breaks out, cold weather
                clamps down. The freeze and thaw
                eats at the plaster – spitting out nails,
                breathing in dust, over and over –
                gnawing it to the marrow.
                                                         Now and then
                when I drive past one of these places
                set back up the lane – doors unhinged,
                windows broken out, lilacs choked up,
                willow drooping in the side yard –
                I’m never in much of a hurry to stop,
                poke around.
                                       Sometimes I sit there
                in the driveway for a few minutes,
                thinking about it, knowing that if I
                step up to the front porch, or find
                my way through the weeds to the pump,
                there will be a slight breath of wind
                just ahead of me, something rustling
                through the timothy grass.
                                                          It will pause,
                stopping each time I do, waiting
                until everything gets quiet again.
                I can’t catch up with it, or come
                face to face with whatever it is.
                I can sense only that it’s pleased –
                by the way it turns, every so often,
                to make sure I’m still coming.

                Miss Hester

                “Are we entirely ready, then?” she asked,
                and I knew by the threads of smoke drifting
                through the light, through the empty beam –
                I knew she could not form different faces
                on the screen, but that no one else in town
                could sit there and make music, or grasp
                what might follow. “I thought perhaps Schumann,”
                she whispered, reaching to touch the keys.
                The crowd was hushed. At the back of the hall
                the projector turned in its endless coils
                and the first scene came into view. The film?
                Something about being young and leaving home,
                going off to the city. She closed her eyes
                and began to play, in the dark, and we looked up.

                 For an Old Flame

                When the news came, there was nothing left,
                none of those old trappings. When you spoke,
                no sound emerged. I knew it was neither dream
                nor vision – those categories had broken down,
                nothing remained. You stood somewhere
                in a junkyard – surrounded by piles
                of rusted and broken bodies, doors gone,
                engines disemboweled, windows shattered –
                where they had brought your compact car
                after the head-on collision. Here
                you had come too, inevitably, since
                the dead have no other place to go
                in this world we have made: nothing waits
                beyond, no light escapes from the horizon
                of physical events. Occasionally
                a couple of teenaged boys wander by,
                with vise grips and adjustable wrenches,
                looking for cheap parts for their dragster.
                Here you could stay forever, unnoticed
                among the mountains of rust and old rubber,
                the soiled back seats, the glove compartments
                with their forgotten artifacts. It remains
                only for me to set you now in the prow
                of an all-black ‘57 Chevrolet hardtop
                with dual carburetors and glass-packed
                mufflers, and pay the ferryman the coins
                from your eyes, and see you start out,
                not looking back, over those dark waters.

             Remembering Mississinewa County

             It has often been noted that we do not really begin to think much about home, or where we came from, until we are far away.
             It was in 1962 that I first began writing about people and events in Mississinewa County, an imaginary place located somewhere in the American Middlewest.
             In those days I was living in an apartment at 38 Rue Rosa Bonheur in the little French village of By-Thomery, on the River Seine, not far from Fontainebleau.
             I had plenty of models – Hardy’s Wessex country, Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, Sarah Orne Jewett’s Dunnet, Ross Lockridge’s Raintree County.
             I wrote stories about the people of Mississinewa County, and I wrote part of a novel that I never finished. I made maps and drew up genealogies, and came up with names for children and grandchildren that never existed.
             Gradually, Mississinewa County came into focus, with imaginary townships and make-believe rivers and bridges, and little crossroads towns that never were.
             And gradually, over the years, as I visited other places, and lived in different towns and cities, and took photographs, and wrote in dozens of notebooks, Mississinewa County began to fill out, and take form, and appear in a series of poems I was writing.
             The first of these poems was “Early Warning,” written in 1975. It is one of the few poems I can remember writing.
             I had returned for an afternoon to my home town of Elwood, in central Indiana, and was up on the roof of a house helping my old friend Dick Parker put a new roof on his kitchen.
             Dick Parker and I had lived next door and had been friends since earliest childhood. He used to give me a ride to high school each morning on his motorcycle.
             Roofing is one of the most physically demanding of trades, and also one of the most dangerous. On that day I had stopped by to say hello, and when I found Dick and another man up on the roof, I offered to help.
             I’m sure that right away they put me to carrying up bundles, which is one of the hardest parts of roofing, and something nobody wants to do, if they can get out of it.
             While we were up there, nailing down the shingles, we got to talking about the Palm Sunday tornadoes, that had come through Indiana a few weeks earlier, and had devastated wide swaths of the Hoosier countryside, wiping out small towns and trailer courts, and killing hundreds of people.
             The other man on the roof, whose name I cannot remember, said quite matter-of-factly that tornadoes are alive, and that they know what they’re doing. It was not accidental, he pointed out, that one of them would skip over a parsonage, and come down on a pool hall. Or vice versa.
             When I sat down to write, a few days later, “Early Warning” was one of those poems that comes without hesitation, even without typing errors, and almost seems to be writing itself.  Or to be dictated by The Muse.  It was taken almost overnight by The Nation, too.
             Just as I had left my home town, and gone out into the world, and lived in France and other places, I eventually left Mississinewa County, and began to write about other things. But I didn’t exactly leave it behind.
             All along it was, like the actual world that I come from, at the center of something. I like to think that my attention, and what I write about now, has simply expanded outward from that center.
             But the center is still there.

