Wednesday, May 26, 2021

Poem: The Old Hotel at the End of Night



I haven’t the least idea where it was,
possibly somewhere in southern Missouri
or it may have been out in Oklahoma
or further on down the line in east Texas,
that my Buick finally gave up the ghost---
I couldn’t be sure, I’d been driving so long,
driving for half of my life, or so
it seemed at the time, through a pitch-black night
with no sunrise in sight and nary another
soul on the road. And so I abandoned
my car in a ditch and just wandered off
aimlessly down the highway alone,
with my satchel over my shoulder, walking
westward into the darkness, into
a merciless wind that savaged my ears
and cut its way under my skin, into
a country from which there would be no return,
but still I kept trudging and trudging along,
shouldering against the cold and the wind
until I could no longer feel my feet
or my legs--- until I came to the edge
of a town that was scarcely a town at all,
just a crossroads really, with half a dozen
dilapidated old buildings that looked
as if they hadn’t been occupied since
the 1850s, or thereabouts,
a desolate, windblown ghost of a town
with a livery and a dry goods store
and some outlying sheds and, at the far end,
a red-brick building with high arched windows
and a sign that declared the St. James Hotel.
Despite the late hour the door stood ajar
and I noticed a flickering halo inside
from a dozen old gaslamps along the wall,
so with nothing to lose I ventured inside.
A kerosene lamp with an ornate globe
glowed softly upon a bare wooden table
and I wondered what century I was in.
There was one old gentlemen down at the end
of the bar in a shabby homespun coat
with a half-empty glass at his elbow, who said
“You’ll just have to help yourself there, Pilgrim.
The bartender wandered off into the night
a few years ago and never returned.”
I nodded and stepped back behind the bar
where an array of old bottles lined the wall.
I by-passed the bourbon and brandy until
I came to some scotch and a dusty glass
that I slowly wiped out with the tail of my shirt
and held to a lamp. It looked clean enough.
I stepped back around to the front of the bar
and took a seat on one of the stools,
unhurriedly poured myself a drink,
then turned half around to face the room.
I noticed another old gentleman then,
of uncertain age, in a raggedy vest
and porkpie hat with a thin mustache,
who resembled nothing so much as a seedy
riverboat gambler who’d lost his boat.
He was leaning against an upright piano
that, much like himself, had seen better days.
When I caught his eye, he just tipped his hat
and seated himself upon the bench,
rolled up his sleeves and began to play---
very softly at first, as though from across
a mysterious distance, disquieting chords
in an unfamiliar minor key
that constricted the throat, and he began
to sing--- if singing is what it was---
in a drybone voice, in a voice as pained
as a creaking gate and as desolate as
the skeletal rattle of windblown sand
on a cold windowpane--- a ballad as bleak
as purgatory, relating a tale
that went on for half an hour or more,
then closed at last with these harrowing lines:

    of power and greed and corruptible seed,
       of leaders who harshly rule by havoc,
   of days grown dire and nights of fire
       and ghost ships on the Potomac.


