A Pageant of America in 52 Poems
Peter Neil Carroll's new collection of poems (new and selected poems), This Land, is profoundly evocative. Various voices were called to mind as I dipped in and out of this slim volume: I thought of Jack Kerouac's On the Road (Carroll writes that he has "seen and slept in all 50 States," plus the District of Columbia). I thought, too, of John Dos Passos' U.S.A. trilogy, with the titles and images of the poems generating a similar sense of sweep, of an effort to somehow capture all of America in a singular prism, or a kaleidoscope between covers. In terms of poetry collections, I thought of Bob Hofman's wonderful 1996 PBS series (and subsequent coffee-table volume), The United States of Poetry, which captured a very broad swath of poetic forms and voices in late 20th Century America.
This is not an anthology of poets, however, but the vision of one Peter Neil Carroll, a distinguished historian and poet. In that sense, the most obvious figure brought to mind is Walt Whitman. But to make a distinction: this collection does not launch from the absorptive egoism of Whitman--there is no pretense, despite the presence in many of Carroll's poems of the first person singular pronoun, of capturing all of America in a "Song of Myself." But, this is a 21st Century "Leaves of Grass," insofar as it is an attempt to capture the entirety of America, its multifarious currents and realities, its histories and amnesias. Nature is here, in images and sound; and American music and song are here; holidays and traumas, personal and social; even a snippet from a movie soundtrack--Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca. Many historical figures make appearances, from Roger Williams to George Floyd, and there are allusions to or cameos by Mark Twain, Allen Ginsberg, and many others.
How can such richness be organized? In simple terms, each state appears here, in alphabetical order. (With a poem for the District of Columbia, and a poem serving as Preface: which makes 52 poems, not accidentally--I have to believe--the number of cantos or sections to Whitman's keynote poem in "Leaves of Grass!") Within that alphabetical sequence, there are five numbered 'thematic' divisions: People in Motion, Staying Put, This Land, Changes, and Passing.
But I think This Land invites (and even demands) that its organization and its meanings be constructed by each reader. The 'you' that Walt Whitman so often invokes in his poetry--the reader--is also implicitly but necessarily present here as well. In that sense, it is a volume in a profoundly democratic tradition; we are integral parts in shaping the meaning of these poems.
I will take my interpretive starting point from that tripartite labeling of this volume, which is 'about' what we refer to as 'America.' Even on the cover, the full title occupies three lines: the word 'Land' has nestled under it 'People'; and layered under that, 'States.' I will take soundings from this collection by translating those terms into the themes drawn from Nature (Geography), Identity (Ethnicity or Culture), and Politics. And so, for me, the questions arise, "What is 'America,' then? Who is a real, or true American? And how did we become what we are?
Landscapes are part of what create our identities as Americans (along with, of course, our ethnicities and religions and families). In "A Hoosier Woman" Carroll recounts meeting the title personage:
A tall gray-haired woman in blue jeans hosing
her Ford pickup can't believe I'm lost.
In her garden, the Ten Commandments stand
like grave stones. She gives directions.
In this poem, we can see an instance of the way that our identities are dialectical. The landscape shapes us; but we also bleed into the natural and constructed world around us, imprinting ourselves onto the world. "A Hoosier Woman" begins abruptly with an image that suggests a much larger spiritual reality, that finds its echo in her grave stone monuments: "Dead End, the sign is bullet pocked."
Images from nature (or landscapes) are rendered beautifully throughout this volume. For example, there's a Colorado early Spring meadow, where the poet is startled to see
...woolly elk chewing bark, a herd
of fifty, their spring coats mottled between
seasons. A young pair rubs chins like lovers--
There's "The Road to Atchison," in Kansas, where one can see
nestled in lichen and vine,
a Victorian manse left to rot
near the tottering silo...
Yet in Nebraska ("Nebraska Spring"), we find renewal too:
Birdsong hidden in sycamore leaves,
oil-black soil ripening seed, and here's
the sun. Everything's ready to spring.