--- Jared Carter

Acknowledgments: "Miss Hester," from A Dance in the Street (Wind Publications, 2012), and the remaining poems, from Darkened Rooms of Summer: New and Selected Poems (University of Nebraska Press, 2014), are reproduced here by permission of Jared Carter.

The photo of Jared Carter in 1976 was taken by Roger Pfingston. 

The Persistence of Regionalism: Jared Carter's "Darkened Rooms of Summer"

Darkened Rooms of Summer: New and Selected Poems, by Jared Carter (University of Nebraska Press, 2014),

Everything about this book—its cover painting in muted colors reminiscent of Andrew Wyeth; its suggestive, understated title; even the University of Nebraska Press imprint on the spine—announces that this is a work of American regionalism. And if there is any doubt regarding this initial impression, it is laid to rest by the author’s name, “Jared Carter”, who has been distinguished—or saddled— (depending on your point of view) with the label “regionalist” for over forty years.

Describing any living American writer as a 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 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— and John Crowe Ransom and the Agrarians who were analyzing the slow death of Southern regionalism due to the spread of industrialism, the migration from rural areas into the cities, and a whole 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.

In Darkened Rooms of Summer, the first-time reader is introduced to a region which is at once literal and mythical, “Mississinewa County”, somewhere “east of Spoon River, west of Winesburg, and somewhat north of Raintree County”, as Carter himself describes it— a fictional county named for an actual river which, like the fictional town “Spoon River”, also named for an actual river, and like Faulkner’s “Yoknapatawpha County”, Frost’s rural New England (somewhere “north of Boston”), Robinson’s “Tilbury Town”, Jeffers’ Big Sur coastline, and a long list of other literary regions 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. Darkened Rooms of Summer contains much of what one has come to expect in a regionalist work of literature from the American midwest: pool halls & funeral parlors, dilapidated barns & covered bridges, barbershops & taverns, and miles of highways, telephone poles & open country inhabited by farmers & druggists, drifters & drunkards, undertakers & real estate developers. Turning to any of the 113 poems in this collection, one is struck 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 Carter’s book, where every poem, like a palpable artifact plucked from a field or creekbed, constitutes 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 book is as strong a piece of evidence as one might hope for.

A region, after all, is infinitely more ancient than its human culture, and its current human culture is but the surface film on a deep sea of earlier cultures. The changes wrought on America’s regions in the past century, however profound they may appear from our shortened perspective, are, in the extended view of things, ephemeral. Long after the present culture has passed away without a trace, the region—which is part of a billions-year-old continent and defined by topography and watersheds rather than arbitrary lines on a map— will persist.

The archaic character of a geographical region, its impalpable but enduring spirit, is not something that the passage of time can erase. It is intrinsic to the land itself, and exists in present time as an underlying influence. Indigenous peoples everywhere have always been aware of this influence, and have responded to it in a multitude of ways. In simplest terms, the earth and everything upon it are in possession of consciousness; every object— animate and inanimate— is alive; every location has its resident deity, its numen; and the earth as a whole is numinous. Some version of this simplified cosmology was intrinsic to the Mississinewa region, to its native tribes, just as another version of it was intrinsic to the ancient ancestors of Europeans. To the archaic mind, the earthly and numinous realms were interpenetrated; the separation between them inconstant and porous, and at certain times, in certain places, under certain circumstances, a person could slip unwittingly from one realm into the next, or even occupy both simultaneously, as in Carter’s early poem “Mississinewa County Road”, where the speaker, even as he drives off into the dusk, is left standing by the roadside, gazing upon a landscape more nebulous than solid.

