Saturday, November 23, 2019

Pasture Oak

It had always been there, crowning the knoll
for as long as the boy could remember
and even longer than that, for as long 
as his father and even his old grandfather 
could quite recall.  He had heard it said
that the oak was already old when the first
New Englanders and Kentuckians came
to erect their cabins on Spoon River
in the 1830s—  and, earlier yet,
that bands of Potawatomi hunters
had stopped to rest in its shade, or so
his grandfather claimed and, as certain proof,
produced an arrowhead from a drawer
in his roll-top desk and related how
he’d discovered it tucked among the roots
when he was a lad himself.  Which was proof 
enough for the boy, never mind how the father
rolled his eyes. And for his own part,
the boy more than half believed the oak
was as old as the earth itself— clasping
the outcropped rock with roots like a claw
of some mythic bird.  And as often as he
could steal away, the boy clambered up
the knoll to curl like a cat among
the roots and watch as the cattle reclined
and chewed their cuds in the shade.
The boy would do nothing at all for days
but to slumber there where no one had come
and no one had ever discovered him.
He would drift in and out of consciousness
as he watched the thunderheads cross the sky
and dream of the earth as it once had been
when the Potawatomi hunted there,
and dream as well of an earlier time
when mammoths and bison had crossed the plain
like the flowing of grasses beneath the wind.
And so it transpired that, gradually,
over months and years, the rooted old oak
so infused the thoughts and dreams of the boy
in accordance with some archaic bond
of men and trees, that he slowly assumed
characteristics of the oak itself,
becoming stubborn and deeply attached
to a single place, steadfast alike
in sun and in storm, set in his ways,
partial to rain, indifferent to cold,
inclined to the moon and the dark of night,
reluctant to rile, slow to forget.

And when, at the end of his life, he returned
to that peaceful knoll, long after the farm
had been passed along to some stranger’s son
who lived in another state altogether,
or another country, as far as he knew,
the oak stood in ruin, its mighty trunk
hollowed out and its once ennobled crown
entirely shattered by midsummer storms
and lightning strikes, a mere wreck of itself.
The old man stopped, as he always did
while he remained some distance away
and surveyed the knoll that rose up ahead.
The oak still stood: its bleakly disfigured
and broken stature circled in leaves.
A single crow at the top of the oak
alerted the country with three hoarse caws,
then silently flew away to the north
toward a darkening wood.  Within the oak’s
elipse of shadow, a solitary bull
interrupted his grazing to raise his head
and glower at him at him for a tense interval
before returning once again to his grass.
The old man leaned on his walking stick
and kept his distance, observing the slow
dispersal of amber across the land
until all of the far-off clustered farms,
tree-lined fencerows and old sycamores
along Spoon River were starting to glow.
The old man was tired, his every joint ached
and he understood that the time had come
when he should be walking away.  In the West,
as dusk was blurring the outermost fields,
the dying and truncated oak receded
into the shadowed past, disappearing
layer by layer, subsiding away
like a memory just at the edge of sleep,
until only a ghostly trace remained
as a silhouette against the sky.

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

New, enlarged edition of Stark County Poems is in the works

     A new edition of Stark County Poems is currently in the works. It will include most, though not all, of the poems in the first edition, all of the illustrations, and an as-yet-to-be determined number of new poems.

Unlike the first edition, which was concerned chiefly with World War I and the Great Depression, this new edition will reach back in time to the first European settlement of the upper Spoon River valley in the 1830s and will have a number of poems which cover the frontier period, the Civil War, the later 19th century and the first decades of the 20th century.

While the order of the poems in the new edition are not yet determined, they will probably be arranged chronologically. 

Two poems from the new collection, "A Black Woolen Shawl" and "Closing Inventory" are presented in the postings directly below this one.  The incident described in "A Black Woolen Shawl" is based on a true story from the 1830s, and occured along the Spoon River a few miles north of Toulon.

Additional postings about the new edition, from time to time. will present more of the new Stark County poems.

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Closing Inventory

When they found him at last, he was face down
in a pool of milk out behind the barn,
an empty tin pail against his boot.
They summoned the doc, who declared him dead,
then they laid him out on the bed of the truck

and carried him back to the funeral home.
The following day they returned to the house,
where none of them had been for years,
intending, as well as they could, to put
his affairs in order, collect his receipts

and documents, and close his accounts.
Upstairs at the back, they found his bed
as neatly arranged as if he were still
a married man, although he had been
a widower now for some thirty years.