But who or what is a Real American, and how well do we fit--or not fit--into our environment? There's the South Carolina history professor, "true to his [southern] heritage" who can't make it in academia. "Not exactly eccentric," but "He strung a maze of clothesline from his office/ window to the door, hand-written notes hanging/ like laundry on wood pins." (Yes, American truths, historical facts sometimes do, perhaps, need to be laundered.)
Our various American souls are divided and contained by boundaries, and not all of them are visible. In California, the line crossed is from urban to rural, from San Francisco to Hollister, from the cosmopolitan world to the "Backstage"--the poem's title--of a small rural town's patriotic celebration. The young narrator, wearing his "first brown broad-rimmed cowboy hat" encounters a "40ish, pot-bellied horse-groom, brushing/ the sleek flank of his muscular Clydesdale stallion," and he realizes "how ridiculous I looked under the brim." He asks
How many hands....Which brought a pause to his labor
He asked where I was from. San Francisco,
I admitted, confirming his suspicion. Slowly,
without malice, he said, Welcome to America.
It is also the case (People in Motion, yes) that our larger identities are changing, as the artificial lines of states and countries are crossed, as people migrate. The poem of the first state--Alabama--ends with an image of an audience hiding from itself, in a state still mired in racial conflict:
Our matinee features a civil rights
movie. When it goes dark at the end,
no one, white or not, leaves their seat.
No one wants to face the light.
But the civil rights issues in Alabama are themselves both continuous and changing. The poem's title, "Aliens," refers to the influx of Hispanic families, the migration of workers and their families to find work. The first stanza expresses this change in haunting images of what can't be seen:
It's what you can't see in Alabama,
the kid's soccer ball hidden in a shed,
someone's mama behind a curtain
waiting for sundown to go outside.
How, though, did we become this congeries of people? That is, how can we even begin to understand the historical and political currents that have brought so many cultures to our borders? Or the politics that have shaped our consequent identities? How can such complexity even be represented? Several of the poems here capture facets of our becoming, and our living together, more powerfully than many an academic study might. In Alaska's poem ("Landfall"), for example, an Inuit singer at a 4th of July gathering sings a song which reminds all of us that "Lady Liberty did not greet us." Instead, "We slipped in through the back door."
The Native Americans--all the more than 500 nations--did indeed slip in through the back door, across the Bering Strait, and were waiting for the Old World, so to speak, to show up. How many states are named after those original inhabitants? And look at the complex mélange of other nations that are represented just in the names of the states: there are the numerous Native American names; there's a New Mexico but also New Jersey; there's Florida and Colorado, but also Maine (French in origin); Maryland and Pennsylvania (named after real people), but also California, named after a mythical island ruled by a fictional Queen Calafia).
And speaking of mythical islands, how about Rhode Island? To my mind, "A Little Key" is one of the strongest poems in This Land, and will reward a deeper examination. (The 'representative' quality of any single state show up here too, even in its name: in addition to the fact that it is not an island, the name's origins lie either in Giovanni da Verrazzano, who called it the 'isla di Rhode,' or perhaps in the Dutch explorer Adriaen Block's 'Roodt Eylandt.' But, in either case--perhaps both are true--the name links back to the red soil of the Greek island of Rhodes. A state name and meaning, in other words, that embodies so very much of the American reality: our multicultural and indeterminable origins, and--as we soon see--the religious beliefs and arguments, the errors and mistaken identities that thread though our 'New World' existence.)
The state's capital is Providence, named by the Puritan Roger Williams, and therein lies a key. The poem teaches us that 'Providence' had been Williams' refuge, his place of escape from religious persecution. He was chased out of one 'Zion' because of his conscience, his disagreements with the reigning religious views of the Massachusetts Bay colony. He settled in with the Narragansett people, and was determined to learn their language.
Carroll brackets "A Little Key" with two quotes from Roger Williams: at the outset, in the epigraph: It was not price or money that....purchased Rhode Island. Rhode Island was purchased by love. And then, at the end, Williams' explanation as to why he wants to learn the Narragansett language: "A little key may open a box/ where lies a bunch of keys."