When you drive at dusk, alone,
After the corn is harvested, the wind
Scatters bits of dry husk along the road.
A farmer has draped a groundhog’s carcass
Across the corner of a wire fence
And the crows have pecked out its eyes.
Your headlights show these things
To a part of your mind that cannot hurry,
That has never learned to decide.
While the car goes on, you get out
And stand, with the chaff blowing
And crickets in the grass at the road’s edge.
In the distance there is a dog barking
And somewhere a windmill turning in the wind.

Such numinous moments as this— and there are many in Carter’s poems— are never imposed forcefully on the experience or situation being described: they arise subtly and unobtrusively— organically, one might say— from the material at hand. The impression created on the reader is that such Wordsworthian “spots of time” are nothing exceptional— they are woven into the fabric of the poem as simply one occurrence among others. At a certain point the poem has become uncanny, and the reader is not even sure how or when it happened.

This numinous element in Carter’s poems doubtless serves multiple purposes, but our interest here is in how it functions as a manifestation of the land’s archaic character. Throughout his poems, there are references to, and remnants of, the region’s remote past: arrowheads, geodes, ancient myths and folklore, the incalculably ancient behavior-patterns of cicadas and crows, and human activities that date to the dawn of agriculture and earlier: picking stones from a field; turning flax to linen. But the most compelling of such survivals are the instances in which archaic modes of perception emerge within the psyches of individual characters in the poems.

Such instances are to be found throughout Carter's extensive corpus, but, as this is a review and not a book-length study, I will confine myself to a single example: the crazed, homeless woman in “Spirea”, whose function as a numinous presence (“…the sybil...who knows already what lies ahead...”) is made clear in the opening section of the poem, where she is presented in all her pathetic, demented disarray, a part of the town, but apart from it :

Then she came, the sybil, out through the doors
of The Bell, the single drinking establishment
permitted in that narrow little country town—
she came out neither staggering nor collapsing
but gliding—not carefully, one step at a time,
like a tight-rope walker, but recklessly, wantonly,
as someone oblivious to danger, who knows already
what lies ahead, and has nothing to fear.
… and the fact that she was barefooted, that
she wore only a blue shirtwaist, that her hair
hung the length of her back, and was never combed
or pinned up, that she seldom stopped talking
to herself, that all her relatives were dead,
that she had no place to stay, owned nothing,
needed nothing, harmed no one—

After relating the town’s well-intentioned but ineffectual attempts to contain her and keep her from harm, Carter continues his description with the same precise detail and neutral voice, only now, without leaving the familiar, we find ourselves in the realm of the numinous:

. . . some of them encountered her—
the husbands out watering their lawns, the wives
with their children, the young people pausing,
at the corner, with their bicycles, watching her,
seeing her go by. Many avoided her passing;
many were afraid, unable to return her bright gaze.
A light shone from her eyes. Something glimmered
when she moved. There was about her a presence,
an immanence, that announced a way, a direction
most of them could not imagine, would never know.
She walked on, heedless, muttering to herself,
leaving them far behind.

Had such a person been encountered by the original native inhabitants of the Mississinewa region, she would have been thought “touched by the gods”, her madness a mark of divinity, just as in an earlier European tradition she might have been thought a “holy fool”.

Throughout the night she wanders through the town:
In this way she journeyed
through the summer evenings, and into the night,
while all around her doors were closing, lamps
were dimmed, the world was preparing for sleep.
Always she moved in a straight line, pausing
for no obstacle, respecting no property line—
through backyards, over fences, across gardens,
managing to steer, nightly, by a different star—
by Venus smoldering low above the line of trees,
by Mars or Saturn in stark opposition to the moon—
by whatever brightness seemed most beckoning,
however faint or furious its glow.

She has shed her layers of civilized socialization like a superficial skin, and emerged a child-like creature in direct communion with the cosmos. She is oriented only toward what is ancient, and is oblivious to civilization’s arbitrary boundaries. The earth she inhabits is the archaic numinous planet, without man-made barriers or boundaries, where every natural object is alive and responsive:

                                             In this way
she traversed all points of the town, stopping
sometimes to speak to whomever or whatever
she encountered—whether house, tree, horse
or child—

She continues with what must be the most characteristic and ancient of human activities: walking, putting one foot in front of the other, traversing the landscape:

…but invariably moving on, walking
on through the streets and into the countryside,
walking out among the fields, the gravel roads,
walking until she collapsed against a stone wall,
under a hedge, or in a barn, with rain falling,
walking until she lost her way among dark dreams.

