Tag Archives: Indiana

What will come after Carrie Jerrell’s revival?

After the RevivalIn the mood for hawks, snakes, horses and lonely, but fierce women? Given up on contemporary poetry, poems written for poets, camps of code-talkers engaged in self-congratulating games of inter-reference? Try Carrie Jerrell’s After the Revival (WorldCat | Amazon). True, it suffers a bit from the usual first-book excesses–the occasional over-reaching, metaphors which try too hard, and (at times) a kind of garish urge to be odd. Nonetheless, Jerrell’s poems are carefully written lyrics with a keen narrative sensibility.

As for me, I have not given up on contemporary poetry; in fact, I write the worst of it–unreadable, insensible, too-inside for the insiders. And so, I admire Jerrell’s book (which I discovered on Marly Youmans’ blog) for other reasons. Foremost, perhaps, because I can think of no other contemporary poet who has written better love poems for rural Indiana. John Matthias will forever own the St. Joseph River valley, and Indianapolis deserves its waste land of bad taste, but the case could be made (on the strength of only a handful of poems) to make Carrie Jerrell the state’s next poet laureate. At the very least, give her all the blighted little towns south of Seymour. Of the poems which name Indiana, I am most fond of two. The first provides a hawk’s snapshot of a forlorn and lonely landscape, “Self-Portrait of the Artist as Glezen, Indiana”:

I’m 4 a.m. deer-piss-drenched camouflage,
the haunted woods, the doe’s brown eyes, the gun
and Tater Warner’s hardware store on Main
and Cherry, baseballs aisle five, a tent
beyond revival, organ out of tune,
“Amazing Grace” played back-pew Baptist flat,
potluck to follow. Flying red-tail high,
I’ve circled every furrowed field for life
and only seen my shadow, the willow swing
by Panther Creek, an empty gravel road,
an unchained shepherd taking the long way home.

I met a shepherd like this during one of my long runs. On a cold January day, it took us a good twenty minutes of threats and concessions before we could pass.

Although it ends less well, I’m equally drawn to “In an Indiana County Thick with Copperheads”. Had the poem been written 50 years earlier, it opens with what would be a picture of my mother (minus the meth), somewhere south of Bedford:

Tweaked out on her mother’s meth,
the twelve-year-old walks
the county roads of my childhood,
sees stars in a sky crow-feather black,
finds the pack of wild dogs, the teeth
of the mottled Lab less frightening than
her uncle and his bristle-brush whiskers.
There’s little left to do here but grow
long and mean, to meet each day
like a belly meets gravel.

In addition to the other fine poems which self-identify as set in Indiana (including: “For the Sparrows Who Lost Their Nests in the Southern Indiana Tornado” and “View of Petersburg from Bell’s Hill Strip Mine, Pike County, Indiana”), there are those which evoke the place. First read the book’s excellent and harrowing title poem, “After the Revival”, and then turn to the view from a cracked, rear view mirror in the well-timed “Love Letter Written While Speeding Past the City Limit Sign” (also entitled “Drive” at DIAGRAM). Perhaps Indiana also accounts for at least half of the setting for spiraling conceit in “The Fire Tower”.

I think Jerrell currently writes in Kentucky, but I doubt she will ever completely rid herself of Pike County, Indiana. I’ll be looking for more poems from this poet. It might be nice to see more of Jerrell and less of her personae in the future. Her sensual, religious meditations (although a bit too impersonal) are a promising turn. She chose one of these to end the book, and perhaps (following the title poem’s evocation of death) to end on a hopeful note. Likewise, hoping for more, I’ll end this review with the final poem in the book, “When the Rider is Truth”:

I am froth and lather, sent steaming
through jade fields while he sits
heavy in the saddle, beating love songs
on my flanks I’m slow to learn.
His snapped whip rings like church bells.
He prays my name. In different winds,
it rhymes with win and race. At night,
he rests against my neck and tells me
stars are born between my heartbeats,
though they’re unreachable this trip.
Still, with him I feel sure-footed
running on this soil of sand,
this miraculous green,
where every day is like no other
in its symmetry of hill and valley.
When shadows blend, I want the blinders on.
I want the spurs and speed. It’s then
I understand tight reins, the firm grip,
the bitter iron on my tongue,
the blood and sharper bit I’m driven with.

Jerrell, Carrie. 2009. After the revival. Ewell, UK: Waywiser.