And just as the final chord faded off
and was all but lost in the the moan of the wind,
I emptied my glass and was starting to pour
a second when I happened to notice
another old gent in a long gray beard
sitting alone with a half-empty bottle
in a far-off shadowy nook of the room
and he nodded me over. I picked up my glass
and dragged myself slowly across the floor
and he kicked out a chair for me to sit.
“The name’s Walt,” he said, and I told him mine.
“And what brings you out to this god-forsaken
hotel at this time of night,” he asked.
“You’re a good way from home, by the looks of you.”
I told him I really had no idea
how I’d come to this place. I had made a wrong turn
somewhere back in Missouri, I thought,
and then my old Buick had thrown a rod
and I’d just been walking along ever since
for what seemed like a decade or more until
I came to this crossroads. “And doesn’t this night
ever end?” I asked him. Old Walt leaned back,
extended his long legs and shoved his fists
deep in his pockets. “It’s always the same
old story,” he said. “They make a wrong turn
at a junction back in Missouri, as if
Missouri was even a place anymore.
And their Chevy or Buick always breaks down
for there aren’t any Chevies or Buicks out here,
I can tell you that,” and I heard a soft chuckle
from the gentleman at the end of the bar.
I started to feel a peculiar unease,
the likes of which I had never known.
“And the night?” I asked him, “when does it end?”
He looked out the window a good long while
before he responded. “The night is what came
when the Old Republic finally died---
and now there’s only the night and myself
and Bob over there always plunkin’ away
on the upright piano and Henry down there
at the end of the bar, who never says much
at all anymore, who just stands and stares
out the window from time to time, although
there’s nothin’ to see out there but the night.
So there’s only the three of us now, and whoever
blows in off the highway.” A thousand questions
occurred to me then, but just as quickly
I knew the one answer to all of them
and so I said nothing. I noticed a blank
sheet of paper upon the table beside
a black fountain pen, and I wondered if Walt
had been writing a note or perhaps a letter
or maybe even a poem, but I knew
there was always something that it was better
to leave alone, and so I kept mum.
Walt was wearing a long baggy coat,
gray-striped trousers, a gray slouch-hat,
and his shaggy mane and his beard were gray
and even his eyes, if I recollect,
and he seemed as remote and as out of time
as everything else in that strange hotel,
and somehow I knew I would never again
behold a sunrise or hear a cock crow
or a mourning dove call its plaintive call,
for the Old Republic had fallen at last
and somewhere old ghosts were gathering
for a final hurrah, but I wouldn’t be there.
I would stay on a week or two longer, I thought,
stay on at that old hotel on the verge
of Oblivion, and hear a few more
of Bob’s bitter ballads and mournful blues
and discover if maybe I couldn’t coax
old Henry or Walt into reminiscing
about days in the Early Republic when,
in spite of all its manifold sins,
in spite of its evils and myriad wars,
the dawn could still offer a golden hope
and glimmer of revelation--- but that
was then, and now there is only this road
that beckons us deeper into the night,
a night of forsakenness and of wind
that obviates every vestige of light
and swallows us like the grave.


Tuesday, October 27, 2020

News: "Nowhere to Nowhere," from Stark County Poems, appears on Ted Kooser's "American Life in Poetry"


Poem as it appeared in a newspaper in Portland, Indiana

 One of my Stark County Poems, "Nowhere to Nowhere," has been selected by the former US Poet Laureate, Ted Kooser (regionalist poet from Nebraska), for publication in his weekly column, "American Life in Poetry," which appears in hundreds of newspapers across the country and around the world.  It will also be archived in the Library of Congress.  The poem & Kooser's comments about it can be seen here: 

https://www.americanlifeinpoetry.org/columns/detail/814-1


A few of the newspapers where "Nowhere to Nowhere" has appeared are:

~~~Journal Star (Lincoln, Nebraska),

~~~Omaha World-Herald  (Omaha, Nebraska),

~~~Commercial Review (Portland, Indiana),

~~~Transcript Bulletin (Tooele, Utah),

~~~Ames Tribune (Ames, Iowa),

~~~Shawangunk Journal (Shawangunk, New York),

~~~Bell Times Courier (O'Brien County, Iowa).