A plain wooden cross was hung on the wall
beside a window that looked out across
a quarter-acre of derelict trucks
and discarded implements choked in vines.
On his wife’s dressing table, undisturbed

apparently, since the day she had died,
a brush and mirror, a porcelain vase,
a photograph of her younger self
in a marquetry frame.
The men stood silent, taking it in,

then solemnly descended the stair
to his office, in what must have been
the parlor once— a roll-top desk,
a clamshell lamp and a telephone,
red-cornered ledgers, a spindled stack

of bills and receipts. A horsehide chair
was positioned beside a bookcase filled
with old tractor manuals, several shelves
of history, bibles, household hints,
hymnals and westerns, seed catalogues

and the odd issue of Breeder’s Gazette.
And on every hand, the desultory
detritus of an aging man’s life—
a half-empty tin of horse liniment,
a box of shells, a pouch of Old Whale,

a jar of assorted matches and nails.
One of the men bound up the ledgers,
another removed some folders from
the file cabinet. The rest of the men
moved down the hall to the kitchen where,

beside the sink, the remains of egg
and toast on a plate, a coffee-stained mug,
a folded page of the Stark County News--
an old Regulator clock on the wall
emitting a steady tick, tock,

as it had for years— a window propped up
with a butter knife and curtains that seemed
to rise and fall of their own accord.
The men filed out by twos and threes
to stand on the porch for a cigarette

before making their way across the yard
to the barn to feed and water the stock.
And then it was late and, however much
remained to be done, it was time to leave.
After the dust of their truck had drifted

across the field, the house became mute
as a mausoleum, shadowed and shut
against the world and even against
the passage of time itself,

in the kitchen where the window still
stood open to the evening sky,
allowing a touch of damp from the fields
and the faint, uncertain
scent of rain.

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

A frontier burial on Spoon River

For some time now I have been at work on a new cycle of Stark County poems. The original collection was published by Monongahela Books in 2017. It focused on the period during the First World War and the Great Depression. This new cycle of poems will reach further back into the past, through the nineteenth century, to the Civil War, and the frontier period. The poem shown here takes place in 1875, portraying an old gentleman who is describing an event from his own past, during the frontier years of the 1830s. It is based on a true account..

BJ Omanson

A Black Woolen Shawl
                                          A few miles north of Toulon on Spoon River, 1875

He stood at the window a good long while
before he spoke, as he gazed out over

the fields to the west. “If a sickness came
in those early years,” he observed at length—

“if a serious illness or injury came
to one of those settlements along the Spoon,

the nearest physician was a two day ride
by trail to Peoria.” I could sense

there was more to come, so I took out my briar,
thumbed a little burley into the bowl

and settled in for a restful smoke.
“We forget how isolated they were,”

he said thoughtfully. “When mortality called
on one of those pioneer families,

there was rarely a preacher about. There might
be a Methodist circuit rider come through

every month or so, but no more than that.
He grew silent then, and it seemed as though

his mind may have wandered—he stared out beyond
the darkening fields to a distant line

of sycamores marking the river’s course.
“There was one particular time,” he said,

“at a little cabin back in the woods.
It was late in the summer of ‘thirty-six

or ‘thirty-seven. A child had died.
I forget her name . . . ” An extended pause.

“I was unacquainted with her parents,
but I knew the man who made the coffin,

Carlton Winslow—he salvaged the slats
from an old packing crate. There weren’t any mills

on the Spoon as yet—not a board to be had.
And as for the preacher, there just wasn’t time—

they had to relinquish their little girl
to the cool of the earth as soon as they could.

I can still see the father upon his knees
at the edge of the grave, refusing all help

as he struggled to ease the casket down
to its resting place. The mother looked on,

more spectre than woman, unable to speak,
her expression blank on a dead-white face.

I remember she wrapped herself in a shawl,
a black woolen shawl, in spite of the heat.

And that’s all he said. After such a span
of years his memories rose and returned

to the dark by causes hard to discern.
He straightened slightly, as though to resume

his post, and marked the gradual melt
of dusk into nightfall across the fields.

