Friday, September 25, 2020

The Back Pasture

I originally envisioned this blog as a haven of quiet reflection, a shady back pasture well out of the hurly-burley of modern life, where cattle and sheep could lie unmolested in the shade chewing their cuds, and a farmer's son could steal off behind an outcropping of rock or fallen log, well out of sight of his father, to light his illicit pipe and read a few smudged pages of Huckleberry Finn.

Or Hamlin Garland, or Willa Cather, or Louis Bromfield?  For what can be more peaceful, after all, than a book of poems or novel from the rural Midwest?  To open its pages is to release the scent of sun-drenched alfalfa mingled with the sound of lowing heifers from a far-off pasture-- it is to invoke a world where life proceeds by an older, more established set of verities, set apart from the frenetic vicissitudes of contemporary culture.  Or so the story goes.

The idea of the Midwest as a literary region, like the idea of regionalism itself, is in fact fraught with contention.  To some critics, calling a work of literature regionalist is to dismiss it as minor, as though a work steeped in local realities cannot also possess universal significance.  To other critics, conversely, regionalism is an honorable designation with a long pedigree, but to which no contemporary writer can lay legitimate claim, since regions in the traditional sense no longer exist.

Is regionalist literature predominantly rural, or is it urban and suburban as well?   Are Theodore Dreiser, Saul Bellow, or Gwendolyn Brooks Midwestern regionalists as much as Willa Cather, Edgar Lee Masters or Wright Morris?  Is regionalism simply a matter of geographical location, or does it require some deep and intimate connection to the land?

Given that the character of America's regions have grown ever more homogeneous since the Second World War (due to the interstate highway system, television, chain stores, the internet, etc), has American literature since the war increasingly lost its regional distinctions?  In other words, did literary regionalism attain its high tide in the 1930s  (as was the case in painting)-- never to rise again-- or does it in some sense remain as vital today it has ever been?

To what extent was the regionalist movement in American literature, as has often been argued, a reaction against the rise of industrialism?  Was it the unquiet ghost of Jeffersonian America refusing to remain moldering in its grave?  And if regionalism was indeed a revolt against industrialism, what is its relationship to the later environmentalist movement?  To what extent can John Muir, John Burroughs, Aldo Leopold or Edward Abbey be viewed as literary regionalists? At what point does autobiography or personal reminiscence enter the realm of literature?  And what of Henry Thoreau? No one disputes the status of Walden as a work of literature.  And, if that is so, might not Thoreau be considered a true progenitor of literary regionalism in America?

Or, to return to the Midwest, is not an even older, truer antecedent of regionalist literature to be found (as John Hallwas first suggested in 1981), in the Autobiography of Black Hawk? --with its stubborn refusal, in the face of overwhelming military and cultural forces, to relinquish ties to that particular corner of earth on the Rock River where his ancestors were buried.  His Autobiography-- as the archetypal expression of physical place as spiritual home, and the inevitable tragic loss of that place-- might well be viewed as prototype of nearly all American regionalist literature. And its occurrence near the physical center of the continent, during the formative years of the American Republic (as noted by numerous writers)-- affords the Autobiography even greater symbolic weight.

These are just a few of the issues to be addressed in discussions of regionalist literature at the present time.  To start the ball rolling, I will post an essay of mine, "The Persistence of Regionalism," which serves as the introduction to Jared Carter's most recent book of poems, The Land Itself.


