Peter Neil Carroll
History, archaeology, and geology might be thought of as simply three different ways of looking at landscape. Trained as a historian, Peter Neil Carroll has spent the past decade traveling the United States, interrogating its places and producing two books of poems rooted in specific American sites, Riverborneand A Child Turns Back to Wave. In Fracking Dakota, he again returns to this “wounded land” of ours, focusing this time on the need to heal not just the land but also himself.
The title poem offers the same warning as Pharaoh’s dream: good times will be followed by bad. “Big changes,” brags “the skinny woman behind the bar,” popping bottle caps with both hands. Meanwhile, down the road, “Coils of hay/ ripen by the roadside. A shed implodes.” The agricultural past is being inundated by a new wildcat prosperity, which even the locals know must eventually end. And what does this prosperity cost? Higher taxes, say the locals, but also, as the poet notes, danger underfoot:
The underworld carries dreams of power:
Ever since “The Deserted Village,” poets have been assessing the impact of technological civilization with its “dark, satanic mills” on the agrarian past. Here in America’s agricultural heartland, Jeffersonian democracy has made a pact with the devil. “Birds of Dakota” uncovers an uneasy mix of nature (“hay fields, cows, a silo”) and nuclear terror. Like natural gas and shale oil, “The Bomb sleeps underground…80-feet deep in concrete. Its warhead arms in ten seconds; 1.2 megatons.” For the casual observer, terror is numbed by numbers.
As in his earlier books, Carroll covers a lot of ground, ranging America’s vast middle from its northernmost border to deep into Dixie. What he finds is an unsettling mix of innocence, cupidity, prejudice, and depression. While canvassing for Obama (“Harvesting the Blue Fields”), a housewife in pearls assures the narrator, “We don’t need black in the White House.” Similarly alarming is his visit to a town in Ohio (“Sweet Lorain”), long down on its luck: “downtown Lorain,” he tells us, “weeps like a lover awakening to find/ the other side of the bed empty.”
With a notational imagism reminiscent of the Beats (think Wichita Vortex Sutra), Carroll limns a country of strangers, where the Bible Belt is so tight you can barely breathe and where billboards blare:
CHILDREN ARE A GIFT FROM GOD
Abortion Is Never The Answer – CHOOSE LIFE
Occasionally, there are glimmers of humor. There are even moments of vision (“Morning at Spiro Mounds”): “cloud-piercing light quickens/ the wings of blue butterflies.” Similarly quickened, the poet’s imagination offers him a vision from the archaeological past, Native Americans in harmony with nature. More commonly, however, he finds attempts not just to obscure the present but also to erase all trace of the past. “Natchez Trace”—the name implies the process of forgetting—examines the way language is misused to disguise the fraught history of Europeans, Africans and Native Americans: “Paths of power run straight: land ceded./ Passive voice, language without blame.”
Section 2 of the book focuses mainly on the Deep South. The myth of the post-racial society is debunked in various ways. In “The End of Negro History,” the poet notes the willingness of even black history teachers to let contemporary racism go unremarked, to “let the dogs sleep at night.” “Progress” gives us a list of Mississippi’s Confederate and racist monuments: the James Eastland Courthouse, for instance, as well as a reservoir dedicated to Governor Ross Barnett, “lover of segregation, who let billy clubs rain.”
In Section 3, the poet returns home. Here his gaze, previously focused outward, becomes more inward and reflective. “God’s Controversy with California,” an echo and riposte to the once popular Puritan tract by Michael Wigglesworth, written during the Great Drought of 1662, recounts the unexpected arrival of rain. Yes, the poet admits with some amusement, perhaps we are sinful, “sipping pinot noir on the Sabbath,” but “how quickly the universe forgives.”
Whereas the book’s earlier portions tended toward the understated and reportorial, the book’s second half displays greater variability of method and tone. The poet removes his mask as historian to show greater vulnerability. A found poem like “The Wishing Tree,” which lists the contents of paper leaves dangling from an olive tree near the mouth of the Sacramento River, displays certain playfulness. It is a list, but not a simple list; the contents are artfully arranged to demonstrate the humanity of the people who placed these “leaves” on the tree. “I wish for more vacation,” says one of the more practical supplicants. “I wish peace & love for all my loved ones,” prays the next. “I wish I would have been kinder and more loving to my dying mother.” We can almost hear the sob in that last request. And so the poem continues, moving between the mundane and the cosmic, between selfish and altruistic, sincere and humorous, yet through it all, the poet evinces a genuine affection for the various authors. The poem ends with what may be his wish for himself: “to always remember/ the peacefulness of this tree of wishes/ and feeling the breeze on my skin.”
Equally revealing is a series of meditations on age and love, scattered throughout the last half of the book. Particularly striking is an elegy for a Hungarian friend named Tibor (“Interstice”), who used to complain about the inability of Americans to enjoy life. “Happiness, pleasure, love, these sentiments/ rate low on what Americans think/ they should pay for,” lamented Tibor. “You people don’t consume/ enough flowers.” But now that Tibor’s gone, his memory graces the poet like odor of cut flowers. And indeed the poet carries Tibor’s lesson into the rest of his life: “Not clinging, not letting go/ I try to love that way, keeping the moment/ just before.”
Thus, he comes to enjoy the freedom that aging gives him. Who we are is not who we were nor who we will become. In “Arrival” he experiences an Ovidian moment of transformation, in which the man becomes a dog, a walrus, a seal. Even the wind, symbol of change, is transformed: “The wind speaks Tagalog.” Fracking Dakota is a book about loss, in all its forms, but also about the consolations offered by memory, imagination, friendship, and love. Like his friend Tibor, Carroll would have all of us, children of American pragmatism, better learn the importance of cut flowers.