Thursday, January 2, 2014

The Harmonist at Nightfall, Poems of Indiana - Shari Wagner

Today's book of poetry:  The Harmonist at Nightfall, Poems of Indiana.  Shari Wagner.  Harmony Series.  Bottom Dog Press.  Huron, Ohio, U.S.A.  2013.

The Harmonist at Nightfall, Poems of Indiana is exactly as advertised.  Within these pages Shari Wagner gives a physical, cultural and historical portrait of her home state.  Not exactly set yourself on fire material at first glance, but I've always believed the subject was less important than the poet's vision, that a good poet can make a platform out of every subject and Shari Wagner is a very good poet.

That sounds like such a back-handed compliment and clumsy as well.  For this reader poems about nature and history are not my first fodder.   Wagner doesn't worry about stereotypes, when she is describing Indiana you can smell the earth.  Wagner is writing poems about place, her place in the world, and articulating the theory that her place, like yours, is as vibrant, alive and important, as any other.

Inside Stone

Bluespring Caverns

The farmer never suspected
that when he fenced in
was the surface of something larger
till that morning in the early
1940s, after a thunderstorm
when he couldn't find his cows.
The pond where they'd jostle
to drink was an empty basin
he pondered with hands shoved
deep into his pockets. On the bared
slope, he spied a sinkhole,
and his lantern swept the vaulted
cavern, the cut of a subterranean
river that coursed for miles
with no one watching. It wound
past rock with velvet folds—
like the dress a girl once wore,
a stranger held at a winter dance,
her hair still damp with snow
and brown eyes clear as the water's
depth. Did they kiss beneath the mistletoe
or was it a dream plowed under
till it came out right? Waist-deep
in a loneliness he'd never known
was there, he called his black-hooved
Jerseys and heard in the distance
what might have been their bells.


You can see the Indiana soil, the very earth beneath Wagner's fingernails, you can hear the song of Indiana in her voice.  But this isn't patriotic flag waving and marching bands.  This is Wagner giving voice to the land, to nature, Wagner is the Harmonist in question and these nature poems hum the land electric.

But there are more than nature poems in The Harmonist at Nightfall.  Karen Kovacik, another Indiana poet, called The Harmonist at Nightfall a "field guide and travelogue" and she was right on the money.

Amish Hymn

If you catch its cadence
in the night, in a slow

and somber rain,
then by Sunday morning

hoof clip will have carried
the rhythm further,

a refrain you'll follow
down a road where bullfrogs

drone bass notes
from the stiff bur-reeds

of a creek.
You're getting closer

the moment you grasp
wind's lyrics in wheat:

how nothing it touches
is ever along. Field

meets road in a swell
of bellflowers or the rasp

of ragweed and spurge.
You're immersed

in the blue hymnbook
of the sky, in the old

wheeling of starlings
over a barn, and you know

that today is a church
with its door left ajar.


These poems are not just a psalm about the natural world and natural wonders of Indiana but they also cover history, culture, religion, rumour and legend.

Shari Wagner honours the history of Indiana and many of the luminaries who carved its' story but these poems work because of Wagner's sure footing, her nimble footwork.

During the course of events in these poems the Dali Lama floats a scarf over the grave of John Dillinger, the moonshine soused Etheridge Knight is lamented, President Harrison's final resting place doubles as a darkened rendezvous for daring lovers.  The sound a waterfall makes is the sound of a billion bison.  Sheri Wagner romps historical, waxes eloquent and writes very fine poems.

Last Pilgrimage

Pine Hills Nature Preserve

I will go, when I am old,
to a box canyon
where ice and water
have chiseled the earth
down to its bones.

I will touch my youth
in the blue shadows
of Honeycomb Rock
and in the emptiness
where a mill once stood,
its waterwheel turning
in my head.

I will quiet that wheel.

Then walk into the white hive
of a dream some glacier
pulled down from the North
and balance in the silence
on Devil's Backbone,
a hundred feet above
two creeks sidewinding
toward each other.

On that smooth spine
I'll kneel among etchings
of passenger pigeons
engraved when clouds
of their bodies swept
through the sky.

I'll listen for their wings,
sleigh bells mixed
with thunder.


"Sleigh bells mixed with thunder", that line knocked me out.  It was a trick Sheri Wagner pulled off frequently during The Harmonist at Nightfall.  This book was a complete happy surprise and a great read.

And just as an aside, I now cannot get the old R. Dean Taylor song "Indiana Wants Me" out of my head.

R. Dean Taylor  -  Indiana Wants Me

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