The Monadnock School of Pastoral Poets
B. Eugene McCarthy (2011)
When asked, what would it be like for you, if there were no Mt. Monadnock, Rodger Martin said at once, “I would lose my perspective.”
Monadnock is a solitary peak. When seen from a distance, it appears to surge abruptly from the New Hampshire plains. Closer, from the base of trails that lead to the top, it appears comfortably nearer, although when one climbs, the granite slab at the top keeps its distance, saying, just a little farther, just a little more…. The name Monadnock means “stands alone” and it does stand separate, not one of a chain like the Presidential Range in the White Mountains.
Monadnock’s status among writers and artists, and assuredly among people who live in sight of it, is not accidental: it stands with a power that marks a place. Poets have looked at the mountain with awe and respect. Emerson wrote a poem “Monadnock”; Thoreau said it was “the mountain he loved most”; Rudyard Kipling (during his stay in Brattleboro, VT) reflected: “Beyond the very furthest range, where the pines turn to a faint blue haze against the one solitary peak — a real mountain and not a hill — showed like a gigantic thumbnail pointing heavenward.” John Greenleaf Whittier viewed “Monadnock from Wachusett” in l867. Hugh P. Lovecraft (noted for tales of horror), Amy Lowell, Galway Kinnell (“Flower Herding on Monadnock”), and Robert Francis celebrated the place as distinct and powerful. Seeing it, one knows precisely where one stands in relation to it.
The writers who are here called members of the Monadnock Pastoral School—Rodger Martin, Terry Farish, Jim Beschta, Susan Roney-O’Brien, Pat Fargnoli, and John Hodgen—do not of course share a uniform view of that mountain. As befits writers, each has a distinct, personal relation to it, as they do to their subject matter and to the craft of writing. Which may mean there is no School as such but an assemblage of those who happen to live in the broad area of Southern New Hampshire and Central Massachusetts, within range of the mountain. What we hope to suggest in this introduction, without mere wishful thinking, is that there are true if subtle connections to place that are identifiable and meaningful for these writers.
Because Mt. Monadnock starts up so conspicuously, an enormous whale-like island one can cast an anchor upon, these writers not only see it as an actual place, but internalize it as an icon of stability among the baffling, paradoxical flow of human life. To leave it, at whatever level, would be to embrace the ephemeral, to abandon the determined search for clarity of vision.
Much of the character of Rodger Martin’s poetry is contained in the opening lines of “Harper’s Ferry” (The Battlefield Guide). For him there is no Civil War of separate battles. The Vietnam war is equally the Trojan war, the Civil War, WWII, Korea, Iraq, Afghanistan…, because his vision takes in the basic humanity of such experience.
|Striated slate foundations squeeze themselves flat
like pages of a national Bible—the book,
layer upon layer locked in shale stacked from shoal
to ridgetop, is the story of ourselves lit by the fire
of gas lamps and determined by the push of the waters,
as much needed, to tame a continent, as desire (5)
If our United States history is layered, it is the task of poets to see, reveal, and name those layers and what that history means, what it teaches us if we are honest to ourselves. After all, the keen weapons that killed in the fields of Antietam and Gettysburg were manufactured in cities in Massachusetts. “For soldiers, a battlefield is about the few square feet surrounding them…, whether that fight takes place at Fox’s Gap, …or the cavalry fields at Gettysburg, or The Bloody Lane at Antietam, or Prek Klok in Vietnam or a field in Iraq or a ridge in Afghanistan…. For a soldier there is no such thing as The Battle of Gettysburg, …only the amoral chaos” of the individual will to survive (“Introduction,” viii).
This layering of geological plates, of pages of a book, of historical meanings that Martin achieves in his poetry, is how he envisions “the story of ourselves,” our American being. As if he has in mind Stanley Kunitz’s dictum: “Live in the layers,/ Not on the litter,” this layering has been part of Martin’s poetic since The Nemo Poems (l992) where we find, in the midst of Vietnam, a soldier’s memory running back: “Gettysburg and its monuments, the fresh cut grass, did they die
like that?… Where are they now?” (52)
As this tattered witness approaches,
Martin’s allusiveness contains not only battles but all history and literature. In “The Sea” we find Adam and Eve, Noah, Jonah, Pinocchio, Capt. Bligh and Christian, the Flying Dutchman, and the wreckage of ships at present-day Wiscasset, Maine (70-2). In “In Pursuit of the Loon,” he thinks of Vietnam,
Rice pools mirror the tropic
Fractured by dikes before the fight.
But his mind retracts to New Hampshire lakes: “The Loon’s slow echo reached me,/ Hands that cupped my ears in sobs” (26).
The Nemo Poems is a “journal of Diana and Nemo,/[which] Seeks both simple solace and why.” (1) The solace is in the remembering, assembling-creating, and writing, a making of himself in this place at this time. The why is, of course, the why we all ask: why do we repeat the same cruel actions, why can’t we learn from history, why are we not content with love’s solace and meaning? It is thus natural for him to bear the past in his mind and heart, and carry it into the present. It is from this Monadnock of perspective that Martin finds a point of view that serves his vision, layers of stone he can stand on.
