Along today’s roads through rural Minnesota and Wisconsin, one-room school houses remind us that once rural people walked or rode in horse-drawn wagons and buggies to school, town, or relatives’ houses. The school houses held perhaps 30 pupils–most of whom had to walk; thus every five miles or so, one was built in lone isolation, beside a pump, just beyond a road.
Occasionally wandering in fields now overgrown with smallish trees and brush, we can stumble on remnants of the houses where the students lived, trip on the edge of cellar holes or cement steps rising just a few breaths toward heaven. Even gravestones occasionally tilt out of the earth, as if the bodies tried to rise, then gave up for lack of encouragement.
Gravestones take the shape of poems, did you notice? Ellen Bryant Voigt’s slim volume of poems, Kyrie (1996), makes us believe in the beauty and horror of the rural flu epidemic that coincided with the end of World War I: half a million dead in the stagnant trenches of France; half a million dead in two waves of contagion. What La Traviata and its literary predecessor, Dumas’ La Dame aux Camelias (1848), did for tuberculosis in the 19th century, Voight provides with her poems for our first modern flu outbreak. Even further back, Defoe’s Journal of a Plague Year (1722) helps us experience the urban bubonic plague.
Now as we stare at images of Japan’s nuclear catastrophe-in-the-making, I wonder how many of us will revisit John Hersey’s magisterial Hiroshima (1946) which follows three or four victims of the U.S.’s dropping of the atomic bomb on that Japanese city, as they struggle through the initial fire and heat, only later to recover or develop radiation sickness. The horrors and devastation of war remain for most of us the epitome of human destruction, yet contagion and what we call natural disasters wreck as much, if not more misery. The difference is that we are often simply passive sufferers, unable to blame each other for the agony we observe or experience first hand.
At a reading of “first books” last night at the University of Minnesota’s McNamara Alumni Center, I was stuck by the fact that four out of six readers chose selections that describe violence; even sex was described as an excess of humorous, yet violent sensations and emotions. Of the two exceptions, I was most taken by memoirist Gayla Marty, reading from Memory of Trees (2010), her memoir of growing up on a multi-generational farm in Pine County, Minnesota, about 60 miles north of the Twin Cities. It was an amusing relief to hear her subdued description of a Swiss boyfriend pressing her toward a train window as the two racketed down Italy and then on a train ferry across the Mediterranean to Tunis.
His pressure was undoubtedly physical, but Marty rendered it as a series of impertinent questions, which did not so much bring immediate answers from her, as memories of her farm family. Imagining her father eating a huge breakfast in an early morning kitchen, then lying on the kitchen floor to draw first one knee then the other to his chest, stretching into the day’s work. The final image she gave us, of Tunisian fields turning green, yet blowing with sand, concluded with her wish that, this mid-March morning, they too like her family’s fields back home could be covered with snow to protect the soil. I find that often renditions of violence move through me and dissipate; whereas more reflective connections stay with me to draw my own contemplations.