Blue Mound To 161 by Garin Cycholl
(Pavement Saw Press, Columbus, Ohio, 2005)
Nightbirds by Garin Cycholl
(Moria Books, Chicago, Illinois, 2006)
THE EPIC SOIL:
GARIN CYCHOLL’S BLUE MOUND TO 161
Here where the barbed wire straggles in the marsh
And alkali crusts all the weeds like frost,
I have come home.
- L. Eiseley
Misery is man-made. I was recently thinking of a forgotten book, Andre Gide's autobiography Except It Die, in which he notes he hardly believes he is putting these things down on paper. Jack Conroy's ribald but solemn brand of truth-telling in The Disinherited is similar to Gide's, though Conroy himself in his novel considers the idea that the Great Depression is "an escape from reality." Scandal in literature gets no free rides as unquestionable honesty. Scandal might constitute unwillingness to face life, and, as such, the victims of it are the more sympathetic characters. The methodologies of science create interesting effects regarding truth: The more intensely it tries to describe the atom the more stunningly indescribable science makes the atom appear. Factuality is truthful, and some innocuous pieces of non-fiction have a surprising weightiness because of this, but there are obviously widely varying levels of importance in the genre of non-fiction.
Literature, the arts, have evolved along lines of presenting life as it is, without distortion or deception, without pretense, without saying one thing and doing another, without serpentinely advancing a materialistic cause, without proselytizing and without mistakes. Virtue is unexaggerated; vice is recognized as part and parcel of all. At about the time of the end of World War II, Norman Mailer in a breakthrough novel had accurately adjudged humanity to be divided into two categories: the naked and the dead.
One wonders what a generation to which World War II must be about as remote as the Crimean War might get from this. Except perhaps for bigotry, or more precisely ethnocentrism, which relates directly to the problems of "globalism," it seems like there are no challenges for integrity remaining, no taboos for honesty to heroically defend or defeat. It was said that, as Dostoyevski's Crime And Punishment was first published in serialization, all Russia was silent. What subject today would cause in a writer such loneliness as Dostoyevski's or such self-doubt as Gide's.
These thoughts are my own. But they seem also to be the themes of two books of writing by southern Illinois-born poet Garin Cycholl, Blue Mound To 161, a 2005 collection of poetry from Pavement Saw Press, and Nightbirds, prose poetry from moria press in 2006. I believe it was Modernism that laid the foundation for a new type of epic. The early epic followed a simple narrative style, though it led to thought-provoking grottos, fictional nations, self-knowing heroes, remarkable trophies, all on a divine scale. In the modern epic, the journey usually takes place through a more shadowy historic and highly-charged democracy-shrouded landscape. As in The Divine Comedy, the wanderer, the stranger, exceptional and apart, surveys the problems of the meaning of human impulses and desires and their impediments from some vantage that affords a panoramic view of society. Modern demons are unaccountable depressions and distractions, pangs of loyalty, indulgence, rather than monsters and demigods. William Carlos Williams' Paterson, Eliot's The Wasteland, especially Joyce's Ulysses are examples of the modern epic. But so are Donald Davidson's Lee At Appomattox, Robert Penn Warren's Audubon, Cole Swenson's Goest, Michael Rothenberg‘s The Elementals. The fact is the historic epic, the originary time-space journey through the surfaces of dailiness and shame is a powerfully seductive and popular modern genre.
Blue Mound To 161 refers to a segment of highway in the Midwest. Cycholl, in often traveling this segment of highway or roads like it, must have perceived scenery, structures, people, currents, elements of the past and the present and tried to write of them in a way that reflected a developing in the U.S. as a country, nation, entity, part of civilization as a whole. But, in doing this, Cycholl doesn’t treat every attribute the same. He prefers those that seem to have a special lasting quality, a jarring bumpiness, a bark-like roughness in common with the rocky geological and botanical landscape itself. And it is a language, an honesty similar to this bumpiness, both in his subject matter and in his own writing, that Cycholl seeks out as obtaining an heroic place in the fields of human memory.
The unpaginated book, with black-paper pages separating chapters, begins with instructions coming from an eight-year-old.
“...In the picture, Elizabeth is eight years old. She wants me to know, she says, how people used to live in these small settlements down in Wayne County. She wants me to notice that there are no wild animals in the picture [....]’Her--’ Elizabeth points, ‘she passed on.’ Fence lines. Flecks in the sky. A fold in the picture. The corners of two outbuildings. I point. ‘The northwest corner of Pilgrim Holiness church,’ she says. ‘The creek is just out of the picture.’”
The text that follows does not leave out the creek, for it is the creek of life. Like the creek in Andre Tarkovsky’s film The Zone, in it are all the tin cans, pebbles, clam shells, broken pieces of glass that make up what Cycholl calls “a true soil.” Obviously this soil is symbolic, but what sort of soil is it? It has remnants of the Civil War and the WPA, of Cairo, Illinois, the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers. It is the soil of varieties of Cypress trees, the Ku Klux Klan, pastorals, Stan Mikita, Tim McCarver, East Saint Louis, turtles as big as dogs, snakes, war medals, preachers, Communists. It is a soil of the decimated plains, scattered about, one thing here, another over there. It's a soil of collages. It’s a soil of insensitivity and murder, of nothing to do, of Peabody Coal, John L. Lewis, Joe Pie Weed, church picnics, short leaf pines. A soil about as logical as “Milk bottles...exploding across the Midwest.“ It’s a soil in which the name of the man walking reflects the names of all men in the region, all men of the Indo-European genealogy or all genealogies. It is a soil of the “Onslaught of the commonplace”; a soil on which “TRESPASSERS WILL BE PROSECUTED.” In short, it is a soil rich enough in “utter chaos” to grow, like the soil in any place as long as it is the soil, a future based on the past--the present always being problematic.
