Bryan R. Monte
AQ23 Autumn 2018 Book Reviews
Jennifer Clark, Johnny Appleseed: The Slice and Times of John Chapman, Shabda Press, ISBN 978-81-930523-2-7, 2018, 139 pages.
Jayne Marek, The Tree Surgeon Dreams of Bowling, Finishing Line Press, ISBN 978-1-63534-363-2, 2018, 67 pages.
‘Don’t judge a book by its cover’ is certainly a worthy adage to keep one for being deceived by surface appearances that cover underlying flaws. However, sometimes a good book does have an equally good, appealing cover. This is certainly true of Jennifer’s Clark’s Johnny Appleseed: The Slice and Times of John Chapman, a poetic history of John Chapman and Jayne Marek’s The Tree Surgeon Dreams of Bowling. Both books’ covers feature trees, but these are depicted in ways perhaps not seen before. Clark’s book’s front cover illustration, ‘Colony Farm Orchard Script’ by Ladislav Hanka, is a ‘drawing over hand-tinted paper’ of tree branches reaching upward on a tan, almost light, leather-coloured background. Marek’s front cover (see her photos in the summer 2018 AQ22 issue) includes darker, dense almost thin, vertical brown blocks on a green and blue background reaching up towards a yellow, pink and white speckled light. Both covers include organic growth reaching upwards. And this is what the poems in their books do. They are poetic journeys toward light and growth.
Clark’s book is an exploration of Chapman’s ancestry, his own history, including his travels through the Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana wilderness to plant apples trees for future settlers and even some details about arboreal husbandry. It begins with a ‘Prologue: come with me into the forest,’ in which describes Clark’s motivation and inspiration for writing her book which began with Clark’s then third-grade son asking her: ‘Was he real?’ Clark’s uncertainty about the answer leads her on her own journey of discovery. Her son’s question was further piqued by Clark’s chance find of a book about American folklore, which she later purchased at her local library. She then sifted through this ‘treasure of both truth and historical inaccuracies.’ After reading it, Clark remarked: ‘Even during Chapman’s lifetime, he was already turning into a walking myth’.
For example, Clark found evidence that contradicts the myth that Chapman was a teetotaller and vegetarian. And while she didn’t find direct evidence that Chapman was an abolitionist, his personality, Swedenborgian beliefs, habit of frequenting pioneer homes (including some, which were Quaker), and the conversations she had with Denver Norman, (descendant of the former slave, Mr “Cajoe” Phillips), all lead her to conclude Chapman was, at the very least, an abolitionist at heart. She ends her prologue hoping her poems will help ‘part the forest of time’ to enter a world that is ‘young and old, terrible and beautiful, bountiful and dying, all at once.’
The uplift of Clark’s poems begins with the first phrase of the first line of her first poem, ‘John Chapman (1774-1845)’ with a poem that could be a prologue for the entire collection. ‘To sow hope,’ and his simplicity of his mythic attire and purpose: ‘slip into a burlap sack….With a tin pot/ on head for hat, set bare feet to soil and go forth/ into the wild frontier.’ The poem further describes Chapman’s travel method, ‘following the rivers’ West in his ‘Search for a clearing in the woods’ and ‘Stoop, then furrow soil with a finger, …pull seeds…and one by one press down. Cover lightly with loam.’ The poem also describes Chapman’s diet of ‘cornmeal mush and coffee’ and how he slept ‘on the forest floor.’ It also mentions how he …‘Return(ed) each year to tend the saplings,’ and continued along the Maumee River, ‘leaving a trail or thirsty pioneers, drunk now/on the sweet juice of sermon.’
The following poem ‘Grafting has always been in fashion’ emphasizes Chapman’s preferred mode of planting apple trees from seed instead of the traditional method of ‘grafted shoots/dragging with them the seeds/of old Empire.’ Clark writes how Chapman’s mother delivered him whilst his father fought in the Revolutionary War and then died a year later delivering her third child, which also died.
Further poems discuss Chapman’s “marriage” ‘John meets a woman’, his abolitionism, the Underground Railroad, including one of its conductors, ‘Micajah “Cajoe” Phillips 1736?-1861’, and the voice of one of its enemies, ‘Ten dollars for my woman Siby’. Chapman’s mistake of planting Stinking Chamomile to ‘keep malaria at bay’ is mentioned in ‘Anathemus cotula aka Stinking Chamomile’, as is the extinction of native birds during his lifetime for food and fashion in ‘Wings, The Breast, The Bird’, and ‘Common Tern, 21. Scarlet Tanger, 2.’ respectively. In her poem ‘Ledgers from dry goods stores’ Clark offers a brief glimpse of the real Chapman found preserved in one of his grocery lists: ‘three pairs of “mockasins,”/brandy, whiskey, chocolate,/ sugar, gunpowder, tobacco,/ and pork.’. Through her research, Clark separates the myth from the man, but she also gives readers a good glimpse of both.