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

The Persistence of Regionalism (introduction to Jared Carter's The Land Itself)

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.

This essay may be read in its entirety on the blog: The American Midwest as a Literary Region

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

A new book by BJ Omanson on the American WWI poet, John Allan Wyeth

The first full-length study of the recently rediscovered American poet of the First World War: John Allan Wyeth. Contains a wealth of new biographical information, plus several extensive essays on Wyeth's technique and his relationship to the major British war poets.


“More than any other English-language poet of the war, Wyeth’s language is stripped clean of 19th-century tonalities and devices. A contributing factor to Wyeth’s modernist style might have been that, during the years immediately prior to the publication of This Man’s Army, when he was almost certainly composing his sonnets, Wyeth resided in the American colony in Rapallo, Italy, where he was known to be friends with Ezra Pound (see “Notes on Wyeth’s Years in Rapallo,” p. 99).\

While it is impossible to know the nature, or extent, of Pound’s influence on Wyeth, there is no denying that Wyeth’s stringently honed descriptions—where every word contributes to the presentation and every image is distilled to its essentials—accord closely to the Imagist principles which Pound espoused in the years before the war. Even the Imagist stricture that the rhythm of a poem should possess the fluidity of a musical phrase rather than the beat of a metronome, is not violated by Wyeth’s sonnets, which display an unprecedented metrical freedom within the general constraint of the form.

Whether Wyeth developed his acute descriptive powers under the influence of Pound, or from earlier influences, is a matter of conjecture. It is at least as plausible that the minutely observed and needle-sharp descriptions of Henry James provided the primary influence on Wyeth’s technique. According to Edmund Wilson, only he and Wyeth—of their literary circle at Princeton—read James seriously while they were there, and it was Wyeth who led Wilson to a full appreciation of James’ technique.

Wyeth’s reliance on chance, on working with whatever objects circumstance might provide, even when they serve no apparent thematic or metaphoric purpose, has a basic affinity with a precept of another major theorist of Imagism, T.E. Hulme, who was a direct influence on Pound. Hulme’s contention was that it is not the object itself that matters, but only its description. Any object will do as well as any other, including random objects served up by chance.

The idea of employing randomness as a compositional principle may have been unusual in literary theory in those years, but in the visual arts the notion of the objet trouvé (“found object”) had been in the air since well before the war, from Picasso’s Still-life with Chair Caning, to Duchamp’s “ready-mades,” to Dada’s reliance on whatever the artist happened to pick up in the street.  It is certainly no stretch to assume that Wyeth, with his years spent in New York, London and Paris, and his lifelong interest in contemporary movements in art, would have keep well abreast of such developments.

Wyeth’s reliance on circumstantial subject matter might tempt a less well-informed critic to dismiss Wyeth’s sonnets as mere documentary reportage, but if that were all his sonnets amounted to, they would lie flat and lifeless on the page.  What we find instead is a body of work where the unsettled randomness of actual events infuses each sonnet with an élan vital, a vital spark. Far from being the equivalent of old newspapers fit only for wrapping fish, Wyeth’s sonnets are living vignettes, rich in chaos, chlorine, and all the random particularity of war.”

Friday, November 9, 2018

Two new books of poems by BJ Omanson

Old Locksley among the Ruins

A long meditative poem describing an old man’s final days living in solitude in a decrepit stone manor as cold as a crypt. He divides his time between library and garden where he "considers and contemplates the melancholy decline of the year,” watching the falling of leaves, and succumbing to reverie as the ivy winds slowly around ankle and knee, and autumn gives way to the darkness of winter.

Illustrated in color throughout, on heavy high-gloss paper.

Two Nocturnes on Arnold's "Scholar Gipsy"

Two complimentary poems ("On Port Meadow near Oxford" and "Embers of a Gypsy Fire") inspired by Matthew Arnold's pastoral elegy, "The Scholar Gipsy"— written in the same stanza, and describing the countryside outside of Oxford along the upper Thames at the close of day. A meditation on mortality.

Illustrated in color throughout, on heavy high-gloss paper.

Each book can be ordered from Lulu by clicking on its title.

Friday, March 30, 2018

Stark County Poems receives its first review.

