All books are one book in the hands of attentive readers. Late last year, while I was rereading Shakespeare, Buce at Underbelly introduced me to Michael Pennington, an English actor who has written useful books about Hamlet and some of the other plays. Last month in Portland, I bought the Oneworld edition of Chekhov’s Sakhalin Island. Listed in the bibliography was a title new to me: Are You There, Crocodile?: Inventing Anton Chekhov – by Pennington, who has written and performed a one-man show about the Russian writer. I ordered a copy through interlibrary loan and it arrived this week from Texas Tech University in Lubbock.
I’ve only just started to read it but Pennington mentions one of his traveling companions in Russia, the American poet Lucien Stryk, whom I had never heard of, and excerpts one of his poems, “Chekhov in Nice”:
“Were he less the son, he’d have come
Here twenty years ago. Before those
Germs, swarming, had carved
A kingdom of his chest, before
The flame had risen from his bowels
To fan within his head. Were he less the son…”
That was enough for me to order his collected poems, but on the library shelf I found Heartland: Poets of the Midwest, an anthology Stryk edited in 1967. Much of it is awful (Robert Bly, James Tate, James Wright) but I discovered a familiar name in the table of contents: Frederick Eckman, co-founder of the creative writing program at Bowling Green State University in 1968. I was a freshman there two years later, majoring in English, but I never took a creative writing class. I remember Eckman as Lincolnesque – tall, raw-boned, bearded – but never knew him. In 1966, one of his sons had been among the victims of Charles Whitman, the sniper on the tower at the University of Texas.
Stryk includes seven of Eckman’s poems in his anthology. Most are third-generation William Carlos Williams -- skinny and undernourished. But “To Sherwood Anderson, in Heaven” is different. It’s not a great poem but its eight prosy stanzas tell a good story about Eckman, his father and Clyde, Ohio, where Anderson lived as a boy and which served as his model for Winesburg. Clyde is about an hour east of Bowling Green, and I’ve written several times about my connection with it, most recently here. This is from Eckman’s poem:
“Damn it, Sherwood, this is my country too!
You & my father cannot have it all. Like you,
I know the look of ponds at sunset on the edges
of small Ohio towns; county fairs are more real
to me than art galleries or seminar rooms; I too
have smoked cornsilk in cool dark barns; I have been
a poor boy with a newspaper route; I have heard
the old veterans, spitting and droning around
a pot-bellied stove in the general store; I too
had a gentle weary mother who died young.
Let me in, Sherwood! Let me in, Father!
All three of us have whooped drunkenly in village streets
through the sexual explosion of Ohio spring. Let me in!”
This amounts to a pastiche of Whitman at his most declamatory. It’s simple, sincere and sentimental – not unlike much of Anderson, whose poetry is terrible. The poem’s appeal is extra-literary: celebrating Anderson and recounting a region in north central Ohio where I once lived, where the place names are a Midwestern hymn: Clyde, Fremont, Sandusky, Continental. Eckman was born in Continental, 35 miles southwest of Bowling Green and 50 miles southeast of Montpelier, where, in my first newspaper job, I was editor of the weekly Leader-Enterprise. I left Montpelier in 1980, the year Fred Eckman retired from teaching. He died in 1996.
The stories in Winesburg, Ohio, are loosely held together by George Willard, the young man, Anderson’s stand-in, who inspires trust in other characters. They talk to him. In the last chapter, “Departure,” George boards a westbound train and leaves Winesburg. Here’s the final paragraph:
“The young man’s mind was carried away by his growing passion for dreams. One looking at him would not have thought him particularly sharp. With the recollection of little things occupying his mind he closed his eyes and leaned back in the car seat. He stayed that way for a long time and when he aroused himself and again looked out of the car window the town of Winesburg had disappeared and his life there had become but a background on which to paint the dreams of his manhood.”