What might seem a divergence from the history-laden Nemo poems and later The Battlefield Guide, Martin’s The Blue Moon Series (2007) is localized in the Monadnock region. While Diana from the Nemo poems appears several times, and history awakes (we walk in a drizzly London, watch Diana on horseback at Lyme Regis, where he envisions her “Saxon blood” amongst “the Norman shadows,” 4), in “June: The Dyad Moon, Along the Monadnock Watch,” the great mountain is precisely where he stands:
|Moonglow casts deep to the dark spine
and flank of this ancient whale of rock. …
Soon a giant form thrashes clear of water;
a moose, rack erect, plods towards the well,
and pauses. (7)
|The moon and a wolf on the mountain watch as the moose crosses the highway into the path of a car:|
But there on the mountain framed under stars,
The officer points his pistol
On this ancient mountain, a whale and a rock, the old rituals play out: nature confronts humanity, is defeated, but is reunited into nature’s cycles. The violence and sadness of these stories do not lead to despair—they are just part of what the world is. And sometimes the world offers true rest. In “November: The Mourning Moon,”
As evening darkens and the moon begins to thicken,
Now old, old man, the wolf’s lunar homage complete,
|Like Battlefield Guide, these twelve moon stories define America: In “December: The Long Night Blue Moon” (subtitled “The Dakota Cold Moon”) after the Lakota Sioux attacked a cavalry detachment, ghosts appear of the “winter-robed Sioux” and the “blue-clad soldiers, holding/|
|America together in one rhythmic trance, drum,
stamp of bells, strum of guitar, harmony of bugle
until even the Buffalo soldiers begin to sing. (21)
|The Battlefield Guide is divided into three parts, “Harper’s Ferry,” “Antietam,” “Gettysburg,” comprising eight, eight, and nine poems (with introduction and footnotes). Martin explores the richly layered meanings of the “Striated slate foundations” squeezed flat|
|like pages of a national Bible—the book,
layer upon layer locked in shale stacked from shoal
to ridgetop, is the story of ourselves
The Potomac river is “an arrow drawn across the bow of the Blue Ridge,” an arrow that “aims at the heart” (5); before it was the “great divide,” its “waters swung low” and “parted for the wheels of the underground/ railway.” Martin smoothly alludes to spirituals and to history, and reaches even to Old Testament manna before returning to “McAllister’s Mill,/ Gettysburg, Pennsylvania,
Early in “Harper’s Ferry” he recalls his own boyhood visits to the battle sites: “two teenage brothers/ sleep on blankets in a field” where the cows are “faint ghosts or The Klan gathering/its sheets to turn back the clock” (6). His mind cannot rest in these fields: he sees “fifty-eight North Carolinians” killed by rifles from Enfield, CT., as well as barbed wire fence around a “ballistic missile silo” (8). His restless mind warns us against ignoring the anguish of so much death; after all that “colossus astride the inferno,” Pastor Brown, did “preach us murder” (9) and seduce supposedly noble minds.
The poems in “Antietam” are about battle sites, where “even the birds—struck so dumb—/ refused to sing” by day’s end and would not return (16). In a particularly chilling poem, “The West Woods,” we are a sharpshooter watching an enemy soldier through our sights: “I can see/ the folds in his shirt.” “I see his chest rise and fall/ with the rhythm of his walk.” Then I shall “interrupt, simply/ squeeze the trigger and watch/ the entire first wave collapse/ like water on a tired beach” (17), shades of Normandy. One shot contains the battle. No less painful are the stories of actual fathers ordering sons into battle and death (19-20). Martin takes an ironic glimpse of the battle at “Burnside’s Bridge” as if it were a play—Act I, Act II—where the bodies of soldiers become a bridge—“breastworks in the finest sense”—and shooting rifle balls is treated in baseball jargon, the “fireballer/ who has no relief” (21-2). The irony is that we do casually repeat contests of war as if they were sport. In “Antietam National Military Cemetery” “My friend and I [present day] walk back to the church,/ sit silent, stare across the wood benches/ …not daring to speak…,/ knowing…too well/…the push of the itch,/ too well how easy we scratch” (24) that craving to kill.
The “Gettysburg” section begins in the voice of the battlefield guide-poet: “I scout life’s edges and loot a legion’s faded/ compost for bandage, for salve, for hope” (29). We are urged not to tour on hot sunny days: “Wait/ instead until rain from a muffled sky drips/ slowly off the undersides of sycamores,/ their mottled bark peeling like flesh/ sloughing off the bloated carcasses of horse/ scattered silent in Leister’s lanes, ditches…” (29). Here is the true battlefield. The pain is greater in this final section. In “The Wheatfield,” “Cut us down, they said. We are the grass of our union” (35). In “The Schoolteachers’ Regiment,” “It is every student’s dream that their teachers/ march off to war…. What did the teachers do/ over summer vacation…? They did/ what all good teachers do, stood/ shoulder to shoulder…,/ dropped in droves and died” (38).
Because Martin refers to so many known and unknown persons, places, and events, specific to the Civil War, his footnotes (60 of them) are integral to the whole and convey more completely the significance of this historical period; as guide, he must tell the story of ourselves in all its aspects and implications.
Along with Rodger Martin, Terry Farish’s writing has a strong connection to the Vietnam war and attachment to New England mountains. Farish is a novelist, with stories set both in the battle zone and in New Hampshire woods. By juxtaposing the two, she explores their relationships, and in remarkable ways associates the indigenous values of both.
Her 1992 novel, Flower Shadows, is about 19-year-old Diana who goes to Vietnam to work for the Red Cross. In her inexperience and wanting something beyond her Texas home, she believes that the same “crescent-moon shape of Vietnam” would “spill across the state of Texas” (26). As a troop entertainer, she sees much of the damage of battle; she even nurses soldiers, in one case holding the hands of one as he dies. The story Diana tells is mostly about Pearly, a New Hampshire coworker who at the end is murdered by a GI. Diana’s almost accidental friend is Hoa, a Vietnamese girl, a servant of sorts, who steals, if she needs; sells herself to GIs, if she needs; and holds tightly to her traditional cultural values: “Around Hoa, I felt more a part of a complex world that I didn’t understand. It wasn’t comfort. It was more like a reason for being born and dying…. It was a spirit world all worked into the everyday world” (184). Diana falls in love with a GI, but it is Pearly she remembers—“You are my conscience”—and Hoa who guides her: “And Hoa is my light” (213).
In If the Tiger (1995) the Vietnam war still dominates, but we are in Lowell, MA. The threat of Desert Storm hangs through the narrative, which is filled with the remnants of wars, of Cambodians escaping Pol Pot, now living in Lowell (like the Vietnamese refugees in Shadows). The protagonist Laurel comes to know many Cambodians who live there, Chanty in particular. Throughout we learn of Cambodian culture and lore, how Chanty escaped: “In the Pol Pot, a tiger lead me out…. The land is all dead and I am lost and I lose my mother and my father and I cry…. But a tiger he come. … I follow wherever he go.” (85) Chanty quietly reveals details of Pol Pot atrocities: “In my country no trust. Little kid steal your food. Tell on you” (95). Another woman, Kadek, tells how soldiers took her baby and put it into the river to drift away. She is resigned: “There isn’t any food anyway” (105). Others who broke rules “would end up in the plastic bag in the water” (l06).
