Tag Archives: Kentucky

Nostalgia, Now and Then

Once, many years ago, on introducing myself to the Irish poet, John Montague, I mentioned that I was from Kentucky. Immediately, he asked for my favorite poems by Robert Penn Warren. I had to admit that I had not paid much attention to Warren’s poetry. Montague was visibly dismayed. I had probably read a few Warren poems and I know that I had read All the King’s Men, but I was more fond of Kentucky prose (Wendell Berry and Guy Davenport) at the time.

I am trying to remember why I had passed over Warren so quickly. Perhaps it was the association with “New Criticism” (which was politically incorrect in my graduate school), but I also recall a frustration with both the subjects and the pace of Warren’s verse. For example, on re-reading a few of the anthologized poems today, I am struck by his penchant for hyphenated nouns and the use of the spondee. On this account, see a few samples from his Coleridgean poem “Gold Glade“: wet-black, gorge-depth, leaf-lacing, leaf-fall, heart-hurt, grief-fall, Gold-massy, light-fall, gold-falling, tooth-stitch, gray-shagged. And these are merely the hyphenated words, add the spondees and one has a recipe for some slow chewing. But this is a recent revelation. I’m certain that I relied on my less self-conscious ear in the 90s. As for the subjects, I was (and perhaps I still am) afraid of the nostalgia of self-identifying Southerners. I could (or have been) one of these, a nostalgic “son of the South” … particularly when I tire of the well-intentioned contextual emptiness of the Midwest. (Southern nostalgia may be made from equal parts of molasses and rat poison.) To this day, I am wary of it.

On the other hand, I am reaching an age in which nostalgia fuels memory. Thus, I have been fascinated lately with Warren’s “American Portrait: Old Style” from the volume Now and then: poems 1976-1978. This very nostalgic poem relies on Warren’s narrative skills. The poem keeps some of the internal rhyming, alliteration and spondees which sometimes clot his verse, but these are masked (a bit) by the story line. I think of Coleridge, again (in so far as it recalls childhood as a privileged place for the imagination), but Warren’s Coleridgean bent is tempered by the focus on the relationship between the poet and his childhood friend. The ageing ex-pitcher and bird dog trainer, tends to humanize Warren in a way that his own thoughts (out of context) do not. While the poetry strives for a false immortality, the body does not. K, as he is named in the poem, ages Warren by giving us a reference point that is a bit more approachable and less authorial. And so, when the poet lies down in the ditch he once played in as a child, and watches the sky pass over, it’s easier to join him; it’s easier to love this life and this world that we share.

The Collected Poems of Robert Penn Warren stretches to an overwhelming 830 pages. I think I will begin, instead, with Now and then.

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Chicory

Memory might be cultivated with care or it might be left to wither or spread as the seasons and circumstances permit. Most tend to it with some of the former and much of the latter. Perhaps I should not be surprised by the recent force of those weedy incidents from the first decade or so of my life. Many are of no real consequence, but seem to have a lasting force–a fig tree behind a garage in Arkansas, the odor of boxwood at Keeneland, asparagus in the fence rows in Versailles, and chicory in the front pasture of the family farm.

Rooted in my memory, the ephemeral morning blue of the chicory marks a season in which the lettuce beds have also gone to seed. The baby blue with hints of powder and lace open above improbable soil and jangly stems. Until noon they bloom a cool fog in the worst places–exit ramps, new construction, vacant lots. And now, though they flower thirty Junes on in the margins of my urban life, I can turn in the pasture of my childhood and feel the grade of the field, see the locust trees on the ridge, and wince at the mound of dirt where my father buried our favorite mare.

I must remember not to let summer pass without chicory or I would live as a stranger in exile from myself.

Rootless

Somewhere on one of my short runs through the city of Indianapolis I saw a single bagworm sack hanging from the limb of a small, street side, deciduous tree. Was it a maple tree? A pear? Maybe a ginkgo or tulip? I’m not sure. It was a brief image as I passed by on a wintry run. I see it very clearly now, in memory, but I have no idea where it is. I often run out from my office or home in a more or less straight path for two or three miles, but make my way back in a series of dog-leg turns. The little sack, if it’s still dangling from its limb in the wind and ice and snow, could be anywhere on either side of the street for roughly twenty miles of running routes. I doubt I will ever see it again. A woodpecker or crow will likely find it first.

The bagworm hangs suspended in my disjointed memory with tenacity. It does so, in part, because it belongs more in my memory than it does in an urban landscaping tree. Were I a child again in rural Kentucky, I could find hundreds of these in cedar thickets and fence rows. I see them now at eye level, practically in the face, as I tracked various critters through day old snow.

The evergreen bagworm (Thyridopteryx ephemeraeformis) in winter is a prickly sack of leather encasing the dead body of a mouthless, headless, wingless, legless female moth. And inside her body, itself really just a sack, the shiny little eggs, tapioca pearls, wait for spring. Most home owners with manicured evergreens will consider the moth to be a pest; it is voracious and unsightly. We trimmed them off our cedar Christmas trees with pruning shears. The gut strings of their bags are so tough that they can girdle a small limb … and in a season or two, choke it out to brown.

Here in Indianapolis, recent winters have been mild. The moth is increasing its northern range. In twenty years of living north of the Ohio River, this is the first evergreen bagworm that I have seen. I am sure that there have been many others, especially in the southern part of Indiana, but I have missed them. This December has been cold. If the coming months are colder, the moth may retreat a season or two to the south. What little, aimless sense I have of home follows.

Thyridopteryx ephemeraeformis

Quarry Blue

Greener than fescue, Kentucky bluegrass is not blue. The blades are thin and the grass grows quickly and densely in the spring. If it goes to seed (grown to at least a foot), the field develops a feint, silver blue cloud. Under sunlight and in a breeze, it has a reflective sheen. Limestone and nitrogen; water and sun. Seed. It grew sparsely on our farm and the horses kept what they could find, trim.

Just across the road, Tatum’s pastures grew thick with fescue and timothy. Cattle pasture. Double wire electric fencing. But richer with field daisies, susans, Vitis, and cedars. I kept the pond’s dam between the farm house and my trespass. Shimmied under wire.

Even in my adolescence Tatum seemed worth avoiding. I suspect, now, that we had little to talk about (thirty years apart in age) but much in common. We would see him, from time to time, on our property. Carrying a shoulder height walking stick. Wandering across the horse field. Sometimes he would stand, seeming to look at nothing; the thoroughbreds ripping past, tossing their heads and clods of grass.

The horse, silly with the strange; lungs, muscles, hooves.

I recall no conversations with the man. I despised his beagles. And, while farm children go everywhere, farmers (it seemed) should stay at home.

The cedar grove abutted the railroad with a steep bank of clay mud, stone, and weeds. Tracks on creosote ties, a levee of quartz gravel. Scattered: knocked loose, 8 inch iron spikes; spent shot gun shells; the butt end of bottles, detrius from the glass factory.

Parallel the north side of the tracks: a brief, delicious mile; the best wild strawberries in the county. Birds dropped the seeds from low hung power wires.

Hope checks for fruit in the off season.

Two more hills. Two ponds, one dry. An Angus bull. An oak grove. Diesel engines, seemed the sound of a curse … then, more so than now.

A sudden chain link fence.

The quarry was a scar one might never see, but for trespassing. Great buildings deep and farms wide. In its depths, a water so blue. Bluer than a child’s sky. Bluer than life. Alkaline blue. Quarry blue.

Limestone quarry

Limestone quarry. Kentucky Geological Survey, University of Kentucky.