Cross This Bridge at a Walk.
Wind Publications. 2007. 120 pp.
In the poem "Mussel Shell with Three Blanks Sawed Out," from Cross This Bridge at a Walk, the narrator recalls the man who taught him how to make money, during the summers, from the Mississinewa River:
Dude was somewhere around
sixty years old. He lived by himself, in a cabin,
on forty acres of bottomland he had inherited
from his father...
This was along about nineteen-sixteen.
Dude Holcomb was born, then, around 1866. He does every kind of work in order to keep a few dollars in pocket including dredging for mussels. He sells the meat to a hog-farmer, the shells to a button factory in Wabash, and considers taking an unusually large freshwater pearl over to Terre Haute to sell. These are the skills he is passing along to his teenage protégé.
In "Lost Bridge," the final poem of the volume, Jared Carter imagines a farmer who buried his wife in the original Lost Bridge Cemetery:
You would have lived there all your life, except for the time
you served in the Civil War...
You were baptized in the Mississinewa. Your wife had five children
and lost three to diphtheria. You've heard of airplanes
but you've never seen one. You've farmed a hundred and sixty acres;
you're ready to leave it to your son. Now your wife dies.
Everything takes time in your world. The river, flowing west
past the boat landing, never seems to hurry. The second day,
you go to the churchyard with your son, and the two of you
dig the grave. Later, when everyone's gone, you fill it in.
A square mile comes to 640 acres. In accordance with the Land Ordinance, established by the Congress, in 1785, most of the land west of the Allegheny Mountains would be surveyed into a giant grid of 640 acre squares (known as "sections"). The method was simple, well ordered and as modern as a democratic republic. Lands surveyed under the ordinance would sell for $1.25 the acre for the better part of 100 years. The plan was developed in order to pay the nation's outstanding debts from the Revolutionary War.
Beginning in 1811, enlisted members of the military and non-commissioned officers who had participated in active service for five years could apply for a "land warrant" of 160 acres (a "quarter-section"). The land could not be sold or assigned to third parties but it could be inherited. The rules changed regularly until the federal program was ended sometime after the Civil War but 160 acres remained the standard.
Most of the land east of the Mississippi River was sold rather than granted. Fifty dollars (the price of a quarter of a quarter-section or 40 acres) was a lot of money until well after the Jackson Administration. Few people could afford more than that, and, even though 40 acres was too little to farm for a living, it was the size parcel generally purchased. The family would sell what food they did not consume but they made the bulk of their living by hiring themselves out as tradesman and laborers.
We may safely assume, then, that the farmer of "Lost Bridge" received his 160 acres as a land warrant for his service in the Civil War. Dude Holcomb's 40 acres is a bit more difficult to be sure of. An earlier relative could have received land for military service and the property later broken up. More likely (because breaking up quarter-sections left each heir without even a subsistence farm), Dude's father purchased his 40 acres and hired out for a living. The acreages are all multiples of 40 (40-160-640) in accordance with the Land Ordinance of 1785, and because the land was held long before the advent of the modern suburban subdivision.
Attentive to detail, Jared Carter, creator of the mythical Mississinewa County, Indiana, has put much more into the poems of Cross This Bridge at a Walk than is generally the case. The longer poems, in particular, are wrought like an authentically detailed bas-relief carved into the side of an old mahogany chest. They are handmade, as it were, by someone who knows his craft, its practicable limits, and his subject.
Fictional though it may be it seems fairly certain that Carter's Mississinewa County can actually be found on a map. The teenage boy who narrates "Mussel Shell" was living, at the time, with his aunt and uncle in the nearby town of Somerset. It is still an active town today situated beside the Mississinewa Reservoir. The reservoir dam was constructed in 1968 in order to control seasonal flooding from the river of the same name. The farms and towns that were next door to Somerset, in 1916, now exist as ghostly apparitions beneath the surface of the manmade lake—as living places only in the imagination of Jared Carter.