Folly and Place: Madison, Indiana

We recently returned from a semi-annual camping trip in southern Indiana. After the fourth stay at Clifty Falls State Park, the Madison, Indiana area has begun to shape itself in my memory, but vaguely. New vocabulary words need frequent repeating (more than 10 times) before the student owns and uses them with confidence. New languages appear, at one level of mastery, in the speaker’s dreams. Places, in my experience, require either longer or deeper practice. I have dreamed, in my current recollection, of only four loosely defined places: two from my childhood in Kentucky, one in northern Indiana (the first decade of my adult life), and a single street in Montreal. With the exception of Montreal, which can claim only a few weeks, these places mark seasons and years of eating, sleeping, and traveling across a local landscape. (These five years in Indianapolis will wake up someday, perhaps.) Long before they appear in dreams, places need associations. If these are not forged by the force of events, they are built on repeated exposures.

Madison, Indiana, however, might be an exception. Some places (or rather, the communities that occupy them) cultivate shared and public identities–a kind of personality, narrative, or brand, at once explaining and claiming a cause for existence. Madison has spent a hundred years or more preserving its downtown as an antique. In doing so, it displays a proud, but also sad, and even a bit desperate, character. Of course, I do not know anyone that lives there, and I reflect here upon only the most shallow encounters, but nonetheless, Madison has chosen to preserve a memory of its days as booming city on the Ohio. During the first half of the 19th century, it was the largest city in Indiana–“1,752 souls” in 1830. I’m not sure why it did not become a Louisville or a Cincinnati, but when the railroads and the highways crisscrossed through the city of Indianapolis, the distant Madison was marginalized. Through Indianapolis, central Indiana agriculture and industry had quick and convenient means to trade with larger markets. Indianapolis won much that Madison lost.

Now Madison has adorned itself with historical markers. A century and a half after its golden days, the city prides itself in having avoided becoming a metropolis. As writers of the excellent, digital library project, “River to Rails“, note:

[Madison] maintained her pride in just maintaining. As a result, perhaps no other city in the country can boast of so many homes and businesses on the National Historical Register. … In the long run, who can say if Madison might not have followed the best path after all.

Pride preserved or not, signs of Madison’s (old and relatively recent) desperation are not hard to find. The massive towers of the Indiana Kentucky Electric Corporation (IKEC) power plant loom over the city and are visible or audible from every point in the state park. IKEC is the county’s largest tax payer and employs hundreds, but (built in 1952) it is a visible departure from Madison’s efforts to preserve its heritage. The bridge (first built in 1929) over the Ohio to the tiny town of Milton, Kentucky must have been a similar effort to improve Madison’s economic competitiveness. The impact of the bridge was probably minimal (it merely replaced the ferry business to a very rural county), but the bridge will be rebuilt in the next couple of years. An even older and less successful effort can be found in Clifty Falls State Park. There many of the hiking trails were built on the remnant of Brough’s Folly, a failed attempt to improve Madison’s early access to railroads. In the 1850s John Brough, president of the Madison & Indianapolis Railroad and future governor of Ohio, began constructing a winding and less steep track out of the river valley. The track would have made rail traffic to and from Madison easier. The existing route, the Madison Incline (also known as “the cut”), was far too steep. The project ran out of funds and was never completed. Had it been completed, it would have slowed Madison’s economic losses.

Madison Incline

Madison Incline

I’m happy to hike where the railroad construction did not succeed, but I’m sure many families suffered when Madison lost future jobs. Undoubtedly, people moved away from the land that they knew in their dreams, away from the people and neighbors with whom they shared deep, domestic responsibilities. The empty tunnel, the abandoned trestles, and the ceaseless hum of the power plant at Clifty Falls have reignited my interest in questionable moral value of loyalty to place. In recent years I have moved away from my places, physically and intellectually. I have declared my home (broadly speaking) in the world without declaring allegiances to specific locations–cities, states, and even countries. Visiting Madison, Indiana (a place bearing the scars of its self-preservation) and living in the city it could not become (Indianapolis) is a reminder that such decisions are not so clean.

Beavers for Indiana

Every River where the current was moderate and sufficiently deep, the banks at the water edge were occupied by their houses. To every small Lake, and all the Ponds they builded Dams, and enlarged and deepened them to the height of the dams. Even to the grounds occasionally overflowed, by heavy rains, they also made dams, and made them permanent Ponds, and as they heightened the dams [they] increased the extent and added to the depth of the water; Thus all the low lands were in possession of the Beaver, and all the hollows of the higher grounds. Small Streams were damned across and Ponds formed; the dry land with the dominions of Man contracted, every where he was hemmed in by water without the power of preventing it: he could not diminish the numbers half so fast as they multiplied, and their houses were proof against his pointed stake, and his arrows could seldom pierce their skins.