Virtually every poem, I would argue--depending on each reader's individual take on the meaning of America--could provide a 'key' to the whole. Let's take, for example, a close look at "Everlasting," the poem for Kentucky. The poem is set in Vanceburg, which "isn't a tourist stop." At the outset
Blue smoke hangs like mist
over two frizzy-haired women sitting
cross-legged, backs against
a brick wall, savoring morning cigarettes.
They are on break from the industrial work of rendering chickens. The poem takes a birds-eye tour--one thinks of filmic technique--away from the women. We discover ourselves at the town's center, where:
At the courthouse, a column honors Civil War dead,
deeper in the etched script, a stormy history sleeps:
The War for the Union Was Right, Everlastingly Right,
and the War Against the Union Was Wrong, Everlastingly
Such fervor--and down the block,
the two women stand up,
flip away their cold smokes, glance
toward the Ohio River a hundred yards away,
a tugboat stubbornly pushing against the stream
that separated slave from free.
Our struggles, as a people, are indeed everlasting; we need, tugging one another along as best we can, to fight our way upstream.
And that notion of resistance, of a critical but affectionate look at America, is a political tie connecting This Land to the spirit of Walt Whitman--though perhaps there is a good deal more criticism in Carroll's take on America than there is, on the surface, in Whitman's. This Land has two epigraphs, both taken from "Leaves of Grass." The first is worth quoting in full, both because of its command, and its warning:
To the States or any one of them, or to any city of the States Resist
much, obey little,
Once unquestioning obedience, once fully enslaved,
Once fully enslaved, no nation, state, city of this earth, ever after-
ward resumes its liberty. ("To the States")
The second epigraph (taken from "By Blue Ontario's Shores"), shifts the burden as it were--as this collection does too, I believe--from the poet's 'I' to the readers collective 'you':
I am he who walks the States with a barb'd tongue, questioning
every one I meet,
Who are you that wanted only to be told what you knew before?
Who are you that wanted only a book to join you in your nonsense?
We meet the same encounter between poet and reader in Peter Carroll's prefatory poem, "This Land; These People." In addition to providing us with a few samplings of states, of images--Wyoming's "Medicine Wheel," for example, a brilliant and hopeful final poem--we find a hint of the whole meaning, all the yoked contradictions of America. ("Do I contradict myself?/ Very well then, I contradict myself/ I am large, I contain multitudes" Whitman asserts, near the end of "Song of Myself.") The final stanza of Carroll's Preface suggests the same need to keep a large and open mind:
One thing is sure: you never know what you'll find
until you're there. Keep your eyes open. Be surprised.
Strangers live everywhere. So do neighbors.
In a possible final judgment then, America is in its own particular way a country whose essence is to have no fixed essence. (And that is not to traffic in any way with a notion of 'American exceptionalism.') But we are clearly a country, as historian Daniel Boorstin suggests in The Americans, constantly looking "for ways of living together." Boorstin says that "America grew in the search for community." Let us hope that, inspired by a willingness to understand our various histories and perspectives, we will be able to, as a democracy, continue that search.
Carroll's presentation of America is a mosaic, or a mural, overflowing with embedded lives (with all their feelings,) with emotions and moods. This Land is evocative, ultimately, of whatever experiences and knowledge--gleaned from history (experienced or studied), or travel, or films, or literature--that the reader brings to it. In my case, the 52 poetic 'takes' on America made me think of Robert Frank's iconic book of photographs of America. In his introduction to Frank's The Americans, Jack Kerouac writes: "To Robert Frank I now give this message: You got eyes."
Peter Carroll does too.
Jerry Dyer is a very recently retired teacher. In that life, he taught a wide range of language centered courses, from mainstream English to ELD (ESL), five years of German, a bit of philosophy, and poetry. (The divisions were less rigid than it might seem!) He taught from middle school up to and including college courses, with the last 18 years at the high school level, at Silver Creek in San Jose’s East Side Union.
Poetry has been at the core, always, the spark of creativity feeding the curricular choices and the activities and enterprises in all his work. Beyond the classroom, Jerry has been an active member of Poetry Center San Jose, especially the Willow Glen Poetry Project community.
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