Sunday, April 14, 2013
A book of the living
The Mississippi Book of the Dead, written in 78 five-line stanzas, is a kind of series of snapshots and inner narrative of the poet traveling by land along the length of the Mississippi River, seeking a connection (or reconnection) with the earth and an opening (or reopening) of spirit. The journey begins in northern Minnesota at the source of the river, and ends in the Louisiana delta and islands sometime after hurricane Katrina had come through.
A couple of stanzas from early in the poem, numbered, as all the stanzas are:
For months I've been rutabaga broth,
stewing in retirement's kettle.
I'll drive the Great River Road,
which snakes beside the Mississippi,
through swamps and drizzle and red pines.
When I trekked Nepal in '81,
after visiting Katmandu temples,
I met a man who walked all India
from the tip to the Chinese border.
He carried but a bedroll and a book.
Through the journey of the poem, Young comes to grips with much pain and loss, the accounting of choices, the texture of a life. These are not journal entries, but the raw stuff of observation, seeing through the poet's eye.
The ground is trembling from nighttime explosions
at Fort Ripley's artillery range.
I never went to Nam, but Roger,
Steve and Dennis came back,
and blew themselves away, one way or another.
Pig's Eye is a riverside waste plant.
Prisons hunker up and down this River.
I'm not really a pilgrim
like Parsifal or Quixote,
but a rosary of sorrow twists in my head.
How different the view of a place, close up and at ground level. How different from the floodlit gloss of CNN babble and budget "debates" in Washington. A stroke of a pen, a backroom deal, a few votes here and there, can land with iron weight on the lives of untold numbers of people in the heartland of a nation.
The Gateway Arch is a man-made rainbow.
My half-breed ancestor passed through Missouri
as a wagon train scout with Forty-Niners.
My great-great-gramps never found his pot-o-gold.
His petty wife abandoned him and her children.
It could say "Pompeii," but it's Herculaneum,
a Civil War city with lead smelters.
Even today the green leaves are heavy.
Every empire feeds on poison and lead,
civil wars bullets and death.
Razorwire cuddles the Menard Prison
near the coffin carrier's town of Chester.
I watch the sun die on Missouri flats,
where a pioneer town drowned in the river.
An otter sprawls dead-ahead on the road.
The poem approaches a kind of climax, or pivotal turn, as Young relates staying with a friend in New Orleans, Dr. Robert Roberts; in a note at the front of the book, Young tells how Roberts has worked to hellp prison inmates in Louisiana make their way back into life outside of prison. Tim Young himself worked for many years in Minnesota as an educator in a juvenile prison.
At one point in the poem, Young describes accompanying Roberts on some of the work Roberts does in the community:
Robert buys an extra lunch to deliver
to the homeless in the French Quarter.
"Look at their shoes. You can tell who's hungry."
They are sandstorms and snowdrifts banking,
against doorways or trash piles in the alleys.
A backstreet trinity sits on a stoop,
sharing silence and a liter of beer.
One looks beaten, but his cheeks are tattooed
like an insane clown in a hip-hop posse.
"Is that the One where Spirit hides? Let's do it."
With the meal from Picadilly's
I ask the clown, "Sir, could you use a meal?"
"Yes, thank you." "And could you use some cash?"
His voice becomes real, "God Bless You."
Robert tells me, "The changing voice proves his spirit."
In the long winter of corporate media silliness and academic murk, in the blizzard of military strutting and the slashing of budgets for food stamps and public housing, amid the stock market feeding frenzies and home foreclosures gift card points and software upgrades, Tim Young's book The Mississippi Book of the Dead offers a real voice, a presences of spirit, the touch of the earth. We need this book.
The sky's red over Marion, and the moon's out,
and I watch the first bright dawn in weeks.
Parked in Love's Gas Station,
I watch thousands upon thousands,
of snow geese fly into the sunrise.