A BRIEF HISTORY
The Monadnock New Pastoral Poets
by Rodger Martin
(from A History of Twentieth Century American Poetry,
Zhang Ziqing, editor; Nanjing University, PRC, 2005)
The poetry and fiction of Jim Beschta, Pat Fargnoli, Terry Farish, John Hodgen, Adelle Leiblein, Susan Roney-O’Brien, and myself; classified by poet, translator and critic Zhang Ziqing as the Monadnock School of New Pastoral Poetry is rooted in geography and time– the geography of a Central New England region that has, over the past century, reverted to mostly forest and is dominated by a mountain which though only 3,100 feet in height nevertheless is the peak most striking if one journeys inland from the coast or north from Connecticut and New York. This same geography also has brought these seven writers who have devoted their lives to language within traveling distance of each other.
Time becomes significant because all are contemporaries of each other and all often make great historical leaps of time, using it almost as metaphor to link differing sections of a poem. Nor, as John Hodgen reminds us, is the physics ignored: “He spoke of ellipses, / of things coming round again. . . . that a boy / standing at the end of a moving train / could toss the red ball of his life / up into the heavy air / and catch it again.” So this group uses the linguistic relativity and curves of time as Adelle Leiblein says the “abiding force of nature” and the landscape to create pastoral or quiet, natural laws upon which we sculpt our stories. Consider Susan Roney-O’Brien’s instructions on how to prepare a red cabbage for eating: ” . . . draw the blade of a strong knife / down bisecting east from / west in a prime meridian cut, / then slice again across the equator / dividing north and south. / At the center is a heart / . . . cut it out . . . waste nothing.”
Next is that aloneness so typified by Mount Monadnock itself. Monadnock, a native-American name meaning “one who stands alone”; Monadnock, the mountain so dominating the landscape of Central New England because of its singular shape and locality that geologists have usurped the name to define any mountain standing apart from others. That “aloneness” is typified by each of these writers who in a large sense have pursued their writing careers independently from any academic institution, though a number of them now hold adjunct positions with colleges in the region, their writing developed outside those institutions. John Hodgen, Jim Beschta and myself primarily taught in small high schools; Adelle Leiblein worked through an art museum, Terry Farish supported her writing as a librarian; Susan Roney-O’Brien as a farm wife and teacher, and Pat Fargnoli as a therapist. That aloneness also permits a perspective and freedom that poets writing out of the academies often miss simply because their institutions take on a “publisher perish” persona, and the graduate programs they assist with often require such focus on one field of expertise, that the writer no longer has the time nor flexibility to go out and “root among the woodpile out back” to see what might pop out. On the other flank of the poetry spectrum, the performance or slam poets who acted so brilliantly to bring poetry back into the lives of millions of Americans, find themselves caught in the trap of those who become entertainers, they must “perform or perish.” And the time and energy required by constant performance drains them of that same time and energy needed to get out to the woodpile and see what may or may not be there as in the conclusion of Jim Beschta’s poem “Walrus”: “What is left / when the luxury / of flesh is discarded. / when soul meets air? / The skull, smooth and plain, / polished white.”
Monadnock– the name inspired the American Transcendentalists over a century ago so we do little more than continue a tradition begun by Thoreau and Emerson and carried on by Galway Kinnell in his book Flower Herding on Mount Monadnock. Monadnock– the most climbed mountain in the world after Mt. Fuji; Monadnock– a small peak that nonetheless inspires the kind of surrealistic leaps in time and place that can carry poems like my “Olmec” from the conquest of Montezuma’s empire to Cortes “brandishing a gold-encrusted cross” atop the now-consigned-to-history World Trade Towers in New York City or, conversely, in John Hodgen’s “Old Men in Restrooms” from a dingy public urinal to Pizzaro “peeing off the edge of the New World.” The mountain itself is directly referenced in Fargnoli’s poem “Still Water”: “A thin gauze of rain stalls over Mt. Monadnock. / This is the way I drift.” I call it “an ancient whale of rock” in “Along the Monadnock Watch.” Terry Farish uses it as a backdrop for two of her novels (If the Tiger and A House in Earnest). Adelle Leiblein uses the mountain in the title of the anthology she edited: Ad Hoc Monadnock. This distinguished collection not only carries work by three of these writers (excluding herself), but also shows the influence of this geography over a number of other regional artists.
Monadnock– a rural New England region where Christianity can influence a spring post-setting or give a lamb’s breath the power to “praise all creatures above and below his knowing” as in Susan Roney-O’Brien’s “Christmas Eve.” But where Christianity is too narrow a concept for this group bound more by looser spirituality that allows John Hodgen to find Christ striding over two thousand years from his walks in Judea to the rural routes of Hubbardston, Massachusetts, in “Stopping the Jesus;” or Adelle Leiblein leaping between today and our culture’s Hebrew roots in “The Study of White” where “…the Serpent got the best night’s sleep.” My war experience questions both Christianity and Judaism in “Coptic Men’s Room” and my long poem “Gettysburg,” but I find a spiritual rock ultimately in my native faith in “Commute” because “no being would venture ever onto the floor / of these macadam cathedrals knowing there is nothing / to ease the skid marks.”
Jim Beschta hides his spirituality by clinging to his family in his poem “Darkness,” but in the end he finds himself nothing more than “Lazarus gathering scraps while death wanders through my hair” as he waits to be risen. Pat Fargnoli’s spirituality lies deeper still, but in the final poem of her book Necessary Light, after sixty years of pounding, she continues “anyway to love the world” where “light enfolds even the least / small running creature” in “great sheets of saving light.”
