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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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,
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.
“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.