Although much of the story takes place near Franconia Notch and the Old Man in the Mountain, New Hampshire, where one would expect a certain stability of value, the threat of Desert Storm—“the bombers…had begun striking Baghdad” (170)—as well as memories of Pol Pot’s slaughter of civilians, create a tension which no amount of good will can soften. One character spells out the nature of human life: “All is foreseen and free will is given.” …“What is foreseen?” “Everything.” “And there’s free will?” “Yes, at the same time. You can’t know what’s been foreseen. All there is to act on is free will” (216). But in Chanty’s world free will has little impact. Kob, the father of her child, hovers around and presses his will (“Kob alway know where I am,” 159) according to his Cambodian rules. Cruel as he is, Chanty goes off with him at the end: “Laurel knew she had gone with Kob who was her only living family” (222).
A House in Earnest (2000), a particularly impressive novel, concerns a Vietnam veteran who lives in the New Hampshire mountains. His choice is not an escape, but a return to the layered meanings of that land. The names in the novel suggest allegorical meanings: Christy Mahan (man) lives in a cabin in Bethlehem, near the Milk and Honey Restaurant, which is later The Three Eves; Christy’s wife, Deborah, bears a son named Ian who has a lamb and falls in love with Patience. There is a Buddha statue in the woods. By making Christy a veteran trying to live and survive in the post-war world—after returning he writes a graduate school dissertation on land mines; he teaches, he farms, he has a variety of women friends—Farish can explore the war’s immediate and after-effects for American and for Vietnamese (in Lowell and in the mountains):
Christy meets Deborah the day Saigon falls, and they make love on a rock called Redemption.
The lovers Christy and Deborah make no pretense of being models of fidelity. Christy “has not left one woman above the Notch unfamiliar with him” (19) and she too has many lovers. They separate and return and remarry because they love each other. Both are deeply attached to the mountains: She wonders “if the way we lived up there was something like what war was like. No room for error. It was survival living” (21); she says he is “earth and rock” (10). “When she first came to this place in l975 the immovableness of the mountains had not been clear. …Now they wrapped around her all the darkness and joy and sorrow and young womanhood that the mountains had been the backdrop to” (29), and there she became a kind of commune leader. She longs to grasp what the war was/is like for Christy; her own fears, her “running” as Christy calls it, tear at her: “Is this what it’s like for you Christy?” (122). As often as they are estranged, they struggle to love one another better.
While Vietnamese and Cambodians appear infrequently—Phuong is a baker—consciousness of the Vietnam war persists: as she grows older, Deborah keeps coming back to the woods, as if, “if she hung out with the Buddha enough times, finally she would understand” (170). Christy brought back a grenade (disarmed, hidden in the woods by Ian) as a “concrete” thing to keep at bay the imagined war. Ian (at 7 years) accidently fires his father’s rifle and wounds Patience’s leg. Life prevails amidst constant threats—there are births of children, of dogs; Patience escapes rape, and survives with Ian a mountain snowstorm the day before Christmas. Change is as constant as the pursuit of permanence.
In Shadows and in Tiger the Vietnamese and Cambodians were guided and sustained by a strong traditional culture. The cultural tradition of New England’s Robert Frost—his poem “Directive” provides the book’s title (“this was no playhouse, but a house in earnest”)—presides over the novel. If Christy and Deborah and many of their friends are called hippies, according to contemporary parlance, their values run very deep. In the mountains of New Hampshire where they all live, they are aware of tradition: “Christy drove back to Bethlehem on his own. …The mountains around him were magnificent. They were the result of 400 million years of ancient seas and ice and rock continually shifting. The notch below, his notch, was a U-shaped valley made by the two million years of ice coming through. The ice followed the curve of the earth. It made the rivers and the springs” (231-32). The phrasing sounds like a narrative out of Genesis on the origins of the world. When we read, “Deborah left the mountains” (129), we know it can only be temporary. When Christy is visiting schoolchildren, after his college was shut down, they perceive more than the surface: “The children looked at Christy and to them, maybe he was mythic. If he was from the ruins of the college, couldn’t he be an Arctic explorer, a Roman King, a soldier from any war?” (147) And of course he is all these. And if all of them, he, and Deborah, and all the rest make bad mistakes, together they make love and pain, make food and houses and gardens and children and lives. And they dig ponds, as if to fulfill Frost’s final line:
As evening darkens and the moon begins to thicken,
Now old, old man, the wolf’s lunar homage complete,
Here are your waters and your watering place.
One may be reminded of Rodger Martin’s layering of rock, page, and history in this passage on the ancient origins of these granite mountains. For Farish too, history is layered with Americans,
veterans, refugees, war and post-war that is never really post but continuing. Even though Farish does not mention Monadnock as such, her attention is with the New Hampshire mountains, of which Monadnock is as much the icon as Mount Washington or Chocorua.
Her latest, soon to be published novel, The Good Braider, is set in the Sudan and Maine, not New England mountains. The subject matter of Farish’s novels continues to be the confrontation of immigrants/ refugees with life in the U.S. Braider is divided into four parts: the teenaged Keji’s exposure to war in her homeland; her family’s escape to Cairo; relocation in Maine; and accommodation to life in the States. Farish has a fine ear for the speech and behavior of her Vietnamese and Cambodian characters. But here she makes the daring choice of writing the story in verse, which brings us immediately into the action of the story, and reproduces, especially at the beginning, the oral tradition through the speaker’s hesitant, yet observant, recitation of her tale. The short-line phrasing, which effortlessly shifts into dialogue, expresses not only Keji’s emotion but the tension of what she should not, cannot, express.
I am running.
The soldier slings the rifle on his shoulder.
The boy tried to protest the soldier’s advances toward Keji, and is shot. Knowing the inevitable rape will happen—she is a virgin and her father was killed as a rebel—her taut verse reflects her anxiety, for the violent rape on her body will destroy her bride value, thus her position in family and village.
In her novels, Farish has dealt with the relation of Asian cultures to that of the United States, often finding true similarities in the deeper sources of our culture. In Braider she selects a central Sudanese institution: braiding hair brings together the physical bonding of mother and daughter (daughters braid mothers’ and their sisters’ hair), a tactile proximity—the daughter sits between the mother’s knees—as well as caring, adorning, tale telling, teaching. Braiding remains the main cultural tie of the Sudanese in New England. Finally it becomes economic opportunity as Keji braids white girls’ hair.
