Early American Pastoral

Two American Scenes

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Pamphlets like Thomas Paine’s Common Sense sparked the American Revolution, so it’s fitting that a pamphlet should rekindle our sense of patriotism. The second issue of the New Directions Poetry Pamphlet series features a diptych of American poems unearthed and reassembled by Lydia Davis and Eliot Weinberger.

Davis offers a retelling of the diary of Sidney Brooks, her great-great-great uncle, who lived in the village of Harwich on Cape Cod in the early 1800s. With its anthropological attention to the landscape and its people, Davis’s poem could serve as an origin myth for America.

When the immense glaciers

transported from the north

the material that forms the surface of our peninsula

and the stranded icebergs

gave rise to the currents and eddies

that piled up our hills and scooped out our valleys,

there was formed that miniature plateau,

half a mile long,

lying east and west on the sunny side of Harwich,

overlooking the sea

and sheltered from the north by the interminable forest,

which is now the site of our village.

As a diarist Brooks is remarkably attuned to the land itself—the shape of a farm, the distance from a house to the town, the weather in a given year. Davis finds ample poetry in his accounts of “Grandfather’s cattle” and the death of “Little Sidney,” an older brother who died in infancy.

we took our first lessons in astronomy

by observing the transit of the stars

through the telescope of the sooty chimney.

If the Harwich of Davis’s poem is an idyllic place, with sunlight raking the fields and children crawling in the attic rafters, this is Brooks’ fault. Reflecting on his childhood near the end of the century, he can’t help but sound nostalgic. Davis makes a canny choice to revive such a sentimental document. Depicting an American Eden that had already vanished when it was first written about, over a hundred years ago, she suggests that paradise is not impossible, but it’s always in the past.

Weinberger mines a different vein in the same historical era—John Wesley Powell’s exploration of the American West in 1869, which included the first successful trip down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. He assembles his poem using “found” diary entries as well as Old Testament verses, hymns, Negro spirituals, even a bravura passage from Robert Southey’s “The Cataract of Lodore”—anything that might have been on the tongues of the explorers themselves.

Though in a bare and rugged way,

through devious, lonely wilds I stray

Bad rapids. Bradley is knocked over the side; his foot catches under the seat and he is dragged, head under water. Camped on a sand beach, the wind blows a hurricane. Sand piles over us like snow-drift.

As Powell’s expedition moves across this “unstable land,” Weinberger shows a war of attrition between the beleaguered explorers and the awesome desert riverscape. It’s hard to choose which side to root for. By journey’s end the men are hardened but uplifted. Having woven themselves into the fabric of the epic texts that have been on their minds, they seem astounded and thrilled to be alive.

Both poets remind us that American history is rich with material for contemporary artists, and that the seeds of patriotism are simple and enduring—a patch of land, a handful of human beings. But like all good patriots, they have their disagreements. Davis reveres the American landscape for all that it gives us. Weinberger reveres it for what it challenges us to become.

– Brian Hurley

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