Cross this Bridge at a Walk, by Jared Carter
(Wind Publications, 109 pages, $15)
Griots are West African storytellers, guardians of oral traditions, keepers of culture. They can be heard tapping skin-stretched drumheads, lending rhythms to tales spoken to succeeding generations.
Jared Carter is a griot, too, except his milieu is Heartland America, land of covered bridges and stones that work their way up to confound spring plows. His rhythms are the blank verse breathings of rascals, sages, and fools.
Welcome to mythical Mississinewa County, fertile fields for a poet’s imagination.
Sixteen narratives span a history of work, atrocity and folly, from the persecution of the Shakers (“Exhumation”) to a possible government cover-up (“Lost Bridge”).
One story, “Mussel Shell with Three Blanks Sawed
Out,” is a testimony about Dude Holcomb, a river rat who makes a pretty income
harvesting mussel shells and freshwater pearls to sell to button factories.
When two men show up to rob Dude of a prized half-inch thick pearl, he outwits them,
even though it costs him a beating. But Dude’s victory is short-lived:
… when they learned how to make
buttons out of plastic, and everything changed
All the ways a man could make
a living gathering mussel shells, all of that went
straight down the drain. All the factories shut down,
and all the folks like Dude stopped forking mussels
out of the river. …
The poem, as most of the poems in this collection do, renders a nostalgic version of events, dignifying the parlance of the local storyteller. Do read these poems aloud to experience maximum effect.
“Covered Bridge” describes a battle of wits during the War Between the States. A young townsman, eager for the task of torching a bridge rather than permitting rebel soldiers to advance, finds himself gambling with a Confederate commander over the bridge’s fate. Presented as an oral legend passed down to a descendent, this account gets to the root of the matter, this distrust of the sanctioned record. The poet delves behind “reality” to expose the truth.
The narrators of these tales often
are the accounts of older, perhaps wiser, witnesses who are compelled to
preserve their historical knowledge for younger generations. That is the
purpose of griots – and that is the purpose of Carter, who reveals this
concept in “Visit” (about a tourist in Emily Dickinson’s New England home):
A poet’s life is simply told: the task
of waiting, and of writing down; and listening,
while the visitors come and go.