While some of the oral texture of her speech seems to fade as Keji arrives in Maine, her survival depends on her allegiance to family as well as the need to work, so she must learn English and she must, amusingly, learn to drive, seemingly the iconic American rite of passage. In the main, the family survives well enough, but there is one moment of terrible cultural collision, as if not all traditions should be valued. Keji’s mother punishes her for associating with a boy— against Sudanese mores—by scalding her arm with steam. When authorities come to take mother away, they permit resident Sudanese elders to adjudicate the matter. Afterwards, Keji’s mother accommodates (capitulates?) steadily into American customs, and at the end, the grandmother, Tata, is brought from Sudan to join the family.
The third writer in this collection is Wisconsin born and now Massachusetts resident, Jim Beschta, whose trail like Farish’s covers a great deal of earth. His Cutting the Cemetery Lawn (2002) is about family and the losses that memories recall. “Alone, dark, loss, empty” are recurring words in his verse. He has an acute recall of his family, from the Midwest especially, where there appears little space for hope and pleasure. His prologue poem “Baggage Claim” sets the tone. Seeking the “mystery/ of my father’s childhood” in a “lost duffle” as well as what belonged to his mother, wife, daughter, son, “All I’m asking for/ is what’s mine” (xvii- xviii). And he seems destined not to find it. On one of his early trips to Australia, the poet hopes to find a lost old friend because he “looked like my father” who is “so far away/ and me so alone” (10). The Midwest, where a number of poems center, is a desolate landscape one cannot get away from (15). Yet as a teacher, reflecting on new students who look like his old ones, he has hopes for one “to do better/ this time around” (17) as if “better” is something that is possible.
When Beschta reaches toward religion, as in “The Jesus Tree” (not the Jesse tree), “no second coming, …/ not even a Golgotha in the distant storm” (21) comes into view. Strangely, against Beschta’s landscape of loneliness, an Eskimo carver, culturally removed from the world of Cemetery Lawn, seems to have the strongest appeal and success:
He has slept
It is the sealness
This is a lovely poem, whose short, neat lines and distinct images perfectly convey the carver’s and the poet’s assurance. It is, in this volume, a rare image of a man whose imagination and actions are one with his subject, a merging of artist and object with no tang of regret or loss. Such an assurance surfaces again when the
poet recalls the morning ritual of his father making breakfast, as he, now, imitates those actions with the satisfaction of continuity: “There is a rhythm to the clink of the fork/ against the sides of the bowl” (48). In “First Night” too, a mother recalls her family in faraway Arkansas to vivify a “private world,” just as another family remembers “music from Kentucky/ brought a thousand miles / and two hundred years / into this cold New England night” (57-58). The strength of family appears also during reflections on a child’s first birthday, where father and son play together: “I know this rascal/ is filled with magic/ and with columbine” (25). Still the loneliness is never far away; when diving with his daughter on the Australian reefs, he feels “lost” and hopelessly separated from her, while she is “free of all but my shadow,/ hovering,/ …her long braid waving/ sympathetically in the current” (63-64) as if very much at home in her ocean world.
Beschta’s poems do not take place near or on Monadnock nor in the New England mountains, and his imagery is not associated with the granite world we find in Martin’s or Farish’s work . His poetic world is New England and the barren Midwest, and on occasion Australia where desolation dominates as well. But his celebration of family, and in particular of mothers, cooking, baking, caring, give his work a special, important solidity.
In North from Yaounde (2010) Beschta, following his daughter who works in the bush in Cameroon, tells of his experience there, his daughter’s, and the world of Cameroon people, without fanfare or grand statements. He begins with personal, minimal, almost insignificant objects: his cap and sneakers.
covered in “Cameroonian dust,”
And the pair
That the shoes are “scrubbed…white” by
discloses everything about his, and their values, which in turn recreate his values:
how I imagine them
His short-lined verse suggests an alert, respectful attention to objects and their meanings. Emotion is rarely revealed, yet it arises from precise language, selection of details, from short-line phrasing that keep our attention focused on what is seen and known out there. He expands little on the customs and ceremonies of the people, nor does he dwell on himself. Yet both they and he are clear.
In “Walking with Cobras,” he has not seen actual cobras, only “The dried, rolled skins/ of their fellows/…at market.” Rather than drawing a metaphor or moral out of his experience, Beschta tells simply of walking “among chicken eggs,” “among tailors/ and women with flatirons,” “among the shiny new fabrics/ of Muslim cloth merchants,” “around the boys/ who pushed carts of beignets/ along the coiling market path.” Only at the end do we find word of their beliefs:
| they bunched around
the blankets of the healers
with their pierre noir,
those black stones trusted
against every venom.
So too the following, “The Sunset Tree” is both a tree with “huge fronds” that allow “slim light” through and where we hear “wild chimps,” and it is a symbol, “the core/ of Sonaga-Yong,” the center that “gathered/ the promises of Cameroon,/ the colors of orchids/ and rivers.” Thus it becomes a focus from which one can measure “the distance from/ the center of our worlds.” In this way Beschta learns of himself in that remote world, his language clear, warm, sensory, his lines focusing our eyes with precision on each detail.
If the forest sounds, orchids and rivers and pineapples convey a too romanticized Africa, his truck does get stuck in the mud. But all the village turn out, join with him to push it free: “Forty minutes later, shouts and high fives.” There is of course, in ‘Night Travel,” fear of “‘Thieves,’” “a solitary light/ some erratic bobbing/ alongside the isolated road.” A suspicious old man distrusts both light and thieves, being “skeptical of anything/ but intimate darkness.” “Machete” signals a more real danger: “Nineteen inches of razor edge” is given daughter Shayne as “protection against death threats,” for she helps sick people where illness is considered proof of another’s magic. More frightening yet, the “Fulani Horsemen” “charge uphill/ near Jakiri,”
|And in the vanguard, always,
the young, the dangerous,
those who race to the crest
and pull up
their terrible power and daring,
rearing in sand and sweat.
The potential violence is precisely caught in these lines, an image of Africa closer to the Sudan that Terri Farish describes.
|“Good-Bye to Issa” is a farewell to their driver:For two weeks
he had driven us
over muddy roads,
where kids played soccer
with rolled newspapers….
Although the poet brings back valued memories of people there, the fear of loss, of “Cameroon already slipping away,” is only rescued by his own determination:
|We are still gathered there,
African night vast
I imagine it still there,
some six years past,
the faint aura of prayer…. (“Benchmark”)
These ten well-crafted poems tell of Beschta’s reaction to himself and the African world. He is absorbed in this experience, intense and often anxious because of love and concern for his daughter, and because of the strangeness of Africa. He feels not loss or dislocation here but genuine attachment and mutual understanding. Unlike Shayne, he does not try to “go bush.” We feel in these verses a strength of self- confidence, a position of assurance (almost a Monadnock of self) of who he is and where he is from; what he has and what the friends in Yaounde have. The two worlds have met and learned and returned home.
