I was googling the name of a certain hill in Ludlow, Massachusetts. It’s not a remarkable hill, apart from a bit of outcropping rock which offers views of the surrounding woods and a few distant hill-lines. It would only be of very local interest, and the search results were thin, but one caught my eye: a digitized version of a book published in 1855.
A History of Western Massachusetts, by Josiah Gilbert Holland, is a massive, multi-volume work of tediously indiscriminate detail. It includes encyclopaedic accounts of the founding citizens, notable clergy and wartime contributions for each of the dozens of towns in the state’s four western counties. Brain-bleedingly dull catalogues of sawmill operations alternate with doubtful but exciting reports of border skirmishes with native tribes, all of it thickly glazed with self-assured Protestant moralism and a belief in America’s divine mandate. Reading it – and I’ve read a lot of it – makes clear just how much has changed in the United States’ collective psyche. And of course, in other ways, how little has changed. There is no sense of embarrassment in Holland’s prose – no sense of regret, for instance, as he narrates the steady dislocation of the Native American peoples. It’s difficult to say how much regret we own or express now.
The books reads strangely to a modern audience in other ways as well. Published in 1855, it can take no account of the American Civil War, a conflict which in many ways continues to define the nation. There are local ironies, too. Holland could have no idea that in 1938 four towns, three of whose histories he had detailed, would come to an abrupt end with the damming of the Swift River and the creation of the Quabbin Reservoir, the enormous artificial lake from which Boston, 65 miles away, now drinks. He refers to Mount Pomeroy and Mount Liza in the town of Geenwich; these are now islands, rising over their drowned township.
The books fascinated me. The strangeness of seeing the past discussed as present, and the further past framed so differently than it would be now, opened a space for my own thinking, and so for poetry. I began work on a loose family of poems under the title God of Corn, four of which appear in New Poetries VI. The central preoccupation of these poems – land, and the way we live in it – is essentially the same as for the rest of my poetry, but the occasion of this hoary, borey text lets me attempt connections across greater spaces of time and culture. If, in these times of environmental crisis, we are seeing the final flowering of many mistakes, God of Corn lets me consider those mistakes a little closer to their source. The fictive personas I create for that world are projections of myself, of course, but beginning each poem with a passage or line from Holland’s text ensures at least an initial quantity of something foreign, a complicating term in the equation, an intertextuality I cannot hope to manage.
Where the bound is sunk, there
this freedom ends. Yet the man we are
so desires the farm
as he walks by, walking late—
wants to jump the fence, join
the fire, stand
in the crowd of the fire
and be a part
of that burning, a part of that having.
(‘The Allotments of Land Were Divided’)
The tangle of truths and ironies I intend with these lines, the way the emotion sets off against Holland’s legalistic description of property allotments with which the poem begins, is both a seeking out of some decisive folly of the past, and a mirror for my own here-and-how confusion.