This page is a small group of poems about life, or rather death, in the country. A couple of them have been very well received. Others have been popular locally, but seem not to strike a responsive chord with those who do not share the cultural background of the poem. The first poem, "Digging a Grave Without Pay" has been generally popular. It won the Muriel Craft Bailey Prize, and was published in Lyric, the oldest and most respected of the magazines devoted to traditional forms. The editor later submitted it for the Pushcart Poetry Prize, the most prestigeous of yearly prizes for a single poem. It did not win that, and it is unlikely that any poem quite so conservative in form and content could. More recently the editor of Marklander, an Asatru magazine requested a copy to print in that journal, though the imagery of the poem is closer to Greek/Roman than to Norse tradition. The actual event took place when I was in high school, about thirty years before the writing of the poem.
Digging a Grave Without Pay
From where I stand among the stones,
I see the church half down the hill,
The soft, grey sky, the goose-down snow,
The narrow road, and all is still,
So still the clapboard steeple's bell
could no more ring, or car could pass,
Than if this little round of earth
Were in a snowstorm globe of glass.
This grave is for a woman who
I did not know, except by name,
Yet debts of blood and friendship reach
Through generations with their claim.
Besides, someday when I am earthed,
This act of filial piety
May be remembered by the shades
Who flock around to welcome me.
For here are more who bear my name
Than I could meet atop the land,
And we must share this hillside when
The stones above have worn to sand.
This poem was also very well received. It was published by Potato Eyes, a very fine and fairly expensively put together poetry magazine from Maine. The title may not sound like much, but people in Maine have a much more respectful attitude toward potatoes than the rest of us do. The editor of that magazine, to my surprise, submitted it for the Pushcart Poetry Prize, though like the other poem, it did not win. The name of the subject of the poem has been changed a little, not because the poem says anything uncomplimentary, but because it is somewhat personal. He did, by the way, recover from the accident and is still alive a number of years later.
It was a shock to learn that Virgil Jones,
Who'd worked with tractors more than fifty years,
Had turned his over, driving home the cows,
And lay near death.
A week ago today
He'd hauled my daughter's long-awaited horse,
A trip of more than twenty miles, and then
Had asked ten dollars for his time and truck,
Though twice that would have hardly bought the gas.
And, oddly, on that trip we'd talked of death.
He'd said that when the old man died--I think
It was his father, but I'm not sure now--
He'd done some chores, then lain beneath a tree.
But when he did not move all afternoon,
Someone had gone to check, and found him dead.
And where his body lay, the grass all died,
And did not grow again for many years.
"So something must have gone from him, you see."
But what that something was, I did not know,
Or how one ought to speak of it, and so
I took the safe path of propriety,
And said it was a proper way to go.
This poem was published by Pearl, a very nice, and professional-looking magazine which has turned down some of my other stuff. The first stanza is an intuitive rather than an intellectial element of the poem; whether it belongs or not I am still not sure. The poem is about the murder of a well-known local drug dealer and his girlfriend in a very brutal manner. The crime is still unsolved, though rumor points to someone I could name. The small house, near Cheshire, Ohio, stood empty for several years, but is now occupied.
The House of the Murdered Man
The rocks behind the dead man's house
Rise strangely from the earth,
As though the close-cropped pasturefield
Were giving monstrous birth.
There is a shadow on the house,
Although there is no shade--
A darkness of the mind, no doubt,
And not by nature made.
No dark that instruments could gauge,
Or the unknowing sense.
Yet, even so, I would not own
This house that no one rents.
This poem was published in a magazine called Parting Gifts. The Stevens Fox is a very small, blue steel, octagonal barreled rifle like the one the little boy has in the film Shane. The Savage company later bought Stevens out, but continued the model. I can't think of any other explanation this poem needs.
The Savage-Stevens-Fox comes up--it seems
Too small and slim, too daintily designed
To have a thing to do with death. There is
A crack no louder than a screen door's slam;
The bull goes down upon his knees, begins
To fold upon himself, ten topples, falls.
Now as I see his blue-black eyes gone dry,
His heavy tongue lolled in the dirt, I think,
He was no friend, but still was one of us.
My God, I'm glad it is not men we kill.
The last three poems of this collection form their own small group. They are the sort of anecdote which makes up much of the common store of tradition for the local community. Most outsiders seem to miss the point, but local people particularly like these, and tend to discuss them at length, even if the incident in question is not one they have heard before. I was at a poetry reading a couple of years ago, and of all the poems I read, the one the local editor honed in on was "One Pack of Mail Pouch." Small Economies" is about a local family especially noted for stinginess. The name, of course, has been changed. A hay rope is a heavy rope used in a system of pulleys to draw hay up into a mow. Today, almost no one but the Amish put up unbaled hay. This poem has never been published.
Old Stout was tight, so tight he squeaked--
So those who knew him said.
He hanged himself behind the barn,
And when they found him dead,
A neighbor hurried home to call
The sheriff out from town.
He came, he looked, he drew his knife
To cut the body down.
"Don't cut that hay-rope--it's brand new!"
The son cried in alarm.
But then, what ought an heir to do?--
It was a dirt-poor farm.
This poem is about an event that took place at the Sugar Run Mill over half a century ago. The mill itself was moved a considerable distance to its present location in Pomeroy, Ohio in the 1840's, and is still in operation. The poem was published in Muse, a good-looking and expensively printed little magazine that folded after one issue due to the death of the editor. I have always liked this poem.
One Pack of Mail pouch
"Just one will do," he said, ". . . today,"
And brushed the other pack away,
Perplexing all of us until
We found him hanged behind the mill.
Ebersbach's Hardware was a prominant business in Pomeroy for many decades. This particular event took place a generation or more ago. The poem was published in Poetpourri. The man's name has been changed--an unfortunate fact, since it was a good one, but one must consider sensibilities.
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