Whereas Beschta travels expansively, the next writer is unusually fixed in her location. Susan Roney-O’Brien titles her 2000 volume of poems, Farmwife, and that tells it all. These are poems about a farm woman, wife, and mother, unapologetically reflecting on her work, her view of the world, her honest, joyous, appreciative sensitivity to the fullness of her world and its difficulties.
Susan’s language is direct and clear, and invariably apt; her figures feel natural, as if anyone might have thought of them. While comfortably at home with nature’s seasonal cycles, there is little to place the subjects as distinctly New England, nor are there mentions of places like Mt. Monadnock. In a sense the poet generalizes a farm life that might suit the Midwest or Southwest. As such, the poems, while about life on a farm, never feel self-centered; they generously welcome us in to listen to basic lessons.
Like most first poems of a volume, “The Egg” announces essential concerns and approaches. In sharp cold weather the speaker shovels a path through the snow to the chicken coop to “hold the cold egg in my mittens,” then cups it in her bare hands to warm the cracked thing until it “begins to heal” “like bones fusing inside a cast/or continental plates/ …locking into place” (1). The egg is calmly metamorphosed into body and earth, and we think: of course, why not? In another (of several) chicken poems, the hen ignores her own husband in order to “roost in the corner pile of hay/…to lay a perfect universe of her own” (11).
In every incident, the farmwife acts and performs her normal everyday tasks. In what could stand as a signature poem, “After,” she thinks of a friend “flying westbound on the redeye,” preparing a business dinner for clients. “I picture you/ gazing over rooftops, watching the tiny people/ descend into tunnels/ that honeycomb the earth beneath.” On the other hand, I, not at all insignificant,
| slide the barn door open,
crouch and scoop out grain,
pour it into the feeder….
tonight I’ll slit the meatbird’s throat
gut her, pluck the feathers, make stew.
The only time you watched, you shuddered. I laughed.
It’s what we do, I said. (12)
Here we find the distinct qualities of her verse, the varied lines perfectly catching each phrase, every detail simply and lucidly presented, the sounds revealing her meanings—the “slit,” “gut,” “pluck” seeming possibly cruel, but they are acts that define her work and satisfaction in creating a pleasant “stew.” The farmwife may offend some delicate souls, but she is not really worried.
There are genuinely hard times, danger, death. But even here there is conscious acceptance that such is the way of life, farm or no farm. A neighbor’s yard may be annoyingly filled with “junk cars,/ mangled fenders”; in July “a cell of wind explodes” and flattens the center of a corn field, ruining part of the crop. But when Ruth, who lives amongst the “car hulks,” contracts cancer, her family gives everything for her. “Who knows where cancer comes from or/ why wind blows the middle of a corn patch down? “(9-10). In short, we endure, we hope, we do our best, together, and accept the mystery of things.
Understanding and living with nature’s cycles, she is actively hopeful.
|If I could be anything but human,
I would be one of the grasses
now pushing white roots t
hrough black soil….
I would be not yet born to light,
but… awaiting snowmelt, the ritual of blossom. (7)
Even travel to fresh places does not draw her. When people with “backpacks,/ talked of Mexico, India, Colorado,” she cannot answer in kind: “The only language I spoke/ was crowflight: time and distance/ known and measured, each destination/ ticking in my blood” (25).
Although these poems may not be locked into a specific New England landscape, there is no mistaking the solidity and permanence (like Monadnock) of the poet’s position from which she views herself, nature, and her world of work. She seems to share her grandmother’s quilting of “Blossoms and leaves worked in ecru thread…,/ linked to night and to wheels of time by fine lines”; leaves and stars and petals “fell in delicate folds ”(4). The quilt is so exquisite she must save it unused—a joy in making, like that of making poems. Similarly, the wife shares her husband’s astonishment:
|he will tell his wife of twenty years
it is enough to hang his life on—unexpected
voices of frogs in February
waking him from sleep, pulling him back
beyond all the things he thought he wanted… (6)
In her just-published volume, Earth (2011), Roney-O’Brien’s poems have different tones and concerns. (Photographs by Bruce Robert Dean appear against each poem to echo and reinforce it.) Both artists “have our feet firmly planted in the soil of New England” (introduction) but her view of earth is not a repeat of what we experienced in Farmwife. The opening poem, “Before,” sets the basic paradox: negatives are neither negations nor denials but assertions of complexity we seek to grasp, not as we grasp science and fact but as we grasp by imagination. Yet even imagination, as in making metaphors and similes, is not the goal.
|Everything, one might imagine, was swirling—
but there was no everything and without air, without
wind, heat, tides, or intention,
nothing moved. But if nothing moved,
you must have been able to see it not moving. (2)
Even the void, which we often presume is nothing, is “not a void/ because a void is and exists and is named….” As in Paradise Lost, the void is actual (like chaos in chaos theory).
| where everything waited,
everything wanting to be,
the small voice that no one heard
was singing up the earth
We can imagine, yes, or dream, but in this void we know there is intention, spirit or breath, sound, and that singing voice. While not necessarily God or a being, this sought power is real, not because we imagine it but because in the silence we hear it. We soon begin to forget these are paradoxes and give ourselves over to speculations about being that seem perfectly normal.
If sound, silence, senses are frequent terms, so too is the convergence of earth’s three levels: above, surface, and underground. In “Christmas Eve” (the poems follow seasonal sequence)
Setting posts this past spring, each twist of the drill
the star under the earth is also the Christmas star; feeling “finally home” she invites
the animals will speak
but so very slow each syllable joins the next
and all sound becomes a steady breathing. I was told
that in the space of a breath, a lamb
could praise all creatures above and below his knowing. (4)
|The poem ends with silence that speaks, for breath means spirit. The language here depends not so much on formal imagery but on the urging that we immerse ourselves into earth—thus into ground and into air—to reach knowledge that is not merely intellectual but more deeply felt than actually known by the senses.|
Being “firmly…in the soil of New England,” the poet’s concerns are often the rural business of ice storms (“Storm,” 6) or the “End of Winter” (8), a poem particularly beautiful in its sound effects:
|The dun-colored doe crosses the road
leaping between snow tatters. At the Citgo Station,
the boy in jeans and a tee shirt fills the tank.