— David Thompson and Richard Glover. David Thompson’s Narrative, 1784-1812. Toronto: Champlain Society, 1962. p. 198-199 | http://www.archive.org/details/davidthompsonsna00thom

Indiana needs more beavers. In an earlier time (the 1600s), I suspect the Indianapolis area had plenty of beavers. The terrain and the many tributaries to the White River are well-suited to beaver life. Like most states, however, beavers were extirpated from Indiana in the mid-nineteenth century to feed the market for fur and perfume. According to the Indiana DNR, a breeding pair was released in the Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area in 1935.

A few, potential descendants of this beaver pair from Wisconsin now live in the EcoLab, a 55-acre wetland on the Marian University campus. E. and I were there, recently, for a cloudy, wet walk. It was a good day to be outside; my, now cancer-prone, skin appreciated the cloud cover and I appreciated the mostly empty trails. In addition to the ruins of Jens Jensen’s landscape design, the beaver lodges are probably the most popular feature of the Lab. I was pleased to discover that a sign explaining beaver lodges failed to follow a colony to its latest location, but instead pointed to a shrinking mound in a dry pond. The lodge was sprouting a fair sized shrub, so it has been vacant for at least a couple of years. Occupied lodges are visible elsewhere in the Lab, but not near the signage.

Arriving in the late morning, we did not, however, see any beavers. In fact, I have seen only one non-captive beaver in my lifetime. Last fall I was fishing roughly a mile north of the the Crooked Creek tributary. At day break I was knee deep in the water and casting in the mist. I saw the beaver for at least 30 seconds before it saw me. Swimming my direction (it seemed huge), it paused gave me a quick look and dove with a very loud slap of its broad tail. If any other beavers were within a quarter mile, they were fairly warned. I have spent a lot of time fishing on the river’s east bank, but I have yet to spot a lodge in the area, so I’ll guess that this beaver a) was house hunting, or b) has a lodge somewhere on the west bank.

With a life mostly “lived” outside and preferably running on trails or fishing in silence, I have spotted my first beaver after moving to the nation’s fourteenth largest city. Why are they here? And now? Perhaps the urban beaver benefits from access to public land. Farmers and suburbanites may be less beaver-friendly. Perhaps, while municipalities pause to deliberate, the animals keep munching, dam building, and girdling trees. In other words, while people argue, urban beavers are allowed to fell fresh planted saplings … at least, until someone wraps them in four feet of heavy chicken wire.

Now that I have seen one beaver, a few lodges, a couple of dams, and plenty of bank-side tree damage, I want to see beavers everywhere. There’s a heap of bark chips in the elementary school parking lot … beaver lodge. There’s a flooded alley behind the Walgreens … beaver pond. The neighbor’s midsized basswood is dying … again, in another time, it would have been the work of a beaver.

In 1955 Indiana counted 1,695 beavers, in 1998 Ohio counted 25,000, in 2008 Wisconsin counted 68,800. How many beavers are in Indiana? I’m guessing, probably more than 20,000, but less than 60,000.  In other words, not enough. When all the beavers return, Indiana’s portion of the estimated 100-400 million beavers in this country prior to the arrival of the fur trade, they will be a nuisance. Restoration will look like destruction. We will do battle and if we call a truce, life will be different. Then, if I’m a beaver’s neighbor, I’ll be a nuisance too.

Low Gap

Went hiking with the entire family today. A five kilometer loop in the Morgan-Monroe State Forest. Beginning at the Low Gap Trail parking area and then looping back on what is called Rock Shelter Trail. When we got to the fork (10 miles or 3 miles?) I asked E.: “Long walk or short walk?” He voted for “short walk”. The last kilometer seemed extra long to him and so he began to protest: “Not the short walk, take the LONG walk!” Neurotypicals take note: let your short be short and your long be long.

All-in-all, it was fairly ordinary terrain, but I have been conditioned (or predisposed?) to resist the allure of the sublime anyway. Points of interest (there’s a phrase and how mundane!): an Eastern American Toad (Bufo americanus), a stream bed of clay so “pure” that it seemed to be shale until one reached down to make a hand-print, and the “Rock Shelter” of the trail’s name. Although the latter appeared from a distance to be an entirely “nature”-made feature (a water-hewn overhang that arcs around a, roughly, 20 meter curve), closer inspection suggested some human tampering. Were those blasting holes that I saw? And the scalloped, semi-circular scrapings? Perhaps someone tried to make a “shelter” in this fragile sediment, layers peeling away.

The black raspberries are beginning to swell their hard green heads. (May 31, 2009)