Thus far the poem has described the woman’s actions in a general way, but at this point it relates a particular incident, one night in early May, when the spirea is at the height of its blossoming, and the mad woman has just forced her way through a dense spirea hedge, emerging by chance into the presence of an elderly professor of physics who is alone in his back yard, gazing through a telescope at an unimaginably distant star nebulae. The canes of the spirea have caught on her flimsy clothes, pulling them from her body.

                                … Her shirtwaist
is torn, she is hardened by incessant walking
and wandering, by being out in all weathers,
her breasts and her gaunt body have emerged
androgynous and gleaming, she is aglow now,
dusted with shattered blossom as though prepared
for some elusive ritual . . .

Arrested by the sight of the telescope and oblivious to her own nakedness, she walks straight across the yard toward the professor.

she approaches, strides toward him unhesitant
and unafraid, reaches to touch the viewing aperture,
already in perfect focus, smiles, and leans down—
fragments of white blossom, living particles
of sundered veil cling to her long hair, drip
from her forearms, her rough hands—she sees,
she looks for a long time. There is no sound
except her slight breathing.

Here, once more, in its description of their encounter— of the cosmos within and the unnamed presence throughout— the poem becomes numinous:

                                        Finally she begins,
she raises her head, the light is in her eyes,
the shining, and she speaks what comes. He bows
as though in prayer, knowing there is no difference—
it is the far galaxy, great orb and afterimage
in his brain, it is the milk-white hedge cresting
all around them, it is the unsummoned presence
come at last, and always, up through the waves,
it is the voice speaking through all, to all,
here, now, in the darkness, in the starlight.

Two individuals— who in terms of their respective cultures could scarcely be more distant from one another— find themselves, simultaneously, by some fated triangulation of man, woman and galaxy, transfixed and transformed.

--- BJ Omanson

Sunday, September 18, 2016

The Effects of War: how one Illinois farm couple's experience of the First World War inspired a cycle of regionalist poems

Editors' note:  BJ Omanson, as well as his father, grandfather and great-grandfather, were born and raised along the banks of Spoon River in Stark County, Illinois. Spoon River, as most readers will know, figured prominently in the history of American literary regionalism, with the publication in 1915 of Edgar Lee Masters' Spoon River Anthology.  Masters, as it happened, died in 1950, five days before Omanson was born.  This article concerns poems from Omanson's collection, Stark County Poems: War and the Depression come to Spoon River.  This article was originally published in the Winter 2016 issue of the Illinois State Genealogical Society Quarterly.

In the weeks following the death in 1974 of farmer and First World War veteran Alpheus Appenheimer, of Stark County, Illinois, a lifetime’s accumulation of his personal remains were distributed among his seven children. Among the effects was a trove of items from his service in France in 1918, including a diary, letters, photographs, medals and citations, service papers, a gas mask, mess kit, various booklets and pamphlets, insignia, ammunition clips, a Colt .45 service pistol, and battlefield souvenirs including a German officer’s silver-plated flask, dagger, belt buckle and Iron Cross.

Alpheus Appenheimer was my grandfather, and I had always been fascinated with his war stories, so once I learned the extent of his wartime effects, I determined to catalogue every last item, an undertaking which would require many months. At the same time, so that the effects might be as fully contextualized as possible, I began a systematic study of his unit, the 6th Machine Gun Battalion of the 2nd Division, A.E.F. This turned into a 30-year research project involving hundreds of books, documents, unpublished diaries and letters, correspondence with the families of other battalion veterans, interviews with individuals who had known my grandfather, and the creation of an extensive website (1) about the battalion’s history.

One result of all this research was the publication of a memoir (2) of a Marine who had served alongside my grandfather, for which I wrote chapter introductions and extensive annotations. But the most unusual result of the research was a series of regionalist poems situated in the upper Spoon River watershed of Stark County, portraying the effects of war on Alpheus and his family over the years.

The poems were nearly two decades in the making. It took that long for me to study my grandparents’ lives to where I felt confident enough to write about them. I interviewed anyone I could find who had known them; studied and contextualized their wartime letters; scoured decades of local newspaper archives for stories relating to them, and worked through boxes of photographs, scrapbooks, documents, memorabilia and farm records.

