|Sugar Run Road
Poems by Ed Ochester
|Autumn House Press, 2015
In his famous essay, “The American Background,” William Carlos Williams writes that America needs to create a “culture of immediate references.” Such a culture relies on direct, unmediated perception and contact with the American continent itself, free of European preconceptions and the “crazy rigidities and imbecilities” of a society ignorant of its own place or ground which then stifles lives and growth.
Reading Ed Ochester’s new book, Sugar Run Road, reminds me of such a poet who in the second poem of the book, “Even As I Write This,” asks readers to keep in mind “the deep grammar and inner mystery of, . . . your native land.” Similarly, in “Sunflowers,” he writes, “you don’t / know where you will be / but you’d better / see where you are,” and in “September Rain”: “So many people don’t know / where they live.” Like the speaker who feels lucky to know where he lives, Ochester’s poems celebrate ordinary, often-forgotten people who respond to their home ground and the natural landscape (mostly rural Western Pennsylvania) of birds, trees, and hills. In a short poem, “At the Farm Store,” the speaker overhears the owner tell a friend: “O the figs / are all gone / from the vine / outside my bedroom. / You have no idea / how wonderful / it was to wake up / and open the window / and eat one.”
This immediacy and connection to the local permeates the book’s three sections which range from biting satires of our current “imbecilities,” short haiku-like pieces, and poems which blend historical figures and immediate personal experiences in to a profound concreteness of emotion. An example of the last kind, the poem “That Time,” is about what the speaker calls his “heart event.” He forges a conversational, self-reflexive voice on the page which riffs on several subjects relating to the speaker’s health, and through turns (“verse” means “to turn”) captures the vagaries of an emergency health experience with wit, grace and associative resonance. It uses word play. He states that calling it an “event” makes “‘attack’ sound[s] / as jubilant as the 4th of July—.” Then, he quotes his doctor who tells him to eat right and stop “acting like an asshole” which the speaker remembers telling himself at 20, and it didn’t do him any good. He moves to a wry ethical truth saying that we build, “preposterous / value systems” early in life and have to deconstruct them later. A final turn counterpoints these abstract thoughts when the poem ends on a true immediate reference, spoken by the speaker’s wife when she looks out the window:
hey, the raccoons
didn’t knock over the birdbath
The poetic structure of the poems, the constant turns, is itself a kind of immediate culture where we experience amazing intuitive connections; these insights based on the locality can change one’s actions because they’re based on those observations. Ignoring them, we will get caught in mental traps and craziness. To illustrate these rigidities, the poems pillory “endless McMansion miles,” Gideon Bibles in motels, the Iraq War, America’s desire for newness and “quickiness” in everything, a poetry scene of inflated resumes, and literary critics who seem to value “challenging” poetry which the speaker says, “often means I think, ‘obscure.’” Against this, the speaker favors “complexity, not confusion” and “plain surface texture.” Another poem celebrates Yogi Berra not “‘theory’ phds” who “poisoned all the books they landed on.” Varied forms such as epistles, letters, tweets, and an email poem between the speaker and another poet, lend a sense of day-to-day focus on the present moment, things, and current ideas.
Another example of immediacy is how the speaker needs to get down on paper a fleeting emotion suggested by his response to the things around him. In “Meyer Country Motel,” he witnesses a diner which reflects our economic class society from Latino busboys up to “the happy fat owner gabbing.” The speaker picks up the Gideon Bible in his room. Has he converted? No. He uses the blank pages at the back so, as he says: “I can write this [poem] down / before I go.” Another poems begins “As I write this it’s raining,” and other titles include personal immediate insights stolen from routine, such as “Even As I Write This,” “Messages,” and “Google It.”
Time and space to catch and record a fleeting truth is important, and in this regard, time emerges as a constant theme. In “The Death of Hemingway,” he writes, “Wherever and whomever you are / time will change it,” and reduce it to nothing. Yet, in a moving poem about baseball and many other things, “Emails from and to Afaa Weaver,” the memories evoked by a Donald Hall poem about the past and the power of memory move him to say: “Time turns pain to silver, garbage to gold,” These poems, wide-ranging, associative, intuitive, do what the speaker quotes Galway Kinnell as saying in another poem (simply called “Poetry”) a homage to various poetic voices from Stern and Gilbert to Cattulus. The Kinnell quote ends the poem: “‘go so deep / into yourself you speak for everyone.’”
Ochester knows intimately the complex, multiform, compartmentalized Chinese box of emotions, memories, and the secrets that we keep to ourselves, and the need to go “deep into” them in a poem. The outer surface of the box, the poem, is merely what houses these emotions (and secrets), (and us) inside, the record of what we have taken to heart, our meager successes and failures. Yet, that same poem grounded in the immediate references of the world, nature, and the heart, rescues us through the sheer joy of being in contact with that world.
“Joy” runs all through these amazing poems, but nowhere more strongly than the final poem, “For Britt.” As the speaker parks the car at home, he observes,
your sparrows in the snow-covered forsythia
greet the weak sun with a matrix of cheeping,
dozens of them, not from gratitude but
perhaps from overflowing joy
These lines stun us with the beauty of their delicate music. To say them is to hear the sparrows’ song (the e sounds repeated at surprising intervals in the second line of the quote) in between the ominous o sounds of the surrounding lines. We see, feel, and hear the birds’ precarious existence and “perhaps” their joy.
Reading these poems, at once hilarious, engaging, and compassionate, heightens not only our joy, but also our ability to create immediate references to our precarious world and culture.
Williams, William Carlos. Selected Essays. New York: New Directions Books, 1954. Print