Wednesday, June 20, 2012
If the truth be told, we sometimes talk exactly that way "out here," as if we're forever removed from real power and prestige and prominence. "Out here" is a place afar off, and it's not hard to feel that way in a small town, out here where the unglamorous upper Midwest stretches into the Great Plains, where population, for the most part, has been hemorrhaging away for more than a century. "Out here" is a Garrison Keillor place, so it's not surprising that his people would have chosen this little poem for the Writers Almanac a day or two ago.
by Joe Paddock
Small towns out on the prairie
are mostly clean and bright now
and maybe turned a notch or two
I know what he means. All you need to do is drive south a ways, it seems, and things, which is to say life itself, appears to get less forced or cranked, just simply less busy. Out here we live in a place where all the kids are above average--and they'd better stay that way.
Panting dogs no longer
run free out here. And drunks
no longer stagger and fall
along Main Street. Their singing
is not so much missed, but
Main could use a bit more song.
Once upon a time we were "the west," the frontier, the edge of the wilderness. Once upon a time wild men lived here with their buxom, hearty women, all of them cutting up the virgin soil, living hand-to-mouth and dying young. Once upon a time, a place like this was far more reckless and feckless. Once upon a time, out here, there was more music, more variety, more silliness--think Halloween!--less business maybe, more eccentricity, more artful goofyness.
Life and death, the great stories,
continue here. Love is allowed,
and young mothers still bear down
on the birth canal. Children squall,
and old ones, too much restrained
and hidden, too seldom singing, sink
Life goes on, nonetheless. "Love is allowed" is a guarded complement, of course, and he's not wrong about the elderly, their plush nursing homes singularly silent down long and lonesome corridors sweetly furnished but ghost-like anyway. Doors are shut, television dialogue seeping out, the only sound anywhere. Out here we get older these days than we did a century ago, a mixed blessing. My father-in-law claims the institutional food is wearying--canned peas and phony potatoes. But who really cares?--who will advocate for old folks whose day-to-day lives go on long after their missions have seemingly ended?
I sometimes walk
our ever-widening fields
of graves and wonder
what boredom and struggle led each
to just this rest? And wonder
are their bones bitter
for having known too little
incandescence, too little song?
Mr. Paddock thinks that what characterizes us "out here" is joylessness--"too little song." He may be right. Among the elderly here are a disproportionate number of millionaires. Old churches have more in the bank than they do in the pew. Where I live at least, there's no dearth of dollars, and yet, the most exciting events in our lives are basketball championships. Mr. Paddock, like Thoreau, believes that too many of us, out here, lead lives of quiet desperation.
In spring and fall, the whole
incandescent sky sometimes yelps
with geese, long lines wavering
with great certainty toward
a true destination.
Maybe the signal word in this line is "yelps," which is hardly a compliment. One might think, on first read, that Mr. Paddock would suggest such joyless people look up once in a while and take note of life in the ample skies; but then yelping isn't music, and the "great certainty" of migration suggests something less than playfulness. Even the geese are driven--is that what he means? There's no music in their flight either, and more music is what he's yearning for.
Last night, on a bench
in Central Park, a pair of girls
with fading light in their hair,
sat waiting, waiting, and O,
their yearning was deep
and sweet as the evening
singing of robins
in the darkening boughs
See?--he says. Case in point, two young girls in Central Park, sweet and pretty, waiting for something, yearning for something sweet as song. See 'em there? What all of us want out here is joy, wonder, meaning, happiness, love. What we want is music like that of the robins in the darkening boughs on Main. What we want is joy--a commodity we can't seem to produce even on the most fertile of our fields.
When we die, some say, what we'll regret more than what we did is what what we didn't do. What we'll so dearly wish we would have had, Mr. Paddock would say, is music, more music.
And with that playful admonition, we leave the Great Plains altogether, because I'm guessing that "out here," really, is just about anywhere people find themselves in place where they want more joy, more love than they ordinarily find.
"Out Here" by Joe Paddock, from A Sort of Honey. (c) Red Dragonfly Press, 2007.
Posted by J. C. Schaap at 5:38 AM