~~~Story City Herald (Story City, Iowa).

~~~Lake County News (Clear Lake, California)


Some thoughts on poetry in newspapers

Mr. Kooser's accomplishment of reintroducing poetry to local newspapers across the country, and around the world, cannot be praised enough.  Before his  "American Life in Poetry" project, poetry in newspapers had almost entirely died out.  But it used to be very different.  Nearly every newspaper in the country printed poetry in nearly every issue.  

My grandfather, who had only an 8th grade education, clipped poems from newspapers all his life.  He sent them to my grandmother when they were courting in 1916-17, and he could recite many of them from memory.  Poetry was very much a part of daily life all across America.  

Mr. Kooser's quest to return poetry to newspapers may seem a quixotic one to us today, but it has had a surprising degree of success so far, with his column appearing in 72 different countries around the globe, and reaching  over four million readers.

But that is only the first step.  Now it is up to the editors of regional newspapers to take the next step: soliciting and printing worthy works of their own local poets.  It is time for ordinary people to reclaim poetry from the ivory towers, poetry that is theirs by right.  They should not settle for always being spoon-fed their poetry by professors.   

When Spoon River Anthology was published in 1915, readers did not feel they had to rely on professors or critics to tell them what the poems meant, or if they were worthy of being read.  Readers purchased the book (it was a national best-seller), took it home and read it in their own parlors and on their own porches.  They didn't consult with specialists; they made up their own minds about the poems.  They cut out the middle-men.  They thought for themselves.

I would like to mention one instance where a contemporary editor stubbornly revived the old tradition of publishing poetry in a local paper.  Jim Nowlan, the recent editor of the Stark County News in the Spoon River country of Stark County, Illinois, inherited his position from his father, who in turn had inherited it from his father, who was editor of the Stark County News in the late 19th Century.  The two elder Nowlans, following the practice of their time, consistently published poetry in their papers, and it was from these same newspapers that my grandfather clipped so many of the poems that he sent to my grandmother, and pasted in his scrapbook.  

The practice of printing poems in the News slowly died out after WWII, but several decades later when Jim Nowlan (third in the line of Nowlan editors-in-chief), oversaw the Stark County News into the 21st century, he printed several selections from my Stark County Poems.  Those few early appearances in my hometown newspaper meant more to me than all the later ones in literary reviews and journals combined.

The possibility of publishing one's poems in a local paper used to be available to poets everywhere in this country, and it should be again.  Homegrown poets should have local outlets for their poems: local papers that are read by  family, friends, neighbors, and the surrounding community.  

Poets outside the university system, who have not followed the prescribed route of graduating from a writing program---  but who may possess intrinsic talents worthy of encouragement---  cannot hope to compete with all the well-credentialed and well-connected university poets who dominate literary reviews and journals today.  Such publications may claim complete impartiality when assessing their heaps of submissions, but 99% of the time the poets they publish are just more students and professors.  Moreover, these journals and reviews have minimal ties to their communities, and no regional loyalties to speak of.  The literature they tend to foster-- products of claustrophobic workshops-- are more like root-bound houseplants, insular and internalized, than hardy native trees wrought by the elements into gnarled idiosyncratic forms. A nation's literature should grow up naturally from its soil, or its urban neighborhoods; it should slowly emerge from the local terrain like native hickory or oak.  

Literature should not be imposed upon us from the top down by specialists, by critics and professors.  Such specialists have a necessary and valued place, to be sure, but their appropriate function is to analyze and assess, not to prescribe and shape.  Nearly all of America's very greatest writers and poets prior to WWII were self-taught.  Today, by comparison, it seems, you cannot hang out your shingle as a poet without an officially approved license and union card.

Newspapers once provided a platform in this country for up-and-coming, self-taught poets.  William Cullen Bryant, Edgar Allan Poe, John Greenleaf Whittier, Walt Whitman, Phillis Wheatley, Ambrose Bierce, Emily Dickinson, E.A. Robinson, Carl Sandburg, Edgar Lee Masters, Robert Frost, Robinson Jeffers, Gwendolyn Brooks (and who knows how many other self-taught American poets), all began their poetic careers by publishing in local newspapers.

Newspapers could provide such a platform again. It's not too late.  It's simply a matter of individual editors setting aside a few column inches in their back pages where a poem could be tucked in every so often.  It would be a small but significant way for them to foster the culture of their communities and their country.






News: Another two poems from "Stark County Poems" appear in "Illinois Heritage"

 Another two poems from Stark County Poems have appeared in Illinois Heritage: the Magazine of the Illinois State Historical Society:  "The Aging Widow in the Third Pew" and "Populism."  The latter poem is closely based on the lives of my great-grandparents, who lost a farm in Pike County, Illinois to hog cholera, lost another farm outside of Leoti, Kansas to drought and the '93 Panic, and finally ended up back in Illinois, in Stark County, where they started over again in the mid-1890s, not far from Spoon River.  

Both poems are printed below.


~ ~ ~ ~ ~ 

The Aging Widow in the Third Pew

               

Her faith had little to do with church
and even less with the long succession
of ministers who had come and gone
since she was a child. It had to do
with the wind from which there was no relief,
that carried the rain and gave teeth to drought
and tore the roof from the barn and haunted
her nights with wailing. It had to do
with the cooling summer breezes that turned
the pages of scripture without a touch
and caressed away the sweat of her brow.
That the seen is shaped by an unseen force
was something she never thought to doubt.
In church, when she was told in the Psalm
to lift up thine eyes, and she turned to see
through the open window a falling leaf
suspended a moment, then lifted away
on the wind, the tears welled up in her eyes
and she picked up her purse and slipped away
through the basement door and out on the grass
and lifted her face to the cloudless sky.


~~~~~~~~~~


Populism

 

In the autumn of 1893,

   Alpheus Wheeler Appenheimer

and his wife Olive arrived in Stark County,

   Illinois, after having traveled

from their earlier Illinois home in Pike County

   by way of Leoti, Kansas.