Stark County Poems has received its first review: "Meditation on the Past," by J. Robert Baker, in the current issue of Kestrel, A Journal of Literature and the Arts.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Reminiscence: My own private Arcadia

It begins with my grandfather, Alpheus Appenheimer, who was born in a one-room sod dugout on the western Kansas frontier in January of 1891, during one of the most severe blizzards in the state's history.  Later, as a small boy in a one-room school-house in the Spoon River valley of central Illinois, Alpheus was in continual trouble with his teacher, who maintained discipline by the enforced memorization of poems, the length of the poem corresponding to the severity of the infraction.   Only when the miscreant had the poem by heart, and could recite it without error, would he be permitted to leave his desk.  Given this state of affairs, it wasn't long before Alpheus looked ahead to the longest poem in the book, Bryant's "Thanatopsis."   He figured it was only a matter of time before one of his pranks would warrant that supreme punishment, so he set about memorizing it in advance. Once that was accomplished, he was impatient for a chance to have some amusement at his teacher's expense. Waiting until she was in an exasperated, vindictive frame of mind (which she frequently was), Alpheus gave the pigtail of the girl seated in front of him a hard yank, at which the youngster shrieked Alpheus's name and cried out for justice. The teacher marched straight back to Alpheus's desk, opened his Reader to the dreaded page and planted her finger squarely on Bryant's poem. "That should you keep occupied for a while," she snapped. Then she marched back up to the front of the classroom with Alpheus right on her heels, matching her step for step. When she turned to sit down and found Alpheus standing in front of her desk with an angelic smile on his face, she nearly fell off her chair. Before she could say a word he launched into the poem, reeling out the entire verse--- all eighty-plus lines of it--- at breakneck speed like an auctioneer. After which the teacher just shook her head and murmured, "All right, Alpheus, you've had your fun. Now go sit down."

Vaches paissant dans la Clairière (detail)
c. 1840 by Constant Troyon
My grandfather had memorized what seemed to me, as a child, an inexhaustable store of nineteenth-century poems, and would recite them to us grandchildren whenever the mood took him, much to our delight. His favorite, in addition to "Thanatopsis," was Longfellow's "The Wreck of the Hesperus," but there were numerous other lyrics, wayward stanzas, ditties and songs from the war, and a ready supply of nonsensical doggerel. His slightly high-pitched, musical voice reciting poetry in an amused tone, was as much a part of my boyhood experience of the farm as the bellowing of steers along the ridge, the soughing of wind through the rafters of the barn, or the reassuring vista of oak-shaded pastures sloping down to Indian Creek. They were all somehow of a piece, my own private Arcadia, through which I ranged freely during the years of my boyhood.

Long before that time, in the Spring of 1912, as soon as he turned 21, my grandfather set out alone from his father's farm with ten dollars in his pocket to see the American West. He spent a year on the road, doing farm- and ranch-work along the way, even working for a time in Mexico where he almost married the ranch-owner's daughter--- then up the  coast to Washington State where he operated a combine during the wheat harvest, driving a team of over 30 mules. His occasional postcards home to his parents were famously stingy, such as the one that read simply, "I am not dead or crippled but am awful busy." Finally, after a year's solitary travelling, he made his way back to the family farm.

Sixty years later, at 23, I emulated his example, hitch-hiking out west and working on and off for a year as a mill worker and logger on the Washington coast while camping along the Hoh and Calawah rivers, taking off a month during the summer to hitch-hike with my cat through Washington, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Nevada and Oregon. My grandfather liked to say that he left on his journey with only ten dollars and returned a year later with ten dollars still in his pocket. I told him that I had done him one better, hitting the road with only five dollars and returning after a year with no dollars in my pocket. That amiable conversation was one of our last, for he died soon after, in December of that year.

Alpheus Appenheimer at 21, on his 1912 Western excursion.

At his death in 1974, the family farm was broken up and sold off, and I could no longer roam at will through the pastures I had known all my life. An uncharted region in the deepest part of myself was lost forever, and it is this loss that I have spent much of my life, ever since, attempting to come to terms with, and in some sense recover--- partly as an historian, partly as a farm laborer, but primarily as a poet. My grandfather's enduring presence thoroughly haunts the first two books of my poems. 

The first poem I wrote about him was actually less about him than about his house, just after he was gone.  I had to wait over fifteen years before I could write it, though once I started, it came all at once, for the potent image of that empty house had long since become one of the abiding features of my inner landscape.