The lives of Alpheus Appenheimer and America Swango were emblematic of, and literally encapsulated, the frontier history of the nation. America was born in 1897 in a one- room log cabin in Wolfe County, Kentucky, which dated from the days when her family settled there in the early 1780s, shortly after the territory was first opened by Daniel Boone. Alpheus was born in 1891 in a one-room sod dugout on the Kansas frontier during one of the worst blizzards in decades. Both grew up poor, with an unending routine of hard physical work.

America’s father moved from Kentucky to Illinois to Montana, and back again to Illinois, from one share-cropping arrangement to another. America left school early to work for several well-to-do families in Toulon, shouldering much of their household and gardening chores, and helping to raise their children.

When an extended drought forced the Appenheimer family to abandon their Kansas homestead in the mid-1890s and return to Illinois in a covered wagon, they dug up the still- unsprouted seeds from their field and carried them back in a Mason jar, to have something with which to start over again. They had moved to Kansas in the first place after losing their farm in Pike County, Illinois, to hog cholera.

Alpheus grew up working on his parents’ farm just south of Toulon, and attended a one- room school-house which he left after the eighth grade to work on the farm full-time. As soon as turned 21, he hit the road with $10 in his pocket, to get off the farm a while and see the country. He made his way unhurriedly through the West, from Mexico to Idaho, stopping to work on farms and ranches along the way for pin money. His correspondence home was famously stingy, such as the postcard from Walla Walla, Washington which read, simply: “I am not dead or crippled but am awful busy.” It was there that he worked on a large wheat farm to earn some travel money, driving a 30+ mule hitch combine through the harvest season. Already a seasoned muleteer when he set out from the farm, this experience would later make Al one of the most skilled mule-skinners in his battalion. Eventually, after a year on the road, Alpheus returned to the family farm in Illinois with $10 still in his pocket. Three years later his father died of a heart attack while he and Alpheus were riding a horse and wagon into town, and full responsibility for running the family farm landed squarely on the young man’s shoulders.

When war broke out in April 1917, Alpheus was in the midst of preparing the fields for planting. In spite of being responsible for his mother’s farm, he was determined to enlist, a resolve firmly opposed by his mother, who could hardly be expected to run the farm by herself. Al’s solution to this obstacle was to make an arrangement with his sister and her husband to take over the farm in his absence. By late June the spring work was completed. On the 26th he shipped some hogs by freight train to Peoria, and rode along in the caboose. As soon as he had concluded his business at the stockyards, Al made his way to the Marine Corps recruiting station and presented himself to the sergeant at the desk, where he was duly sworn in, and told to be in Chicago the following Friday to catch a train to Paris Island. (3) This did not go down well at home, where Al’s mother was angry and distressed in equal measure. She was certain he could have obtained an agricultural deferment, and feared that her inexperienced son-in-law would never be able to manage the farm adequately, as he had done little farmwork and, moreover, was deathly afraid of horses.

Alpheus’s enlistment also complicated his burgeoning courtship with America Swango. From the tentative tone of their first letters, it is evident that they still hardly knew each other, so it must have come as a surprise to everyone--- not least to America herself--- when, toward the end of training, Alpheus proposed to her by mail and she accepted.

The cycle of poems which emerged from my research explores the effects of war from different viewpoints (husband, wife, daughter, grandson), from 1917 to the early 1990s. The blank-verse narrative, (4) “Nights by a Window, Listening for a Train,” (5) opens in October, 1917. Alpheus has returned home on furlough after basic training to marry his sweetheart, America. The day after the ceremony they ride together by wagon to the train station, where she will see him off. The following passage is less an accurate portrayal of America’s private emotions on that morning--- which are of course unknowable--- as it is a portrayal of emotions which any young woman in such circumstances might plausibly have felt.

   Parted by only the width of a hand
   as they sat on the wagon's wooden seat,
   they composed but a single silhouette,
   belying the sense of isolation
   that each began to feel in the other.

   He urged the mare to a trot, but offered
   little in the way of conversation
   while she, in the grip of apprehensions
   so strange and particular to herself
   she could find no way to permit them voice,
   sat wrapped in a silence deep as his own.

In the prolonged separation to come, the sense of silence and isolation which she experiences on this morning will grow more pronounced, until his letters, rather than dispelling her isolation, only seem to deepen it.

