August 2013

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Karren LaLonde Alenier

Off-the-Grid Garden Poetics

After World War II, Gertrude Stein told the American soldiers she met in liberated Paris that once they returned to America, they should go back to the land. She wanted them to embrace the pioneering spirit for which Americans were known. She wanted them to be free of constraints—in particular government and industry restrictions. In listening to American soldiers talk about their fears— especially that there would be no jobs once they got home, she decided to document how they spoke and what they said wrapped into her personal philosophy of pioneering.  Her novella Brewsie and Willie captures these voices and recently a film by Rosalind Morris brought Stein's characters to life.

    "…see here Willie, you see it's about that employee mentality we're all getting to have, we're just a lot of employees, obeying a boss, with no mind of our own and if it goes on where is America, I say if it goes on, where is America, no sir, said Henry, no sir, I want to pioneer." (Brewsie and Willie. London: Brillance Books/Plain Edition, first British edition, 1988. P. 63.)

The Steiny Road Poet wearing her publisher hat recently had the pleasure of participating in the judging of The Word Works Washington Prize that annually selects one manuscript from hundreds for publication. The goal is for a panel of judges to pick the best work without prejudice to subject matter, form, or author. The judging is done blind, meaning none of the judges know who the work is by until after the judging is complete. This year a manuscript entitled "The Whole Field Still Moving Inside It" was named winner. It is about growing up on New England farms off the grid. In fact, the father of the winning poet Molly Bashaw is an idealistic back-to-the-lander with an artistic bent.


    MUSIC BOX [an excerpt]

    I was born of a carpenter and a seamstress.

    Father built stilts for himself. Stars held his waist
    like a skirt. He sang opera.

    Mother sewed slippers to fit the stilt tips.

    They were charged with juggling
    fire too close to the sky

    and decided to try their hands
    at farming:
    mother knit me a sweater out of popcorn,
    flower corn, dent corn…

While Word Works president Nancy White reached Bashaw by email, the requested return phone call was made from the father's barn where the only telephone is installed. Bashaw, who until recently was working as a freelance bass-trombonist  in Stuttgart, Germany, has music degrees but no master of fine arts. Her working manuscript opens with a poem entitled "Inheritance" where the father offers the narrator his farm and the poet writes,

    If I want it I must come to it
    a warm horse,
    a field of hot grain

    trade one line for three magic beans.

The Steiny Poet sees much in Bashaw's manuscript that is compatible with Steinian ars poetica—not only language play but arresting philosophic passages worthy of being set as operatic aria. The following excerpts come from a long poem entitled "A Talk with Chagall."

    The empty grain silo is my double bass,
    my thousand chickens carrying their silent eggs.
    What bow, what hair of what horse will rub rosin
    across that hollow place where grain once was,
    what stroke will tell that story that starts with a disk of ferns
    and ends with a disk of dipper, the handle
    attached to the ladle I know is there, too?

    Who will talk like an old man
    of the cow the goat the milk 
    the cow the goat the milk
    until these are not symbols?

    The scent of hay the workhorses the troughs
    the scent of hay the workhorses the troughs.

    You live by them as you did then, in repetition,
    one foot on the house, one foot on the barn,
    conducting the world in your too-small purple coat.

    It is not sound you are after, but sound before sound,
    sound inside sound, sound after sound.
    Something like color,
    the grain come down to cover you.

In this long poem, the poet gets inside various elements—animate and inanimate—of the farm that go beyond Stein's cubist approach which describes the outside surface of something:

    The head closer to the ground, hinges in the hip,
    we're bent down
    to hear songs on the other side of this surface.

    That is why animals hang their heads low,
    the chickens scratch.
    That is what is meant by graze, grace, grass.

    The leaves wine-colored, blue. The pigs dinking.
    We stand with them at the trough,
    having just molded them out of clay,
    having just molded ourselves, our rumps, our big toes.

    Bending together this moment,
    our eyes meet in the reflection of trough water,
    the pig inside us looking at us inside the pig.

    That is what is meant by face, façade, facet.

In the hyper-alliterative  graze, grace, grass, surely tuned by an exceptional musical ear, the Steiny Poet hears an echo of Emily Dickinson's alliteration in "Because I could not stop for Death."  In Dickinson's poem, a horse drawn carriage filled with Ourselves and Immortality has the final encounter with Death while passing such things as Fields of Grazing Grain.

Toward the end of Bashaw's poem, comes these lines that telescope from the particulars of the farm longitude and latitude to the star-filled heavens above.

    When the rooster crows you must go back to the farm.
    You will hear it, eating eggs, eggs inside you,
    eggs called home by the rooster.


    the farm is everywhere, a constellation
    you can see
    when you look just to the side of it.

Like Stein, Bashaw feels no restraint in using the unclearly referenced "it." Perhaps like the children's game where one touches another on the shoulder and calls, "Tag! You're It," Bashaw would like to transfer the responsibility to the reader for understanding what "it" might mean. Here is a young writer to watch.

Meanwhile, the Steiny Poet will tiptoe back to what pioneering meant to Gertrude Stein. Stein and Toklas rented a country home in the south of France where they could be in touch with the land. In The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book, Alice wrote about the joy she felt for the gardens at Bilignin where, for fourteen years, she was in charge of the vegetables and Gertrude, the flowers. The Steiny Poet imagines that, during the hardship of WWII, both Stein and Toklas put time into the vegetable garden. Even days before Stein's death July 27, 1946, Stein was in the countryside looking to buy a piece of property.


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Scene4 Magazine — Karren Alenier
Karren LaLonde Alenier is the author of five collections of poetry and, recently, The Steiny Road to Operadom: The Making of American Operas and she is a Senior Writer and Columnist for Scene4.
For Prior Columns In This Series Click Here
For her other commentary and articles, check the Archives
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©2013 Karren LaLonde Alenier
©2013 Publication Scene4 Magazine


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