      In Stark County, in his eighty-third year, 
      my grandfather died.  The tall gabled house 
      overlooking the creek and bottomland 
      from a rough oak ridge stands empty now, 
      but nothing changes.  The west-facing pane 
      of the window-bay where he watched from his desk 
      again glazes red as sunset crowns 
      the rim out beyond the timbered slopes 
      and, again, a raw wind sculpts the snow 
      into curving drifts across the back yard. 
      A familiar hour: the graying edge  
      of a winter evening, when day and night 
      walk the same bare fields.  An ice-refracted 
      ray of rose imperceptibly moves 
      among old mementos lying upon 
      the darkened oak of his desk, igniting 
      the interior of a glass paperweight 
      and warming the copper of four old coins. 
      In a matter of days, we will all convene 
      for the sorting out and dividing of goods, 
      the auctioning off of machinery, 
      of cattle and parceled land, the settling 
      of last accounts.  But for now it's as though 
      my grandfather's only just left his chair 
      and wandered off somewhere along the hall 
      or down the darkened stairs to the cellar. 
      Nothing has changed.  Once more, as in all 
      the uncounted winter days of his life, 
      the early dusk haunts the empty house, 
      the quiet rooms darken, the furnace kicks in.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Reminiscence: Wasted, with no way home

Coming of age in the late sixties, in the unrelieved wasteland of Rockford, Illinois, was an experience I would wish on no one.  I became a stranger to everyone who knew me and most of all to myself.  I ran away to places as disparate as Bimini island in the Caribbean and Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco.  I took up with new, more colorful friends as my old friends dropped away.  I become an unending source of grief and disruption to my family and a figure of suspicion to adults generally.  I was repeatedly expelled from my high school and finally dropped out altogether.  I served a brief stint on a locked psychiatric ward.   I went to work on the graveyard shift of a fasteners factory, and worked in a succession of factories for the next several years.  I partook of drugs and alcohol at every opportunity.    I read Hesse and Mann, Dostoyevsky and Mishima, Kerouac and Ginsburg, and listened endlessly to Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen.  I began writing poetry.  I took to the road with my thumb and travelled all over the Midwest, with no money and not even a change of clothes, visiting whomever I thought would put up with me for a night, and more often than not just sleeping rough, in a field, or somewhere under a tree.  I worked at a succession of dead-end jobs and lived in a succession of friends' attics, for $25 and $50 a month.

Marriage to Victoria

And then I met a slender Irish beauty named Victoria O'Dell, with a
singing voice that would break your heart, and I made a mighty effort to normalize my life.  We were married out in the woods, and lived in a beautiful little garden apartment on South Chicago Avenue with antique lamps and dishes and antique oak furniture that we refinished ourselves.  I worked as a tree trimmer for the Rockford Park District, an idyllic job which took me to wooded and pastoral landscapes all around the County and provided just enough danger to keep things interesting.  I truly loved that job, and imagined myself settling into a lifelong position, with modest but adequate pay and good benefits.  I purchased a blue 1954 Chevy pickup for $200 and a Homelite chainsaw, and started doing tree work on the side.  I was in a good place.

Her debut 

Victoria made her singing debut one night during a small party in our apartment, accompanied on guitar by a friend of hers from high school, who was part of our circle of friends, Robin Zander.  Though I had known Robin for a couple of years, and often spoken with him, he was so quiet and unassuming that I had no idea he was even a musician.  As for Victoria, I had only ever heard her singing quietly with records, when she didn't know I was listening.  So to hear them together, giving a polished rendition of a well-known folk song, was a revelation.  What I didn't know at the time was that Robin's particular gift was for singing, yet he on this occasion he only played, so as to allow Victoria her moment in the limelight.  Little did any of us in our apartment that evening imagine that in a very few years Victoria would become a well-respected performer throughout the northern Illinois region in both rock and folk music, while Robin, for his part, would become a lead singer of international reknown, later inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Pastoral days, Siberian nights

And then we went on strike for a number of weeks through the summer and into the fall, and the money dwindled.  Men began crossing the picket line, but I held firm with the strikers.  We lost the strike and I lost my job. ~~~ And then there was no money at all.  Winter was coming on.  I was reading bleak Russian novels and would awaken in a sweat, in the middle of the night, hearing wolves at the door.