Overhead a pair of geese deliberates…. (8)
A perhaps iconic poem of her approach and themes is “It is not” (the title the first line): paradox is neither denial or confusion but truth; her lines feel at first tentative because short and slow but in fact carry deliberative assurance.
It is not
the stones we choose
This play of paradox moves us to search beyond; even when language seems insufficient, we keep reaching. “Not the note/ in stone silence/ but what happens after:/ the whole cascading/ symphony/ in your ear.” And we know we will hear. For it is there in the seeking.
The spiral of layered images—stone/ water/shell/ nebulae/ calcium/ fingers/ dark/ holding—is a revelation of the universe, imagination as philosophy. In “Psychometry” every object associates with others, the whole world in a grain of sand:
|A woman reaches her hand in, lifts
stone through water, examines
surface runes: intersecting veins,
a cross hatch she recognizes as familiar,
important, though nameless
and on the other side, an eagle
emerging from a shattered shell—
bird born of stone. (16)
By attention to the actual—stone/ rune/ vein/ eagle—one perceives everything. But, now, what does this intense consciousness, this knowledge, do; where does it lead us?
We, in our bodies
The stunning line-break—“have always known beauty/ CANNOT SAVE US”—brings sharp reminder that the body is our home, Platonic musings notwithstanding. The beauty of love, celebrated in “Lepidoptera,” returns us to this fragile, crucial, human world. In the concluding “Prayer”
Let me imagine peace, find the spell
The poet herself, while not present in all poems, brings us home with her in this poignant reminder of what we are here for, a return to the barn, with children, to animal breath, the spirit of life. While we say these poems are different, one finds elements in Farmwife that are here expanded:
What is the speed of dark
Earthiness is always central in Roney-O’Brien’s poetry, as is the assuredness of her craft in diction, line, stanza, sound, poem. New England does not need to be specified, for its ancient layered values, found in the objects of her world—the “glacial melt” of “granite and shale” (l6)—are the bases of her poems’ profound and very moving meditations on the complexity of living.
Identifiable New England locales are the setting of many of Pat Fargnoli’s poems. She writes at Robert Frost’s house, she visits his grave, after a short trip to Ireland she hurries back to Cranberry Island, ME. Necessary Light (l999), her first book, is, obviously, about light, beginning with paintings by Hopper “with windows lit up/….against the shadows of the night” (5). But nature, rather than painting, attracts her, identifies who she is. Crossing on a ferry, she watches silvery water drops on the rail, a “shearwater grazes the whitecaps,” night dropping down:
I am ocean and sky,
Step by step, line by short line, we advance with her to harmony, complete in those final six declarative words.
Not that nature is not implacable (“Deer froze to stone on the mountain,” 27). And human beings are vulnerable: “twelve of them/ curled lifeless on sand” from a lightning strike (28). Still light wins out. In a field with bird calls, “I begin to know my place among them,” and “I am no longer lonely” (30). On occasion a religious feeling creeps into her verse: “These things I’ll keep: stars shaking at the web/ of tree branches, pans clattering in the kitchen/ …and the church carillon…which chimes/ its Vespers each evening” (44).
From this moral, spiritual, geographic viewpoint, she meditates on death, this being “the day of Hiroshima,” when “Japanese bodies became light.” It is also “the day my father died.” Also the day of Christ’s transfiguration into light on a mountain top (62), a “Christ, in whom I may not even believe” (63). But her physical position (from the Frost Place, NH) makes possible this harmony of meditation:
… this pine-laden air, all rising
Her meditation rests in silence:
my canoe slides through into June sun, cathedral quiet….
Fargnoli’s 2005 collection, Duties of the Spirit, begins with “The Invitation” into a garden, a “place where/ the impossible/ is shaking/ its bright turquoise feathers” (3), a place rich in nature’s colors and the possibility of revelation. Yet in the distracting social world of twelve friends dining, a bat, a “thing so dark” insists on entering and is almost missed, “Seen/unseen. Seen/unseen,” on account of the society (4). Through this volume pain-loss-death are the dark barriers that one must resist. In “Walking on Reservoir Road,” one must “press yourself to the world,” “trust faith,” and “push yourself beyond where/ even the dogs turn back” (9-10). The nature of that faith remains elusive. Against a man’s argument for suicide, she “could feel an energy rise from somewhere/ deep in my body, …/ a river, a rope” to insist “No”! (30). When a “white steeple lifts over the town,” she wonders “what is left to tether me to the earth.” They both sit “a long time in silence” (31). Hope is
real, but has few answers. Late in the volume,
I write about beauty. I cannot resist.
Her final “Request” is “for whatever it is/ that makes my heart light” (77).
In Then, Something (2009) the poet comes closer to finding that “whatever.” As she struggles “On the Question of the Soul,” she lists all that soul is not (iron, deer, heron, thrush), but “it nevertheless bears us forward” (5). “Animals have souls,” and “I thought I saw a soul embedded in a rock.” “What door/ slides back at last, Patricia? Light comes in” (8). If she persists, she believes something is bound to emerge. Like her search for the meaning of soul, she pursues Body and Blood imagery—a rare use of Christian Mass motifs—and finds the real presence both in body (“lobelia whose name fills my mouth”) and blood: “the wild grapes clinging/ to the wall.” “And here is New England aster, its flowers/ bluer than wine. Eat and drink: here, now,/ on this giving earth, these sacraments” (49-50).
