Shari Wagner’s The Harmonist at Nightfall is a collection of poems inspired by her travels around Indiana. But this book is no superficial travelogue. Instead it’s a quest to locate deeper truths beneath the sentimentalized veneer of what sometimes passes for “history.” On this cusp of the Thanksgiving holiday, I’d like to focus on two poems from the book that speak to characters in Indiana’s past whose stories resonate with our present moment.
“Simon Pokagon and the Farmer” opens with an epigraph from the Kankakee Valley Historical Society: “In the 1870s, a well-educated Indian came to Lake County to visit the graves of his ancestors.” Shari’s poem, in the voice of Pokagon (1830-99), reimagines the encounter between the Potawatomi and the white farmer who holds title to the land:
From the way he squinted I knew that farmer had no iota of what to make of me— a savage in a tailored suit who quoted Shakespeare and Tecumseh, spoke Potawatomi and Greek.
In his day, Simon Pokagon gained prominence as an Indian author and early advocate of native people’s land rights, even as he also courted controversy in his dealings with Chicago developers. Invited to speak at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in that city, he was dubbed the “Red Man’s Longfellow” by newspapermen covering the event.
In Wagner’s poem, Pokagon laments finding his ancestors’ graves “plowed under, shin bones / stacked with fieldstones” in “a treeless prairie / without periphery.” The poem ends with the spotlight on the farmer, speechless with guilt, when faced with Pokagon’s eloquence. Today, the Pokagon Band of the Potawatomi remains Indiana’s only federally recognized tribe, with six state counties and four in neighboring Michigan officially identified as its homeland.
Another poem in the book celebrates a couple of eastern Indiana Quakers who sheltered some 3000 fugitive slaves en route to Canada in their home. Wagner depicts Levi and Catherine Coffins’ commitment to helping slaves make their way to freedom as part of their marriage vow, “to cleave to the sacred / within the stranger.” What poetry of Wagner’s caliber can do is give us the lived texture of what maintaining a prominent depot on the Underground Railroad was like: warming the frostbit feet of fugitives, hauling water from a secret well, building an attic hiding space whose entrance was hidden by the couple’s own bed.
Wagner, who grew up Mennonite near Goshen, Indiana, is attracted to stories like Pokagon’s or the Coffins’ in which injustice gets challenged not with bravado but with modesty and fortitude.
Levi and Catherine Coffin House Fountain City This house is a testament to that which calls a man to rise from slumber and descend the dark stairwell, opening the door to a blast of cold wind and the fugitive whose shackled, frostbit feet he bends down to rub near the fire. This house is a witness to that which moves a woman to stoke the cast iron stove in a kitchen below her kitchen, to haul water from a secret well, to make each stitch fine and tight as if the path to freedom might be secured by the diligence of her needle. And this house is a vow given by a husband and wife to cleave to the sacred within the stranger, to sleep despite threats of a hurled torch, to enter the desperate dreams of those who rest a fortnight in an attic, its door hidden by the headboard of their own bed.
Both poems appear in The Harmonist at Nightfall (Bottom Dog Press, 2013).