The farm hand of the poem "Catalpa" is landless. His family has its landless roots in the Mississinewa County area for generations, as well. Or perhaps the family's 40 went to an older son. He is a little "tetched" as they used to say:
It always seemed to happen right around
the time of year when you see the first
lightning bugs—we would be out cutting hay,
getting ready to bring it in—somewhere along
about the middle of June.
At that time of year he wanders away, as if in a trance, deep into the woods:
Most times he stayed
till dusk in the deepest part of the woods
where the catalpas were blooming...
and all their blossoms would be sending down
perfume, and drawing clouds of bumblebees,
and moths, and hummingbirds, all of them
feeling their way into those flowers, and if
you were up high enough and could have seen
inside them, the throats of those flowers
would be all streaked and dotted with purple
and brown and yellow, and full of light.
Again, the detail is as plentiful as straightforward, slightly idiomatic, country story-telling will allow. Indiana has its poet and it comes alive in his hands as a country not in need of any additional poetic touches to enhance its simple beauty.
In earlier interviews Carter stresses his midwestern literary pedigree. Names like Theodore Dreiser, Willa Cather and Sherwood Anderson receive his highest praise. He prefers them to their more famous southern contemporary Faulkner. His examplars, it is worth noting, are generally Chicago School short story writers from the last decades of the 19th century and first half of the 20th. In the later interviews his preference for Faulkner is clear. The midwestern writers are barely mentioned. Perhaps it should not be surprising, then, that these longer poems resemble nothing so much as a compressed Faulkner short story. They are not far from prose.
Another of the longer poems, "Exhumation," has nothing in it of Faulkner, however. It comments on several chronicles of the hardships of the early Shakers. The chronicles themselves are woven into the text. The sources of the various quotes are noted in the margin. The poem is as plain and no nonesense in its construction as a piece of Shaker furniture. It is indistinguishable from spare prose.
These methods of history and compressed short story do not work equally well for all the poems. The middle-length poem "Visit"—about touring the Emily Dickinson Museum, in Amherst—suffers for the fact that the two poets are so little alike. Carter never gets inside his subject. The poem "Glass Negatives" needs more than straightforward story-telling and Carter's attempt to provide that need comes across as contrived. In the end, the poems in which girls or women play key roles (particularly as narrator) do not fare as well as those inhabited all but entirely by men. The notable exception to this is that of the nymphomaniac tent revival preacher in "Jesus Walking on the Water" (or so a male reviewer might be tempted to believe).
After "Mussel Shells," the irregular stanzas of "Reminiscence" (subtitled "A suite for piano & voice"), divided by bars from various Scott Joplin ragtime favorites, compose the best poem in the volume. As in the earlier poem, the narrator is a teenager when he meets Joplin, "A sick man, / fixing to die."
Used to talk to me about how to put in
"the walking bass." That's what he called it.
Again, the poem is set in America during the First World War. The young man goes on to play piano himself in Paris after a stint as fry cook in the Rainbow Division. He begins to be asked, some forty years later, if he ever met the creator of ragtime.
"Reminiscence" is one of several poems, in Cross This Bridge at a Walk, about musicians. Among them is a sequence of four sonnets on Bix Beiderbecke who presummably was chosen as a subject because he was born in the Midwest (Davenport, Iowa), and died young—the one quite rare for a jazz musician of note and the other quite romantic.
If Jared Carter weren't a member of the Mississinewa County School of Poetry he would have far less to offer the reader, and, ironically, he would likely be a more popular poet. He persists, in Cross This Bridge at a Walk, in portraying ways of life that died out 60 years ago and more. In this volume he goes still further and does it at a pace that all but died out with them, as well.
But the fact that he does it so well is all that is necessary in order to recommend the volume to the reader casting about for something genuinely different. There are piles of poetry being written in better obedience to present poetic mores that are eminently forgettable. Main Street, No-Place-in-Particular, the day before yesterday, has been done to death. A reader should get out now and then even if it is only in her or his imagination.
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