   A lifetime of waiting had passed since then,
   and letters received in the interval,
   letters in envelopes mottled by rain
   and mud from places unknown, each bearing
   a censor's stamp and, for postage, a phrase---
   each letter held something less of the one
   she remembered, as though what kept them apart
   had turned to a distance more than miles,
   more than the lapse of time. She was helpless
   to stay the gradual drifting apart
   of something unnameable they had shared,
   of a feeling altogether too frail
   to survive the prolonged monotonies
   and sporadic storms of a soldier's life . . .

The months drag on, and his letters arrive less frequently. Worse, their tone has changed. Her fear that he might be killed is joined by another fear nearly as disturbing, that he is slowly turning into someone unknown to her:

                                    In the months
   that followed, the dread she had always known,
   the dread that he might be killed, was replaced
   by something less understood, by a fear
   whose origin she was uncertain of,
   unless it began with an unexpected
   darkness of phrase in one of his letters
   or else with the premonitions that rose
   unbidden as birds from out of a field---
   a fear that he, in a part of his soul,
   had suffered death of a different order,
   a death to be nursed in his heart, to be borne
   back into life, to the woman he loved,
   like a plague-carrying ship into harbor.
   And she felt, without the strength to admit
   so much as a breath of it to herself,
   that the leave her husband had taken of her
   the morning after their wedding, had proven
   final at last. He would not return.
   The soldier who would survive to step down
   from the somber train as it hissed to a stop,
   who would search the crowd for her face until
   he feels the touch of her hand on his arm
   and hears his name spoken--- this same soldier
   would turn to her with the eyes of a stranger.

The next poem in the series, “The Dark Fields,” (6) is situated on the Appenheimer farm in the early 1920s, and, like all the poems, is based on a true event. Several neighbors call at the house late one night with disturbing news: a nearby farm couple has been found dead: she in the house by a gunshot wound; he in the barn, hanging by the neck from a rafter. The neighbors are in shock and instinctively, even before calling the sheriff, come to Alpheus to handle the situation because he has been in the war and will know what to do. Alpheus goes off with the neighbors into the night, leaving America alone in the empty house. As she stands by the window, she finds herself reliving the endless nights she stood at that same window, sick with worry for her husband far away at war.

   Too many winter nights she had watched
   at this same window, delving the darkness
   beyond the reflected face in the glass,
   beyond the porch and the yard, throughout
   the months that her husband was overseas.
   For weeks she had watched an old disfigured
   oak on the hilltop, silhouetted
   like a shape of anguish against the stars,
   a shape nearly human, twisted in pain.

In the end, the reliving of her wartime isolation, combined with the shock of the neighbor woman’s murder, and her husband’s sudden absence, are too much to bear, and abruptly, irrationally, she runs out into the night.

   . . . and now, as she stood alone in the house,
   alone but for all the spectral fears
   that closed upon her, she grew aware
   of something with neither face nor form
   against the sky on the hill, something stark.
   Abruptly she ran to the kitchen door
   and fled out across the yard to the gate,
   tripping and stumbling but still running on,
   away from the house, the hill, the road,
   running until the remotest light
   had vanished and there was nothing at all
   but a black and indeterminate void
   of field and starless sky and the sudden
   unendurable pounding of her heart.

   In the next poem, “Her Father’s War,” (7) the effects of war are experienced sometime in the early 1930s through the eyes of Alpheus’s eldest daughter.

   On the very morning that she was born,
   he collected and packed them up for good;
   a few he consigned to the bottom drawer
   of an old bureau--- the rest he stowed
   in an iron-bolstered trunk in the barn:
   the moth-balled remains of a buried war.
   For a dozen years they were sealed away,
   interred like a memory long-suppressed,
   till she asked him once, on a winter’s day,
   if he'd been in the war. He looked surprised.
   “Come to the barn," he said. When he lifted
   the lid of the trunk, she saw a folded
   winterfield jacket, an overseas cap,
   a compass, canteen, and a battered cup.

   When later she asked again of the war,
   such innocent things were all he revealed.
   If it hadn't been for a door left ajar
   one night, as her father sat up alone
   by the open trunk, she would never have known
   of the other objects he kept concealed:
   a holstered pistol, papers, a medal,
   foreign citations unrolled from a tube
   and darker relics retrieved in battle
   from the rocks and ravines of Belleau Wood:
   Iron Crosses and buckles, a bayonet
   with its hilt in the form of an eagle's head---
   all torn from bloody tunics of the dead
   and then smuggled home in a service kit.