Her search for God ranges through nature with a confidence that there is energy and intelligence in the world, and spirit, “because of something in the body that wants to be lifted.” So, “if not God, then what in place of…,” as we “walk beside the still waters” (61) of the Psalmist. As a kind of antidote to Frost’s “Design,” she takes the strangeness of the world as evidence not of malevolence (which she knows well enough) but of a somewhere-spirit. Never far from her New England landscape, “Small Prayer Mosaic” is a series of prayers (a pun on Moses?) by the spoon, the cat, the door, the red-tailed hawk, each of whom has its freedom; the hawk prays: “let me rise in the thermals,/ let me fall and rise, fall and rise” (72). Even her closing scene, watching a moose with his mate in a lake, “something held them,” and I “in a kind of trance,/ …leaning toward them.” “Or am I only making something of them they were not?” (73)
This anxious certitude or positive hesitance marks Fargnoli’s verse. Her verse forms are versatile, short lines, long lines, varied indents, in-line pauses, striking line-breaks, but always with meticulous diction and images. She is at her best, not when locked into human pain, but when questing, standing in the landscape of New England, whence she draws her imagery and her solaces—though uncertainty remains. In Duties of the Spirit the effort is painful: “I am slipping on the scree of my mountain,/ I am sliding…. If there/ is a bottom to all this, I haven’t found it.” (33). InThen,Something
|The spirit reaches after—
there must be more
than this lake its kaleidoscope of colors,
the monadnock that rises
already snow-topped beyond it, (58)
determination leads toward hope, as if she were climbing the mountain, believing there has to be something definite there. The generic “monadnock” is any solitary mountain, a solidity of nature that reveals nourishment for the spirit but has no bottom or top. After alI,
I believe in the questions.
How many dancing universes? And how far?
How small am I under them— and yet…
Like the work of most poets, John Hodgen’s verse is about a search for meaning. There is little of the optimistic; the search is painful and frustrating. For instance, seeing his dead father, “I go outside…to stand with him”; “I tell him again of my loneliness,” but his father’s eyes are an “endless expanse” and he leaves “without a word” (In My Father’s House, 1993, 22).
When the poet questions who or what God might be, each “answer” begins with “Perhaps…” (37). In that search, as we take our flights (like Amelia Earhart or Wiley Post) “through the endless beard of God,” just before we run out of gas, crash, and drown, “we would be looking even then/ …for…a beacon, a small runway,/ a cottage with a light left on” (45). In a somewhat uncharacteristic poem, a Nigerian student rejects the poet’s evidence that men walk on the moon (“I show her…astronauts”), but she, unmoved, insists on her own metaphor: the moon “is the eye of the old one.” “It is the mother who cradles us deep in our sleep.” And he admits “she is right” (58). Yet he does not follow that imaginative vision. The volume’s final poem about death and heaven—which to his dead mother “looks a little like Mexico” with beaches and cabanas—for him is just a “blanketed place in the gathering night” (61). While the student easily merges the earthly with the spiritual, Hodgen’s frequent Christian imagery does not appear to grant a base of belief.
Bread Without Sorrow (2001) bears the distinctive Hodgen mark of punning poems (Marilyn Monroe and “abnormal jeans” 13), poems of tabloid shock (“Father Superglues 5-year-old Daughter’s Eyes (So that she will never know the sight of love,” 25), poems of searching, “Stopping the Jesus” (15). All the poems are in their way about love, its wonders, limits, perversions.
Jesus takes on many guises. Jesus and the poet’s father walk together, “like Laurel
and Hardy, bowler hats/ … another fine mess,” a burlesque image admittedly, but “I could live with that” (15). “Jesus’s Little Sister” may have “loved him” but her inability to help him—“In the end she could not save him”—explores the inevitable limits of love to change another. “At night she would put out her candle/…dream again of seamless cloth, bread without sorrow, /of a boy who found God wherever he looked” (40-1). Though seemingly a discouraging conception of love, this poem addresses the reach of human love when confronting the divine. It cannot go there; she cannot save her brother because he will not be saved from human pain. She is left with a “mouth full of pins,” a gifted seamstress, limited though not hopeless.
But in spite of dealing with insane news flashes of domestic disaster there are, in the later stages of Sorrow, flashes of light. In a dark Christmas season—“no tree yet, no lights”—he recalls “old uncles and aunts from the war,/ …all dead now, or dying.” “They knew they were lost, yet they held on for us,/ stood like these trees alone in the world.” “And this love that has come that I cannot account for,/ this tree, this light, this place in the world,/ this life I am given, this weeping for joy.” (46) Perhaps one should not search for the answer: family love is a mystery that lives. Later he describes another mystery, “This cathedral of silence and light,/ magnificent, unspeakable” (54) because beyond human language, yet no less real for that. In a poem near the end of the volume, “When the cook falls in love we can all eat for free/ and the diner stays open all night./ Even Jesus comes in, the body of Christ,/ bread and fish once again,” the poet puns and jokes, but the Christian imagery becomes real, for the whole world comes to the diner “so famished, so weary, so hungry for living,/ for the night neverending, for the diner of love.” (66) God is the providential cook.
In his 2006 book, Grace, Hodgen’s poem “For the Leapers” (7) contains his trademark expressions—references to the past, Alamo, Saigon, Scripture—and images of all our fallings: in love, asleep, from grace, “past the angels,/ we will fall from such height/ … straight through hell./And then we will rise.” The assurance that we will rise and hope is extended from the prior volume. In “Leapers” there is more attention to United States history. In “This Moon, These Fifty Years” he memorializes his oldest brother with a chronicle of his world: Buick Dynaflow, “Camels, unfiltered,” songs, novels, Mescalero Apache, the Rio Grande, baseball— Williams, Doerr—beer, Sputnik, none of the items trivial but meaningful for the younger waiting brother (11-13).
In “Manifest Destiny” we see Walt Whitman, a Civil War nurse, caring for damaged soldiers, “telling them their sweethearts would still marry them…, would ease them into bed, kiss them into silence” (19). Many writers are mentioned, American and world, Lorca, Thoreau, Carver, Yevtushenko; musicians and artists, and of course movies, Jimmy Stewart defeating “the Comanches” (23). But the next poem, “On a Wing,” veers from history toward “searching for a prayer” that seems evanescent. In the next, the Ed Sullivan Show features an act with spinning plates— which is “a little like Jesus before the Last Supper,/ keeping his disciples’ haloes
from falling” (25). Hodgen of course seeks “Proof,” of “God’s autograph, /His certain seal, saying I made this,/ this belongs to me” (28).
Some poems reflect personal experience, his charity to one whose “name would have been Maria, had I asked” (41). Two black women laugh at their van that will not run; they smile, and I, “conjoined,” help them and “know that I am smiling too” (42). Something of a surprise, his final poem (prose), “The Oldest Lie,” is about a new subject, Middle Passage slaves being thrown overboard on their way to this country, a whole village of them, to be chewed up by sea creatures. The “lie” is the facile claim that they are at last free, washed in the sea and rising. Yet in spite of such horror, he catches a momentary vision: “Still, just this morning, in the blue and black mist that lies above the cold,/ I saw them walking, school children alighting from the yellow ships of their buses,/ each with one hand held freely to another, each with another hand to hold” (56). Rising in some fashion may yet be possible.