Thursday, September 26, 2019

The Persistence of Regionalism

That Jared Carter, among living writers, is one of America’s premier regionalist poets is a claim few who know his work well would dispute. Yet describing any writer as regionalist in the second decade of the 21st century is in some ways problematic. The last high-water mark of American regionalism, the 1930s, was already on the wane by the time Jared Carter was born, and regionalism’s death knell was already being sounded by such critics as Lowry Charles Wimberly – who saw in the spread of national brands and national standards the inexorable homogenization of America’s regions. At the same time, John Crowe Ransom and the Agrarians were analyzing the slow death of Southern regionalism due to the spread of industrialism, the migration from rural areas into the cities, and a host of inter-related cultural trends.
          After the end of World War II, the homogenization of America’s hinterlands, due to the spread of the interstate highway system and television, received a quantum boost, with its effects becoming more far-reaching and virulent with each passing decade until, by the digital revolution of 1990s, it had come to seem as though regionalism could only legitimately be spoken of in the past tense. And yet it was through these same decades, when so much of what was most distinctive about America’s heartland was vanishing, that Carter was turning out poem after poem, portraying characters, situations and locations as singular and sharply defined as any in literature, and he was doing so with a honed plainness of style that left no doubt as to their veracity and authenticity.
          Beginning with Carter’s first book, Work, For the Night is Coming (1981), readers were introduced to a region which was at once literal and mythical: “Mississinewa County,” somewhere “east of Spoon River, west of Winesburg, and slightly north of Raintree County,” as Carter himself has explained. It is a fictional county named for an actual river (the Mississinewa, a tributary of the Wabash) which, like the fictional town “Spoon River” (also named for an actual river), Faulkner’s “Yoknapatawpha County,” Frost’s rural New England, Robinson’s “Tilbury Town” and a long list of other literary regions, is rooted equally in the American continent and the American psyche. Mississinewa County is a multifaceted, multidimensional “place” of such symbolic and allegorical richness that its hinterlands and far boundaries – despite several decades of appreciative commentary – remain largely unexplored. Altogether, Carter’s books contain much of what one has come to expect in a regionalist body of literature from the American Midwest: pool halls and funeral parlors, dilapidated barns and covered bridges, barbershops and taverns, and miles of highways, telephone poles and open country inhabited by farmers, druggists, drifters, drunkards, undertakers and real estate developers. Turning to any of the early and late poems in the current collection, one is struck once again by the assurance and authority in the poet’s voice. Carter’s descriptions are rendered with a pitch-perfect precision that can only come from long familiarity with his subject. He is a plein-air poet, portraying his region with a sharpness of focus and an eye for inconspicuous but telling detail that cannot be achieved at second-hand.
          The answer, then, to the question of whether a genuinely regional literature is still possible in the 21st century, when America’s regions have been all but homogenized, suburbanized, industrialized and digitized out of existence, is to be found in the pages of any of Carter’s books, where the poems, like palpable artifacts plucked from field or creekbed, constitute clear evidence of a region still very much alive. Precisely how America’s regions have survived a century of destructive “progress” – at what cost, and in what fashion – are complex questions beyond the scope of this essay. But one index and proof of their survival is to be found in the literature they produce, and Carter’s books are as strong a piece of evidence as one might hope for.
           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. As Carter observes in “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.

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 primordial 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 spiritual 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 otherworldly moments as this – and there are a number of them 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 moments 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 aspect of 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 I will confine myself to a single represen-tative example: the crazed, homeless woman in “Spirea,” whose role as an erratic wandering seeress (“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 uncanny.

. . . 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, as all around her doors are closing, lamps are dimmed, and the world is 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 she 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.
           Even as Carter demonstrates an uncommon gift for describing the indescribable – the incorporeal, spectral dimension of the world – his descriptions of how the material world actually functions, how it is formed and what is required to survive in it – reveals a detail and depth of practical knowledge that few writers today are able to match. Consider this description of artisanal technique from “Cutting Glass.”

It takes a long, smooth stroke practiced carefully
over many years and made with one steady motion.

You do not really cut glass, you score its length
with a sharp, revolving wheel at the end of a tool

not much bigger than a pen-knife. Glass is liquid,
sleeping. The line you make goes through the sheet

like a wave through water, or a voice calling in a dream,
but calling only once. If the glazier knows how to work

without hesitation, glass begins to remember. Watch now
how he draws the line and taps the edge: the pieces

break apart like a book opened to a favorite passage.
Each time, what he finds is something already there.

In its waking state glass was fire once, and brightness;
all that becomes clear when you hold up the new pane.

Or this description, in “The Gleaning,” of a barber shaving for the final time, at an undertaker’s behest, the face of his friend who has just that day been killed in a threshing accident.

                                             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.

Or this description, in “Picking Stone,” of a family clearing a recently plowed field of rocks.

                                              They spread out
across the fresh-turned earth, following
a flatbed truck, searching with their hands
through the broken clods, grasping, struggling,
helping each other heave up what they find.

. . . .
                                                             The father
moves back and forth, now down on his knees
with a son, brushing sand from a boulder,
deciding they will come back and get it
with the tractor, now carrying the baby
for a while, suddenly handing it to his wife
and going to help the oldest daughter, who
has lifted a rock and hugs it to her body,
staggering, as though she were burdened
with grief.