Appropriately for this issue on genealogy, Clark’s poems focus not only on John Chapman, but also his relatives. ‘Summer of 1776’ mentions his mother, Elizabeth, near death and his father, Nathaniel, away fighting in the Revolutionary War. Nathaniel is also mentioned later as a tenant farmer in ‘One Tree Orchard’ and he later moves with the rest of the family from Longmeadow, Massachusetts to Marietta, Ohio. Chapman’s visit to his youngest sister, Sally and her husband, John Whitney to their Washington County, Ohio farm is mentioned in ‘Every Strike We are Hewn’. But it is Chapman’s sister Persis and her husband William Broome mentioned in ‘Persis Waiting’, who provided the most support for Chapman’s apple planting. According to Clark, in her well-researched reader’s notes, the Broome’s ‘probably served as an ever-moving base for her brother’s seed operation’. Clark quotes that ‘Robert Morgan notes…(Chapman) employed his brother-in-law to help with the nurseries…the couple moved to Perrysville and Mansfield, Ohio’ … (and that) When around 1834, John expanded into Indiana, Persis and William Broome followed’.
As mentioned above, I found Clark’s historical notes and the illustrations she includes just as interesting as her poems. Her book’s illustrations include sketches of John Chapman from 19th century magazines. There are also maps of the US indicating how far one could travel in a day, of the Underground railroad, of Mount Vernon, Ohio near which Chapman owned land and planted trees, and of the spread of the invasive stink week mentioned above. In addition are illustrations on grafting, a women’s hat decorated with with stuffed birds, the Blennerhassett Mansion, as well as historical photos of Deborah and Enoch Harris, Rosella Rice and the 5 cent US first class Johnny Appleseed commemorative stamp issued in 1966 (a treasure in my own boyscout stamp collection). Johnny Appleseed: The Slice and Times of John Chapman is surely a treasure-trove of information for poets, teachers, historians, etc., and could be used in primary to tertiary schools to teach how history is transformed into folklore and then into art.
Jayne Marek’s The Tree Surgeon Dreams of Bowling, is another outstanding book worthy of mention in these pages. Marek, both a writer and a graphic artist, whose photographic work was featured in the AQ22 this past summer, brings these skills together to create a memorable poetry book. Its fifty-four poems are divided into three sections: ‘Just Out of Reach’, ‘Pacific Rim’, and ‘Of Grace’.
The first section is devoted to grief, loss and regret. The first poem entitled ‘Prognosis’ sets the tone for the rest of the book: ‘Raking and raking/ But the long tines cannot gather up grief/ That waits beyond the fence.’ This physical intervention is not enough to keep the natural world and death at bay. In the next stanza, Marek remarks: ‘Grief is like fear/Seen from another direction. The two hunch over,/ stare like stone monsters guarding a stoop.’ In the next poem, ‘Mistakes’, we see how hard the narrator is on herself regarding loss: ‘I’m unable to do over and find shelter.’ In the prose poem, ‘Drowned Mole’, she describes the discovery and removal of a dead mole from her garden. It is with regret that she moves and discards something so beautiful: ‘your fur sleek as a rich matron’s coat on opening night,…Forgive this stick that lifts at your ribs and hips.’ She meditates further on the meaning of life when she describes a jellyfish in a tank,
as if drifting meant nothing indecision
a turn in darkness toward an inaccessible shape
the purpose of lives mine
In ‘Fable’ Marek declares that her poems are not for those ‘who pine for a story that says life is simple/as this scalped green yard’. This poem describes how she sees two birds attacking a third bird as she drives by and wonders if she should intervene. ‘Clay’ is about a potter who dunks her fired pots in the same creek from which Walter, whom she identifies from a silver burn scar on his neck, … ‘is pulled… in the spring.’ ‘Deepest Snow’ is divided into two sections which takes its title from a line by Naomi Shihab Nye: ‘That was the deepest I ever went into the snow.’ Its first section is about the narrator being unexpectedly buried in snow up to her neck after losing her balance from a Norwegian ski path. The second uses ‘Flying snow’ to describe dementia ‘everything slippery and grayish white—’. There are many poems with malevolent winter scenes in this section in which glass shatters from the cold, ‘Cut Glass’ and snow hides tracks and seeds in ‘Winter Ruins’. In ‘So Late Winter’ it finally relents ‘two weeks into spring’ when a child lies in a closed casket. In ‘Elegiac Unsonnet for My Cat’ the poet writes of her cat “lost in the cold of winter, at the foot of a renewed/ Year, in a collapse of snow”. In ‘Would the Good People Please Stop Dying’ she describes the dangerous drive down a barely-visible, ice-and-mist covered road just before dawn.