John Hodgen neither physically nor imaginatively stands on the secure bedrock of Monadnock. He walks away from its base, to explore the bizarre distances of our country, our history, our everyday stupidity and misery. And yet he remains tethered to that mountain in order to hold onto a place from which to watch his freakish world, chancing the risk of leaving it behind and venture into confusion. As Rodger Martin points out, we writers can leave, “because the iconic image of that mountain is rooted deep within our memory and what faith we have knows it will be there for us if and when we return.” Hodgen makes much of the everyday, such the men’s world of baseball, bars and beers, of boys thinking of parents, thinking of becoming men, thinking of mothers, of families, and what they might eventually mean, though at the time they mean aggravation. There is a desolate misery to the men who hit the bar because the game at Fenway has been rain-delayed:
they will know it is death they were drinking,
these nights like their brothers gone off to the war,
their fathers long dead who have left them alone. (45)
They may also think of their mothers, pick up “the scent” of their “mother’s desperation” as their days come “faster and faster” to a close. Many are the thoughts of families as parts of history. Perhaps it is here that Hodgen is most at home, accepting the pain, seeing past it.
Hodgen’s latest collection, Heaven & Earth Holding Company (2010) if anything extends his proclivity for puns, allusions, and quotes. Among these often long-line poems are prose poems and a large sampling of rhyming poems.
The opening poem, “Undiscovering America,” catalogues all the explorers, often punningly—“Cabot saying cheese, …dodgy DeSoto”—as they turn back home and reject the whole venture, murmuring Prufrock-like: “This is not what we were looking for, this is not it at all” (3). Such a rejection of America sets the dark tone of this first section—epigraphed “…must i remember?…”—and perhaps of the volume.
The book is also about words, poetry: the girl who was punished by having to stick out her tongue, might, just might, some day “speak in the whispers of the trees” (4). In the poem to Bob Dylan, words again fail: “our tongues cut out, no words left to be said,/ all the things we’ve ever loved, dead, dead, dead, dead” (6). Yet Hodgen plays every which way with words—not always happily: “he is the only man I know who can have his kayak and Edith too” (7); “course air…Corsairs” (8); the “Watson family crick in his neck, his DNA” (13).
His poem “Keats” is about reaching for light, “a heart, so rich, filled with palpable light” that “he could offer it to” Fanny Brawne, “the light of his life” (9). But such a flash of brightness does not last. In “Killing Mice, December,” “We’re all in traps…. We’re all going to die. Just make it quick” (11). “Sorrow” allows no let-up: Mrs. Sorrow is wed to Mr. Sorrow, “always has been, always will be” (12). If we hope that a flying poem will be a little brighter, not so: “Poem to Be Read at 30,000 Feet” begins, “The plane went into the bay, like a rock” (16).
Hodgen varies his locales; several are New Orleans poems, some are Midwest, some are New England. While “coming down from New Hampshire” (near Monadnock, with Jim Beschta), he wonders not about that terrain or its meaning, but about Atlas’ burden holding up the world: “wondering where he was standing,” a question about the myth of location as well as about his own poetic stance “all downhill from here” (27-8).
Echoing his earlier poems, “Brief History” (history a constant theme) reflects on his dead father: “I hold my dead father in my arms. I think of him, his brief history, … whatever broken place he is [now] in./ It is broken here too. He would be right at home. I am more alone than I have ever been” (31). In this broken place, Bethlehem offers little help: a young Amish girl coming home at Christmas after being wounded “in the shootings,” “will never believe. She will not believe kings, will not wish on any scattered star./ She has seen a few things. She knows who we are” (34). Questioning who and what we are, a constant Hodgen theme, allows him amplitude to explore our worst sides.
In the longest poem “History,” a small boy (with two mothers) wails away with a word we “can’t make…out,” or with wordless sounds (“leftover vowels…Om, Om”), or like the poet’s father searching “for the rest of his life,/ some word he could say for what he believed, what he thought might be true,/ some place he might find,” some “word full of grace” (38-9). Accumulated details and images drive these long, word-filled lines, the cadence tense and packed with the urgency of his longing, his searching for a word or words to answer his craving: “my father and the boy with two mothers standing in the yard on the clearest spring day/ of their lives, the moon and the stars still there in the sky like the deer at the edge/ of the clearing, and some bird high above all of us now, the yellow-tailed hawk of our history,/ the bird that has watched us every day of our lives, and which at night we think is a star,/ lazily circling with each loop, with each scree, with each caw, the bird inside the husk/ of the bird, the bird we carry…” (40).
Amidst lists of the “dead now or pretty close to it” (42), the killers and the killed, there comes a space of calm and sympathy: during an Admissions tour at Yale, visitors are suddenly parted by “a cleaning lady…/ pushing a blue plastic barrel on a cart.” “We are all in her way./ Then she parts us like Moses in a sea of admissions,/ and there is no name for the silence that begins to accrue.” Cowards, we look the other way: “Someone asks about…problems with roommates, …locks on the doors” (53)—a crisp effective poem with real understated feeling. An earlier poem, “Sleep Comes to Mary Todd Lincoln,” is similarly sympathetic: she is one of “a new nation of housewives all alone, crying in their sleep,” whether the man was killed in Dallas or “blown up/ by roadside bombs” (29).
While Hodgen is often overcome by the load of those roadside bombs, such waves of sympathy warm his long journey of searching. In “Easter” a disfigured old woman in church “her hand having touched the holiest water,” forgives us like a priest “for all we have done, for how far/ we still have to go, …/ for never knowing the thing that we do” (64). The volume closes with “Declaration”: “Every poem is a love poem.” Like Paul Revere’s wife waiting, while he “risked his life for his country. The country of love, she says”; “her breathing, warm in his arms, love that had him racing/ to reach her again,” quite “like a poem, don’t you think?” (71)
As we said at the outset, each of these writers has a distinct, personal relation to this mountain, Monadnock. They do not copy each other, they do not stand side by side gazing at its top, but they do stand with a strength of vision, which may be at times difficult to sustain as they seek their way through complexity and contradiction. If Monadnock means “standing alone,” these writers do, and they do not. There does seem to be a true school; the subtle connections are present. However far away any one of them ventures, there remains in the mind, in the imagination, a mount of stability.