   Later that spring, on Memorial Day,
   her father and other veterans marched
   the length of a cedar-lined path to pay
   respects to the local fallen. She thrilled
   at how stern he appeared among the men,
   at how smartly he bore himself, unmatched
   in the curt retort and snap of his drill.
   She shuddered to hear the synchronized crack
   of volleys fired again and again
   from a line of rifles slanted above
   the white wooden cross of a soldier's grave.
   Observing the set of her father's face,
   like statuary, she pondered the lack
   of expression, the marble stare into space.

   That night, as she huddled asleep in bed,
   a spasm of coughing rose from below
   to disorient her dream, coughing so
   consumptive she woke with a nauseous dread.
   She tried to ignore it, turning her head
   to stare at the silhouette of the silo
   outside her window, surrounded by stars.
   But it was impossible not to think
   of the deathly noise. She stole downstairs
   to the light in the kitchen where, because
   he had never spoken of mustard gas,
   she was startled and scarcely understood
   when he buckled abruptly at the sink
   and brightened all its enamel with blood.

In the long meditative poem, “The Tower at the Edge of the Wood,” (8) which takes place at the Aisne-Marne Cemetery near Belleau, France, Alpheus’s grandson remembers his grandfather’s description of what took place there in 1918:

   . . . how every sullen recess of the wood
   flickered a vicious flame—how a mighty
   moan arose from the ranks as poppies,
   soldiers and grain were cut down together
   till not one man or stalk of wheat stood---
   how those still breathing cringed behind bodies
   crumpled or sprawling--- how raking fire
   shredded their haversacks and pinned them
   close to the earth--- how strangely, somewhere,
   the note of a warbler, piercingly clear,
   emerged for a moment above the din---
   how the fire hit them again, again,
   as curse accompanied prayer--- how cries
   of the wounded tore the heart with pity.

   Grandfather rarely spoke of such dying
   directly--- there were clipped allusions,
   disquieting, never intentional---
   and, often, there was the lapse of silence
   that fell like frost on the otherwise green
   and pastoral heart of each reminiscence.
   Mostly what he imparted were small
   vignettes and stories of commonplace things
   reassuring to any farmer's son:
   how he stole up into the loft of a barn
   with a bottle--- how he hauled ammunition
   on a night so dark that he walked his team
   by the flare of shells--- how he stole a swim
   while washing his lathered mules in the Marne.

   One evening he held the porch like a stage
   for a crowd of us boys and told of the time
   that he turned an all-but-terrified team
   straight in the teeth of a rolling barrage---
   how he calmed the creatures, holding reins taut
   in his left hand, with a watch in his right
   and, timing the march of the fiery wall
   that bore upon them until the earth shook,
   how he barked a brusque command to his mules
   and bullied them straight through the coiling smoke.

Later in the poem, the time shifts back to when he asked his grandfather if he had ever wanted to return to where had he fought in France, or might still like to.

                                          For months afterward,
   Grandfather talked of a long journey back,
   of showing my grandmother what had occurred---
   of trying to show what he couldn't tell.
   But he gave it up--- with too many rows
   of his own to walk, too much acreage, stock,
   and too little savings, too little time.
   When, long after that, I asked him whether
   he might still return, he said, with a frown,
   "That was decades ago. Your grandmother's gone.
   Nothing would be the same." I remember
   the way he looked out at the evening sky
   as though he might peer through miles and years
   to those far-off events, and how I arose
   from the sofa and silently left the room.

The poem ends in the early 1990s. Alpheus has been dead nearly twenty years. He never returned to France. Instead, his grandson and wife have made the pilgrimage to Belleau Wood for him.

   And now, what a strange, ironic turn
   that it should be I and not he who has come,
   and my wife rather than his who should see
   this place of all places.

Sensing that her husband might want some time alone in such a hallowed place, she leaves him and, going off by herself, climbs a long flight of stairs to disappear into the shadows of Belleau Wood itself.

   And now for the first time I am alone,
   alone in that place of legends to which
   my grandfather always longed to return,
   a place of apocalyptic fury,
   carnage and devastation . . . a place
   of villages and reclusive pastures
   and rivers that haunted him all his days.

He crosses the lawn and climbs the stairs of the austere white tower tucked into the side of the wood. Entering the doorway, he finds himself in the meditative stillness of the chapel.

