Tuesday, September 20, 2016

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

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