The second section, ‘Pacific Rim’, is about the poet’s spiritual journey and observations in Asia, especially in Japan, India and China. The first poem, ‘Hands in Temple Smoke’ begins with a sort of purification ritual in an old wooden temple right ‘tucked between concrete walls’ where urban school children and uniforms and gray bicycle riders pass by. She observes how a woman in the temple: ‘reaches into the bitter wisps / of silver and white, waves them / toward her face, her heart’. In ‘Buddha Touch’, the poet enters seeks spiritural contact in the temple. ‘Panda Mania’ describes the ‘sweet smell’ of panda pancakes at the zoo (and all the surrounding merchandising of panda shoes, bags, etc.), which intrudes into the temple. In ‘The Woodturner’s Shop, Itsukushima’, the poet buys a small bowl from a traditional craftsperson. It is the first in a series of craftsperson poems others being ‘Nishijin Textile Center’ about the making of kimonos, ‘Grass Writing’ about traditional, carved Japanese script and landscapes, and ‘The Art of Teeth’ about traditional masks on display in a Tokyo museum.
With the poem, ‘Postcard from Assam’ the poet continues on her Asian travels in India’s Northeast. Here the poet comments on the ‘heat…in the morning dust,’ the ‘orange clouds in endless scarves/ too long to wrap up.’ She describes herself and her fellow travellers as “pale foreigners’ and as plants ‘who need water’ and who need to be ‘Lift(ed)…over the plains, over the spice plants for which the airliners of our escape are named—’. In ‘Lotus Eaters’ she’s in the Punjab; in ‘Her Feet’ at Mother Theresa’s tomb in India. The last four poems in this section, describe her experience and observations of a Ming section of the Great Wall, a ‘Carp Mobile’, ‘Kite-Flyers’, ‘A Coal Spill, Yunnan’, and looking at the flora and fauna in ‘Blue on Cang Shan’. The poet’s attention to detail helps the reader zoom into unforgettable details in each location. The last poem in this section about the mountain is especially poignant due to its description of details both small and large: the shadows created by butterfly wings and ‘a cable car ride / that swung over green/ windy-pine fingers’ and the ineffable: ‘thin air/ scraped by clouds.’
The last section of Marek’s book, ‘Of Grace’ details her removal to the West Coast after a teaching career in the Midwest. She writes about the island ferry, ocean waves, the emptying out of her former home. In ‘Woods Path’ in the Northwest, far from her former life, the poet asks: ‘what is best, what is death, what matters?’ Then by a ‘fallen trunk,’ the poet sees ‘the hollow under its feet filled with mud.’ — perhaps a meditation on ‘from dust to dust’.
Further poems in this section of special interest to this reviewer include ‘Sweet Spots for Owls’ with its syllabic count which captures the bird’s pauses and bursts of energy and which imitate the flow of the poet’s thoughts. ‘Of Grace’, the third section’s title poem describes the regeneration the poet feels as the natural world reaches out to her. In ‘I Miss My Life in Another Dimension’ the poet is transported back in her imagination to a house and a neighbourhood in the Midwest where she’d lived and taught for years. Here, the speaker talks about the house’s familiar ‘scuff marks at the doorway’, its ‘old oak trees in the yard…Deep-rooted in the black farmland earth.’ It was a house with ‘frequent gatherings…Of artists, friends, professors, students…who read my books, have my art photos mounted.’ ‘Of Grace’s’ intimate details show poet’s painful separation from what’s left behind as she moves forward in a new place, ‘six hundred miles from here.’
The title and final poem of the entire collection brings the book’s themes together. The tree surgeon as the poet, has feet planted: ‘one on a limb’. The natural world has its own character and power with a ‘tree-hand…(and) twigs with five leaf fingers…(that)slap…when I lift / the cutting tool and let it bite.’ These branches force the tree surgeon to hold his chainsaw back as if he were ‘standing / at the line, one arm cocked and heavy/gripping my favorite bowling ball.’ His swaying movement in the tree personifying the poet’s thoughts perhaps about the sometimes dangerous reductive art of poetry ‘going nowhere but cutting away/things I wish I didn’t need.’
I highly recommend both of these books due to their artistry, both poetic and visual, and due to their regenerative themes. I’m sure they will keep your lamp of inspiration burning during the shorter days and longer autumn and winter nights ahead. AQ