Others in the group have ranged to the reaches of Asia for a sense of that spirituality. For example, Terry Farish’s novel If The Tiger brings the meeting of Kipling’s (who wrote The Jungle Book near the western shadow of Mount Monadnock) East and West together in the tragic encounters of a Cambodian family along the cold flanks of that same mountain. She has such tight control of her language that she can use the sparseness of her prose to, as Andre Dubus says, focus “on a pair of sneakers hanging from a telephone wire and make you see the Gulf War, because she knows that beating of one woman by one man is blood flowing through the heart of war, and the quest of two young women for family love is blood flowing through the hearts of everyone.” In Farish’s latest book, A House in Earnest, by giving her characters Biblical names (Christie, Deborah, Ian and Patience conflicting and surviving in a store named The Three Eves in a town called Bethlehem) she creates an allegorical tale that brings the American experience with war in Vietnam into a spiritual and philosophical perspective that suggest America may not be as far removed from the Aztec as it would like to think. Leiblein also takes note of Eastern tradition by creating an almost Xanadu place of happiness in “The House of Blue Tile.” My Nemo Poems center around the American war in Vietnam but my need to find an objective persona results in a narrator from beyond the planet itself.
It is this appeal to using the ancient sense of rural caution and faith in the land that gives our writing power to stand in the face of the technological culture that seems to be engulfing us with ever-increasing speed.
It is this faith in the land and nature, a concept that only in a pastoral place insulated from the psychic bludgeon of twentieth-first century technology can one exist alone enough with one’s heart and mind to begin to understand the where and whys of a human society steeped in conflict. The kind of conflict illustrated in Roney-O’Brien’s “Forsythia” where a young girl hides underneath a forsythia bush from her parent’s fighting: “each stem…a tight green throat / each mouth tongueless gold entered by bees.” Jim Beschta, in “Sounding the Abyss,” carries both the pastoral and loneliness of that search all the way back to Homer: “I search for poems / in that dark sea / that leads to/ where we all / have come from … Like Sirens / they call in the dark.” I also acknowledge that Homeric debt in “Odysseus and the Warthog”: “Circe gave you hawser and mast. / Must I always carry hemp?” Critic William Doreski also noted that persistent tie to the ancient in the poem “Along the Monadnock Watch”: “Rodger Martin in the death of a moose on a highway a tragedy of classical proportions.”
That loneliness is nowhere so evident as in Farish’s poem “Lenny’s Shed” about an old man returned from an old age home and left “Decomposing like the dank floor of his shed.”
Fargnoli also pays tribute to the pastoral tradition in “How This Poet Thinks:” “my body sways / at the transition zone, back and forth / between the field and woods — a witching stick . . . .” and she does not ignore that ancient tradition in her poem “Eleven Years Later”: ” . . . I’ve made you a half-god.”
There are differences among this group in the motivations that form a sort of deep driving energy to the individual poets. For John Hodgen clearly it is the death of his father. Again and again one sees his work touch on the theme in both his books, In My Father’s House and Bread Without Sorrow. Terry Farish and myself find our first-hand experiences on the American War in Vietnam evoked again and again, sometimes subtly and sometimes overtly in our work. What regularly creeps into Pat Fargnoli’s poetry is, as she states, “a sense of indomitability of the human spirit and an amazement at the wonder of nature and the beauty in this world and its power to redeem the terror, or at least help one survive the terror.” Jim Beschta, though he physically moved east from the Great Plains, seems never to have left that hard-scrabble existence rather changing his crops from wheat and corn to family and students — and finding himself as much at the mercy of the land here as out there. Susan Roney-O’Brien has tied herself to the land in an almost literal sense. Her book Farmwife is a celebration of the earth and our place in it. Adelle Leiblein, like Roney-O’Brien, is another who takes on a pilgrimage in search of fertility. But as Adelle Leiblein cogently puts it, “It is fair to say that despite our differences as writers of all stripe, and point of view, we have the capacity to resonate to each others’ work in a receptive, complimentary way. In a sense we are (for each other) the ‘readers of goodwill’ that James Wright has spoken of.”
Author and poet Linda Warren, who is familiar with most of the group, comments, “To some extent, all take inspiration from the New England landscape, in the tradition of Frost. . . . John (Hodgen) takes inspiration from a more urban landscape, but it’s the same thing, in a sense — everyday, ordinary observations that take on philosophical meaning. (They’re) all philosophers, as opposed to musicians.”
In conclusion, that seems to be what we “New Monadnock Pastoralists” are all about—not bringing Monadnock to the world, nor bringing the world to Monadnock, but using the influence of that unshakable rock to focus past and present in a linguistic pilgrimage with “One who stands alone” that will in some way permit any of us on this planet a chance to find inner peace in a human world that seems intent on depriving all of us of that peace.
Information about Gordon Ripley‘s Photos on this page:
*This photograph was taken on University Drive (near Franklin Pierce University) in Rindge, NH at 6:40am on the morning of March 31, 2009. The Camera settings were 1/100 second at F/5 with the ISO set to 200. The Lens used was a Nikon 18-200mm set to the 35mmEquivalent of 40mm. The camera used was a NIKON D300 digital camera.
**This photograph was taken at the Cathedral of the Pines in Rindge, NH at 08:44 am on the morning of May 8, 2009. The Cathedral Pines were destroyed in an ice storm in December of 2008. This image shows the area after extensive restoration and landscaping. The camera settings were 1/400 second at F/9 with the ISO set to 200. The lens used was a Nikon 18-200mm set to the 35mm equivalent of 60mm. The camera used was a NIKON D300 digital camera.
***This photograph of Mount Monadnock was taken at the ‘Cathedral of the Pines’ in Rindge, NH on August 19, 2009 at 7:04pm. The camera was set to 1/15 second, and F4.8 with the ISO set to 200. A Nikon 18-200mm lens was used and set to the 35mm equivalent focal length of 62mm. The camera used was a NIKON D300 digital camera.