I’ve just bought a book by poet Bruce Snider based on a couple of poems by him that I discovered on the Gwarlingo website. The thing that drew me to them straight away were the vivid descriptions of his hometown of Paradise, Indiana. I was struck by the way he uses landscape as a means of expression and also as a powerful kind of grounding force to that expression. The poems are rich with descriptions of the land, it’s trees and highways, ditches and rivers and these are woven with moments from the past so that somehow he makes these intensely personal experiences into something more accessible, something more universal that we can all understand.
The suicide of the writers cousin ‘Nick’ is at the centre of the collection, simply titled ‘Paradise, Indiana’ but the poems are never indulgent or sentimental. He manages to convey the weight of human grief and loss in a few carefully chosen words that create vivid flashes of imagery, his landscape acting as a kind of compass for memory as he seeks to make sense of the inexplicable.
I especially like this one, called ‘Epitaph’. The images are by Connemara based photographer and hill walking guide Inez Streefkerk.
Because I could be written anywhere,
I loved the hard surface of the blade,
my name carved into barn doors, desktops,
the peeled face of a shag-bark hickory.
I pressed my whole weight into it, letters
grooved deep as the empty
field rows along Tri-Lakes* where I’d seen
my cousin Nick buried in ground so hard
they had to heat the dirt with lamps
before they could dig. I gutted squirrels
my grandmother fried, hanging
skins from the window,
and with the same knife gouged a B
at the base of the frozen creek bank,
the season breaking
like the rose our teacher, Miss Jane,
dipped in nitrogen so it would shatter.
There were more atoms, she claimed,
in the letter O, than people in the entire state.
I could feel God inside that letter,
the vast sky configured, buds scrawled
on the black limbs of trees.
Trucks carried spring feed down
Highway 9 as I wove through the headstones,
tracing names in the late frost,
looking for Nick’s plot
with the wax white roses,
his lucky fishing lure. I could sense
him down there, satin-lined,
curled like the six-toed cat
we’d found bloated in the creek, alive
with lice and maggots. Sometimes
I was sure I could hear him, restless,
waiting for me, the Wabash*
pushing its icy waters, my tongue
humming with the fizz. It never ended,
that stretch of road snaking back home
like an artery through my own heart
where an owl gripped a rat in its claw
over I-80*. I’d put my hands in my pockets
and walk, dreaming of the places I’d go,
the things I’d do, the dump rising
to meet me at the edge of town,
chrome bumpers twisted as the owner
himself, withered arm swinging a fist.
I waited for something to escape –
mouse darting from a glove box, oil
from a cracked sump. I could stand
on a crushed Chevy, feeling it all
thaw inside me: asphalt
and barbed wire, cows and steaming
pails of milk, even the graveyard
rising, new stones nursing old griefs,
slow bones and winter’s cherry trees
making their long walk to leaf.
taken from ‘Paradise, Indiana’ by Bruce Snider
‘Twisted Oak’ by Inez Streefkerk
Cover image ‘Birch Bark’ by Inez Streefkerk