In Carter’s poetry the material and immaterial are paired aspects of the same reality. What he demonstrates again and again – by an acuity of attention to the world simply as it presents itself – is that there is no clear division between matter and spirit. Carter’s language never makes the leap into abstraction; it is faithfully fixed on the particular, for it is within the particular, within the ordinary world of phenomena, that the uncanny is to be found, as in the poem “Cicadas in the Rain.”

Only when it began to rain could I hear it,
in late summer, after they had all risen high
in the saucer magnolia tree – a soft, slow rain
at first, while the light still held in the west.

That sound so familiar, so unhesitant, but never
during a storm, and yet with drops plashing
and pelting through the leaves, their voices
coalesced in ways I had never heard before –

some strange harmonic of summer’s ending,
some last reinforcement or challenge – mounting
against the rain’s insistence, trying to outdo it,
seeking a pulse within the larger immensity,

and succeeding, as though a door had opened,
and I heard pure sound issuing forth, stately
and majestic, even golden, while all around it,
darkness, rain falling, trees bent by the wind.

Carter is the laureate of loss and, beyond loss, absence. He has been witness to the emptying out of the rural Midwest for three quarters of a century. This is what the regionalist writer faces now in America: the swift passing away of what took three or four hundred years to build up slowly. In the following passage, from “Train Station,” Carter describes what is left after a front-end loader has knocked down and hauled away a small town’s only train depot.

only grass there now, a level stretch
where you can stand and look both ways
straight through the heart of town
where the track used to be – as though
some vast, invisible knife had sliced
it in two, and left it to heal over,
or as though there had been a way out,
once, or at least a way to move on,
but all that was forgotten now, and
out beyond the city limits there were
only trees, and fields, and open sky.

And sometimes, as in the poem “Summit,” it’s an entire town that has vanished.

                             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.

          After such loss, what remains to be said? In the midst of absence, of half-light and fog, a lesser writer might well lose his way and fall into digression or, worse, clichĂ©. But it is precisely here that Carter seems most at home. He has a knack for apprehending what is left after nothing is left. It might be, as in the poem “All Souls’,” a ghostly creature of the night, more spirit than flesh, that few of us might even suspect was there.

                                                     I had stepped
off the trail, to look at a line of prints,
and sensed something near, perhaps ten paces.
There was still enough light. A snowy owl,
moon-faced and pale, waited in shadow, aware
of my presence, having no reason to go.
We both waited; we both watched each other.
When the time was right, it leaned and fell
headlong from its perch, letting gravity
seize and draw it down as though a sack
of sand had been cut loose – and halfway
through the dive began to flatten out
and start to turn, forcing the earth’s pull
forward, shifting all that power into
wings which, unfurled and shaken once,
twice, carried it cleanly across the glade
and out along the trees below the ridge.
Nothing else moved or made a sound.

Or, as in the poem “Prophet Township,” it might be a literal absence that Carter describes, which is somehow both empty and not empty, as when he portrays a solitary visitor who has stopped off at an old abandoned farmstead to have a look around.

                                           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.

          You don't have to say that the land is haunted. It's not about the ghosts of Potawatomi warriors or buffalo moving spirit-like across the land. It’s not about doors opening and closing by themselves in an abandoned farmhouse, or a figure glimpsed through a darkened window when no one is there. It's not about Romanticism or spiritualism, or skepticism versus belief. It's about something that anyone who has spent enough time alone, outside, away from the city, will recognize – anyone who has stood on a rise in open country, watched a storm forming in the distance, and felt a gust of rain-scented wind in the face, or who has walked to the edge of a small town at three o'clock in the morning when everything was still and gazed out over the emptiness of distant, darkened fields. There is an ancient part of every one of us that takes over at such times, that stirs awake in our depths, and recognizes something that the rest of our preoccupied brain has completely missed. It is as real as any other part of our experience. It just takes a while to notice it.
          Jared Carter’s poetry – in its fidelity both to the letter and the spirit of the land – does something that art should never lose sight of: it adheres so scrupulously to the world as it is, to the “local habitation” in all its distinctiveness, particularity and long extent of its history, that it assumes the very form and character of that region, is shaped and scoured by it, and so becomes a true expression of the land itself.

~~ BJ Omanson, June 2019