  

They arrived in a covered wagon drawn

    by a pair of worn-out mules conveying

a girl and two boys, a kerosene lamp,

   a plow and scythe and a chest of clothes,

tinware pots, some kerosene lamps

   and a Mason jar of seeds interred

 

in early May and exhumed in August,

   still unsprouted— it’d been that dry.    

They almost starved on their journey back.

   In Missouri they stopped at a lonely farm

and asked at the house if they might pick a few

   ears of corn to boil for supper.


Go ahead, help yourselves, the woman barked.

   No one else even bothers to ask.

It was hog cholera that had wiped them out

   and sent them westward to make a new start,

and it was drought and the ’93 Panic

   that wiped them out for the second time

 

and sent them back east to begin again.

   They’d gotten their fill of living in sod—

dirt in your soup and dirt in your bed. 

   Their youngest son was born on a night

in January that covered the state

   in three feet of snow as the mercury plunged

 

to twenty below.  He was kept from freezing

   by his mother’s warmth and a crackling stove

that was fed from a pile of unshucked corn. 

   At three cents a bushel it made more sense

to burn it than sell it and, anyhow, 

   the buffalo chips were long since gone.

 

In later years, when anyone asked,

   old Alpheus never had much to tell

about losing two farms in two different states.

   In an unguarded moment he said aloud,

You can pray to God.  You can vote for Bryan.

   In the end it don’t matter a hill of beans.


 

 


 

~~~~~
"The Aging Widow in the Third Pew" and "Populism" from Stark County Poems (Monongahela Books, new enlarged edition, 2020).

Sunday, April 5, 2020

News: Two poems from new edition of "Stark County Poems" appear in Illinois Heritage

Two poems from the new enlarged edition of Stark County Poems have appeared in the latest issue of Illinois Heritage, which is the magazine of the Illinois State Historical Society.  The poems are "The Proverb of the Three Hotels" and "The Boy Who Climbed a Tree," both of which concern the visit of Abraham Lincoln to Toulon, Illinois in October of 1858

Both poems are based on true minor details of Lincoln's visit.


~ ~ ~ ~ 


The Proverb of the Three Hotels               

There was a time in Toulon, long ago,
when the number of wayfarers passing through
was so large it required three hotels
to accommodate them. Jeffrey Cooley,
a loyal Republican through and through,
was the owner of The Virginia House
which, on a chilly October day
in 1858, was favored
by a country lawyer named Abe Lincoln
and his entourage. Across the street,
the hotel of Democrat, B.G. Hall,
found favor with Senator Douglas and
his entourage. The remaining hotel,
Elias Stockner’s The Toulon House,
with no party loyalties either way
but a first-rate saloon in the basement,
found favor with both political camps
and prospered for many a year, long after
each of its rivals had bitten the dust.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ 

The Boy Who Climbed a Tree

When eight-year-old Thomas Shallenberger
was introduced by his old grandmother
to a big homely man on the courthouse square
in Toulon on a cold October day
in 1858, the big man
invited the boy to sit on his knee
and helped him up and, in a grave voice
(playing to his audience), asked the lad
if, come November, he could count on his vote.
“I’m a Douglas man,” retorted the boy.
Abe Lincoln guffawed and put the boy down
and said if his own supporters all knew
their own minds as well as this youngster did,
he’d be sure to win. Then, leaning way down
until he was eye to eye with the boy,
he said in a kindly whisper that he
should be a good lad and run along home.


 

 


 

~~~~~
"The Proverb of the Three Hotels" and "The Boy Who Climbed a Tree" from Stark County Poems (Monongahela Books, new enlarged edition, 2020).



Wednesday, April 1, 2020

News: New enlarged edition of Stark County Poems released

Consisting of over fifty poems, from short lyrics in a variety of forms to lengthy blank verse and free verse narratives, "Stark County Poems" portrays the history of a small rural county in central Illinois, along the upper Spoon River valley. 

Chronologically arranged, and incorporating letters, newspaper articles, obituaries, family stories, early county histories and diaries, the poems cover a century of the county's history, from the 1830s through the 1930s. 

Map, illustrations. 59 poems. 225 pages. 

BJ Omanson was raised in the Spoon River valley of Stark County, Illinois, where both sides of his family have lived and farmed since the mid-19th century. 

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Closing Inventory

                                                    Along the upper Spoon River, 1935


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 officer, 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,
except

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.

 

 


 

~~~~~
"Closing Inventory" from Stark County Poems (Monongahela Books, new enlarged edition, 2020).