                                          The afternoon sun
   inclines through narrow, faceted windows
   of tinctured and leaded glass, muted rays
   of colored radiance slanting through air
   to hallow, in auras of blue and rose,
   names of the missing chiseled on walls.

After a time he steps back outside and watches a single swallow soaring and dipping in the sunlight. Then he follows the terrace around to the back of the tower and sees the stairway where his wife disappeared earlier, to explore the wood on her own. Only now, in the deep shade, the wood begins to seem a more disturbing and haunted place.

   The air is less cordial here, with the sun
   eclipsed by a circuit of conifers
   closing on every side. A residual
   atmosphere, haunted and unresolved,
   hovers about their boughs and they brood
   like portals opening into the night,
   into a purgatory of craters,
   of trenches and dugouts clouded with fern,
   of corroded cartridges, buckles, spoons.

   But there are are darker ravines in this wood
   where more survives than detritus of war,
   where memory stains the air and where cries
   of huddled and immaterial forms
   are like shuddering leaves.

At this point his wife reappears, but he senses that something is not quite right, that she has encountered something in the wood which has disturbed her.

                     She catches my eye
   from the stairway, suddenly stepping forth
   from out of the shadows, a strange, uncertain
   regard on her face that makes me afraid.
   I rush up to meet her. She grasps my arm
   and urges me rapidly down the stair
   toward the waiting taxi. I pull her near
   and ask her to whisper what she has seen---
   she turns with a look that is oddly removed---
   her eyes are unaccountably grieved.

Twenty-one of the Stark County poems were collected in the recent history, Stark County, Illinois: History and Families, in 2012. (9) A larger selection of the Stark County poems appeared later the same year in a privately printed collection, Stark County Poems: War and the Depression Come to Spoon River, (10) but it was issued in a very limited run and is now difficult to find. All of the poems discussed in this essay appear in A River Dark with Rain: Selected Poems, 1985-2015. (11)

--- BJ Omanson


1. “History and Lore of the 6th Machine Gun Battalion”. monongahelabooks.com/Sonsof6th.html

2. Linn, Louis C., (edited by Laura Jane Linn Wright, with annotations and chapter introductions by B.J. Omanson). At Belleau Wood with Rifle and Sketchpad: The Memoir of a United States Marine in World War I. (Jefferson NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2012).

3. “Paris Island”, with one “r”, was the correct spelling in 1917. It did not become “Parris” until 1919.

4. “Blank verse narrative”, a traditional English verse form, was first perfected as a vehicle for rural tales by William Wordsworth in 1800. It was used with great effect around the time of the First World War for rural stories by such regionalist American poets as E.A. Robinson and Robert Frost. Most recently, blank verse narrative has been used for a series of stories about the small town and rural inhabitants of the Mississinewa River Valley in Indiana by American poet Jared Carter.

5. “Nights by a Window, Listening for a Train,” first published in Sparrow 63: A Yearbook of the Sonnet, Bordighera Press, 1996.

6. “The Dark Fields”, a blank verse narrative, was first published in Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture. The Rockford Institute. November, 1991.

7. “Her Father’s War”, a narrative composed of four linked sonnets, was first published in The Sewanee Review, Vol. 100, No. 1 (Winter 1992), University of the South. It was later reprinted in Sparrow 63: A Yearbook of the Sonnet, Bordighera Press, 1996.

8. “The Tower at the Edge of the Wood,” a meditative poem composed of fourteen irregularly rhymed sonnets, was first published in Sparrow 63: A Yearbook of the Sonnet, Bordighera Press, 1996.

9. Stark County, Illinois: History and Families. Stark County Genealogical Society, Toulon, Illinois. (Sikeston, MO: Acclaim Press, 2012).

10. Omanson, BJ. Stark County Poems: War and the Depression come to Spoon River. (Morgantown, WV: Monongahela Books, 2012).

11. Omanson, BJ. A River Gray with Rain: Selected Poems, 1985-2015. (Morgantown, WV: Monongahela Books, 2015). It is available as a free ebook at 

BJ Omanson has worked as a barrel plater, drill press operator, furniture factory worker, auto worker, tree trimmer, logger, shingle mill worker, truck driver, bus driver, taxi driver, gardener, fruit picker, groundskeeper, nurseryman, librarian, barn restorer, farmhand, gravedigger, custodian, nurse’s aide and teamster (draft horses). He currently works as an historical interpreter at Pricketts Fort near Fairmont, West Virginia. His publications include poetry, literary criticism, theater and art reviews and military history.