About fifty years ago, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dammed up several Indiana rivers—the Mississinewa, the Salamonie, and a branch of the Wabash—in the north central part of the state to protect communities downstream from flooding. To create the reservoir lakes, they displaced over a thousand people from small towns situated along the waterways. Levels in the reservoir lakes fluctuate, typically rising in the summer and sinking in the winter. This summer, however, the record-breaking drought caused levels to plummet, and the Cincinnati Enquirer reported that tourists were flocking to see the remains of the tiny town of Monument City, demolished to make room for the Salamonie Reservoir in 1965 and now visible again because of water levels down more than a dozen feet. So many people showed up to gawk and hunt for souvenirs, in fact, that local officials had to seal off the area.
“Everybody thinks it’s the city from Atlantis,” Marvin McNew, director of Interpretive Services at the state’s Department of Natural Resources, told an Enquirer reporter. “It’s nothing real big.”
But clearly this desire to partake of a slice of vanished history is big. Too often in our throw-away, tear-down culture, no traces of the past remain. Given our propensity for historical erasure, the preservationist poetry of Jared Carter plays an important role. Born in Elwood in 1939, Carter reported on the initial plans for the construction of the reservoirs in 1959 and 1960 for the Huntington Herald-Press. As farm editor of the paper, Carter traveled with a colonel from the Army Corps of Engineers and Walter U. Rusk, the County Agricultural Agent, to little towns that would be destroyed by the reservoirs. In an interview with Lenny Emmanuel for the Pennsylvania Review, Carter remembers the outrage of community members facing the loss of their land:
We would show up at some brick schoolhouse or one-room church, and everybody in town would be there waiting for us, with their pitchforks and their coils of rope. The colonel would get up on the stage with his fold-down maps and his pointer, and he would conduct his dog-and-pony show about the facts and figures, and then Walter would stand up and explain what a good thing it was going to be for all the folks down in Evansville, a good two hundred miles away —and there were several times when I thought we weren’t going to get out of those places alive.
People from those threatened communities had no say. Observed Carter: “There wasn’t any public referendum on the matter. No vote had been taken. It had been decided by bigwigs. . . . And it certainly wasn’t humane. I began to see that a project carried out in this way could cast an enormous shadow —that it could be so vast and pervasive that we might not notice what it was really doing to us, or to our own humanity.”
In his first book, Work, for the Night Is Coming, published by Macmillan in 1981 and winner of the Walt Whitman Award, Carter created the mythical Mississinewa County, described on the dust jacket as “east of Spoon River, west of Winesburg, and slightly north of Raintree County”—with a nod to the American regionalists Edgar Lee Masters, Sherwood Anderson, and Ross Lockridge, Jr., whose legendary topography helped construct a mythos of the Middle West.
In this book and others, Carter includes poems about the inundation of towns when the reservoirs were created. Reading Carter’s work, I’m reminded of translator and critic Clare Cavanagh’s observation in Lyric Poetry and Modern Politics that postwar Polish poets, “sensitized . . . to the ways in which individuals and peoples alike may be revised or deleted entirely by official chroniclers,” recuperated “alternate histories, vanquished histories, and vanished histories of all sorts” (176). Carter’s Mississinewa poems, in a similar way, restore imagined texture to lives displaced in the wake of “progress.” His elegiac poems incorporate both of the traditional functions implied by the Greek root elegos: to lament the dead but also to celebrate their lives. Carter’s reclamation of the Mississinewa landscape continues in his books After the Rain and Cross This Bridge at a Walk.
But I’d like to focus on the poem “Monument City” from Carter’s first book. The historical town of that name, founded in 1870, boasted 35 inhabitants when it was destroyed for the creation of the reservoir. The town’s namesake, a Civil War memorial, was moved to higher ground nearby before the area was flooded. Carter’s poem highlights layers of loss endured by the community and the wish to document the past before it is completely erased:
Monument City How I came to that leaf-shadowed house by the river— late summer afternoon rain falling long into evening— To visit a favorite aunt, who had asked the undertaker— his blue pickup truck pulled off just under the willows— To take photographs of the house, and the gardens, and the parlor—with us in it—one last time Before the waters began to rise, and scavengers came to pick over the buildings too big to be moved— She had seen his truck parked all summer in the churchyard on the far side of the covered bridge, with a tent Pitched first over this headstone, then that, until he and his helpers had taken them all up again, like bulbs, And planted them on higher ground, in a cemetery provided by the government. An old friend of his— This woman with gray braids piled on top of her head, who had lived on the corner across from the monument And taught school thirty-five years until consolidation. He still lived on the second floor of the funeral parlor Down at the crossing, that had been a feedstore once, in his father’s day. Had carried two wives Out through those double doors, and a son, to the churchyard. He brought with him now a box camera on a wooden tripod And sat with us in the parlor till nightfall, waiting for the rain to stop, for there to be some light— How I came to be there that time I cannot remember, only walking out to the flowers, at dusk, with the two of them, Into air fresh from rain, and thunder far away, to the east, and lightning that showed us a path through the tall grass. (Work, for the Night is Coming 17)
At first glance, the regular structure of four-line stanzas appears to impose a shapeliness on chaotic experience, but the interruptive sentence structure, with seven em dashes in the first two stanzas alone, suggests something less controlled: the narrator’s frantic wish, along with that of his favorite aunt and the town’s undertaker turned chronicler, to preserve traces of the town’s way of life on the verge of its flooding. One image leads to the next—the rain, the undertaker’s blue pickup, the willows, the graves in the cemetery being dug up “like bulbs” for transplanting elsewhere—so that the initial clause of the introductory sentence never finishes, so caught up is the speaker in this chain of memory.
In the fifth stanza, we see that this impending loss was preceded by many others—the closing of the community school due to consolidation, the feedstore replaced by the funeral parlor, the deaths of the undertaker’s wives and son—rendering the poem itself a “monument city,” which testifies to the layers of loss and memory that make up the place. This story has been repeated all over America, as communities, even when not displaced by reservoirs, fall prey to developers and eminent domain. In the Pennyslvania Review interview, Carter adds, “I began to see that the larger the scale, the greater the likelihood that somebody was getting squeezed. There was invariably pain and grief in store for somebody on the bottom, whether they were coal-miners in West Virginia, farm workers in southern California, grad-student instructors at Harvard, or welfare mothers in Chicago.”
The natural images in the final stanza take on symbolic weight, with “thunder far away, to the east” and lightning’s illumination, which like the photographer’s preserving flash and the poet’s capacity for witness, reveals “a path through the tall grass.” Carter has said that poets should try to move people “but not necessarily to get them riled up. Leave that to the politicians and the demagogues. Poetry works in its own mysterious way.”
Work, for the Night is Coming was reissued by Cleveland State University Press in 1995. The author photo is courtesy of Richard Pflum. The Pennsylvania Review interview is available at http://pennreview.com/2009/03/a-conversation-with-jared-carter/