Edgar Lee Masters heard dead people, at least when he sat down (or stood up) to write A Spoon River Anthology (1916), still a great achievement--and perhaps an overlooked one now--in American poetry. The premise is simple: dead people from a small town finally have their say; they speak interior monologues through Masters' poetry. The poems resonate for me because they're so tough, taciturn, and down to earth, and because they do remind me of people I knew in a small town. However, I don't think you have to be from a small town to enjoy Masters' poems. Here's one called "'Indignation' Jones." That has to be one of the great nicknames--Indignation. It could apply to all of us at one time or another.
YOU would not believe, would you,
That I came from good Welsh stock?
That I was purer blooded than the white trash here?
And of more direct lineage than the New Englanders
And Virginians of Spoon River?
You would not believe that I had been to school
And read some books.
You saw me only as a run-down man,
With matted hair and beard
And ragged clothes.
Sometimes a man’s life turns into a cancer
From being bruised and continually bruised,
And swells into a purplish mass,
Like growths on stalks of corn.
Here was I, a carpenter, mired in a bog of life
Into which I walked, thinking it was a meadow,
With a slattern for a wife, and poor Minerva, my daughter,
Whom you tormented and drove to death.
So I crept, crept, like a snail through the days
Of my life.
No more you hear my footsteps in the morning,
Resounding on the hollow sidewalk,
Going to the grocery store for a little corn meal
And a nickel’s worth of bacon.
I love the false pride of Indignation Jones, even in death. He thinks his coming from "Welsh stock" is something special. The part about having been to school and having read some books is poignant--painfully insufficient evidence for the assertion he's trying to prove. Masters' sense of what somebody like this might say is spot-on.
The poem makes me think of two men I saw this past Saturday. Before I went to Mass, I stopped to pick up some groceries, and a ragged, gaunt, bearded man was crouched behind a wall near the store. He whispered, "You wouldn't have some change . . . ?" At first I didn't know where the voice was coming from, but finally I located it. I went over and pulled a bill out of my wallet, and the fascinating thing is that he knew it was a five-dollar bill even before I did. "You're giving me a five?!" he said, incredulously. "Yes, sir," I said. I gave it to him, and he said, "God bless you." As I returned to my car, I glanced at a woman who was near her car; she had apparently observed the wee scene, and she had a bemused smile on her face. I don't think she disapproved of my giving the guy money, but I'm not sure she entirely approved either.
Then I went to church, and as I walked toward the entrance, I saw another homeless man who'd wedged himself into a nook of the church's exterior and was having a nap. He didn't wake up. He was gone when I came out. It's not uncommon to see homeless persons around our parish because there is a big food bank connected to the parish, and their is a "hospitality kitchen" that serves a meal a day. Also, economically strapped people can get free bus-passes from the parish.
Indignation Jones wasn't homeless, apparently, but he was dismissed in his town, and in his posthumous monologue, he tries to explain that he was somebody. Of course, everybody is somebody, but when someone crosses a line--into being a recluse, a pariah, or a homeless person--they officially become nobody. They have to crouch and whisper. They feel as if they have to creep, "like a snail": what a great simile.
When I see people like the ones I saw Saturday, or when I think of Indignation Jones, I think about what might have happened to keep them from crossing that social line, and I think about what might happen to bring them back across. I know the answers aren't simple. But at one point, presumably, these people were relatively content, functioning people, more or less accepted by society. One wants to hit "rewind" and go back to some mythical crucial moment when it all changed, and change that moment. It's a sentimental desire, I realize. So we write poems out of empathy, or give five bucks, or work on "the homeless problem." Or we ignore "the snail" entirely.
In poems, sometimes the best details are the oblique ones, and I love how this poem ends with the corn meal and the nickel's worth of bacon. Perfect. These details make me think of all the obscure, strange, reclusive "old timers" I saw in my hometown. One was an old miner, Bill Nichols, who seemed to wear the same pair of bluejeans and the same flannel shirt year-round, and never to take a bath. He lived in a shack outside of town. We used to take a bus 12 miles to another town to school, and every once in a while, Bill would flag down the bus and hitch a ride. Often he was wearing a holster with his six-gun: I'm not lying. Bill was from a claim-jumping era when you had to pack heat. Bill wore a gun on his hip, the way some older women wore a feather in their hats. Nowadays, I think, a bus driver would a) not stop for a hitch-hiker an b) even if he or she were tempted to stop, would probably look at the gun and think, "Maybe not today."