Displacements occur? Enact? Introduced to his executioner, Charlie Birger said, “It is a beautiful world.” Certain names, waters charted or mapped. The derailed coal train. The utter chaos of the scene. Weeds against the sky. Earl Shelton dead in his sleep. Something about a lawyer. Some other spring, Or questions. These grasses are moving. Who started these rumors of history? Do you find the violences redemptive? Is a single channel evident? Then propositions. If a man has property, he must be sane. Sassafras roots will not hold the subsoil. A road south. Destination’s important to me. But place? The world begins in a ditch.
There are certain qualities in this excellent passage that seem prominent. But, contrasted with another similar passage, several sections of similar passages (each introduced via the minstrelsy of the three singing jonesboro girls), the strands and themes become more indefinite and elusive yet, at the same time, more permanent and invaluable.
Post Creek cut sixty miles off the river. Is a single
channel evident? If map is a measure of space
whose song goes marching over weeds? Natural
channels are sinuous. The bone Gap Opera. Who
are these? If the waters are moving. If Art
Sinsabaugh sets up his view camera somewhere along
the Dongola blacktop. The important thing is being
portable. Whatever moves here. If neutralizing lime-
stone is not present, the shale gob piles will emit acids.
If chronicle is a measure of time, what color is the ink?
The first miners were Italian. If these weeds are found
only in certain corners of the South, what brought them?
Gravel is a recent addition. Here, the vegetation may
even burn in such times.
It’s as if you could take the newspaper headlines or the agricultural registers or administrative or court records of early American settlements and cull from them the fragments of a text that represents and reveals the metaphysical underpinnings, the normative basis of human social patterns. Cycholl does this to some degree.
“A specimen of Dichromena latifolia Bald. is
in the Southern Illinois University herbarium
with the following data: Makanda, Illinois,
1872. This is from the George Hazen French
collection. Since this species occurs only in
the southeastern United States, we are assuming
that a mix-up of label has occurred since Mr.
French did carry on an extensive exchange
with southern collectors such as C. Mohr and
This is an epic deconstructive soil of beginnings, made up of preconscious fragments that form an archetypal imagery of the journey of Man. These haunting but still substantive fragments are like the open architecture that leaves air ducts and wooden beams visible to illuminate the sources of its structural composition. They are like the infinitely unpredictable and alive yet still unerringly symmetrical and identifiable branch-work of winter trees; they are like small bits of papyrus on which are traces of ancient writing. They are like big city street names that resonate across centuries all the way to healthy forests and clear, primeval lakes and rivers. They guide us insistently in the right direction. They are the Freudian flora and fauna of consciousness, recurring, antecedent, evidence not only of a past but of a future. They comfort and instruct us in ways we can’t conceive.
Nightbirds picks up to some degree where Blue Mound To 161 leaves off. More similar to the first collection than it appears, the forty pages of prose poetry in Nightbirds shifts from an epic to an utopian soil, in which the mode has become one more of rearrangement and "reconfiguration" than recognition. The chapters listed in the table of contents retain references to history and geography. The writing is somewhat more wary and opaque, but, throughout, most of the text bodies are divided by single-word terms from house design such as “attic,” “flagpole,” “atrium,” “cupola,” suggesting the building of a dwelling or abode. Tinted with references to "Thoreau," "Cathedral," "Levee," "Last Places In America," "Soviet sprinter," the writing seems to foreshadow work from Cycholl that might deal more explicitly with the political and economic problems of our time, with an eye toward perfection and times to come.
The River is the last repository of the city’s dead. They swim and sing in its waters late into the night. At one point there was even talk of a bridge crossing the river, giving local residents access to this nightly festival. Residents still fondly recall those days in conversation, saying, “Oh, what a time that was to be alive!”
What’s most puzzling about Cycholl’s masterly impressionistic tapestry of non-superficial images is that they are of a special sort. They take the non-locatable preeminent shape of human need. The question of whether they constitute a true soil seems in Cycholl’s mind to relate to what I was getting at in the opening paragraphs of this review. In talking about turtles and prisons, Cycholl is searching for honesty that satisfies certain requirements, such as courage and character. This cannot be changed. Picking and choosing the context of one’s actions leaves virtue untested. In exploring the highways of imaginary dimensions there is still a toll to pay. One of the most subtle corruptions of honesty is self-justification, which doesn’t appear (like the creek) just outside the picture but always and everywhere in the picture. Sacrifice isn’t abdication, which only pollutes the soil, since the soil is greater than the self. Honesty is more than consciousness, dream; it is the objects within consciousness. It is a phenomenon to which consciousness is subject. Human honesty must match the level of human need.
Tom Hibbard has had many poems, translations, reviews and essays published on and off line in places such as Word/For Word, Big Bridge, Fishdrum, Jacket, Otoliths, Milk, Cricket, Moria. A poetry collection, Place of Uncertainty, is available online at Otoliths Storefront. Bronze Skull published a chapbook of Hibbard's poetry in 2008 titled Critique of North American Space. A long piece on "Linear/Nonlinear" appears at the Big Bridge archive. Upcoming publications are a review of a Jacques Derrida tract in the spring issue of Jacket (reprinted from Word/For Word) and two poems in the online "Green" issue of Jack.