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. 

1 comment:

  1. I love this man's poetry. In his words I see and feel the Indiana I knew as a child. Thank you, Jared.