The Harmonist at Nightfall: Poems of Indiana.
The poet Shari Wagner is well known in Mennonite circles. One of her poems provided the title for A Cappella (Iowa, 2003), Ann Hostetler's groundbreaking anthology of Mennonite poetry, and she has long been a fixture in the poetry scene of her native Indiana. Somewhat surprisingly, The Harmonist at Nightfall is only her second book of poems, after Evening Chore (Cascadia, 2005), although she also co-wrote her father Gerald Miller's memoir, A Hundred Camels: A Mission Doctor's Sojourn and Murder Trial in Somalia (Cascadia, 2009) and edited a book of stories by Indiana seniors; and she has published widely in journals like Christian Century, North American Review, and Shenandoah.
The Harmonist is a substantial and carefully worked collection, befitting its long gestation, with over seventy poems in six distinct sections. As the subtitle suggests, these are very much poems of place, almost all of them grounded very specifically in some Indiana location. The rationale for this approach, described in some detail in Susan Neville's introduction, is captured in brief by the epigraph, from Thich Nhat Hanh: "This spot where you sit is your own spot. . . . You don't have to sit beneath a special tree in a distant land." Another kindred spirit, Henry David Thoreau, wrote: "I have traveled much in Concord." Wagner's landscape is not quite so local as Walden Pond, but like Thoreau she trusts that the universal and archetypal may be found within any place one truly inhabits.
Such "inhabiting," however, requires a great deal of precise, patient attention and contemplation. For Wagner, "place" does not generally mean suburban streets, strip malls, and cornfields, and she chooses unobtrusively but decisively not to chronicle the surfaces of contemporary life. The Indiana of these poems exists within, below, or behind its surfaces, in history, in people, and in stories that are not immediately visible but still may be discovered by an alert explorer.
The first section, "Circling Back," offers poems located among Native American mounds, state parks, cliffs, and waterfalls--so much for the image of flat, bland Indiana fields. "Clifton Falls" opens up into an evocation of geological time: "A million years rushed over us / in the froth of a dream / almost remembered, / stone after stone carrying us / home through the dusk" (20). Not only the time scale but the romantic sense of the natural world as fundamentally sustaining is typical of Wagner's poetics, though in "Shades of Death State Park" the "icy mud" and "haunted foliage" temper and toughen this basic comfort considerably (the official name is the less daunting "Shades State Park").
Part two, "House of the Singing Winds," introduces another main element: poems on historical characters, especially women, including the author and naturalist Gene Stratton-Porter, the Wright brothers, James Dean, and others famous and obscure. Without being strident, the poems often question and critique patriarchal power structures and assumptions. In the title poem, set in the New Harmony colony founded in the early nineteenth century by George Rapp, a female member of the colony asks (with a hint of skepticism), "what if God hummed / in the cacophony we cut to lay straight streets, / to plumb brick walls?" (41). We know, of course, that Rapp's Utopian dreams are doomed to fail, and Wagner seems more sympathetic to John Chapman, Johnny Appleseed, whose quest for harmony is less patriarchal and domineering. After hearing him speak enthusiastically if obscurely, a woman in "John Chapman's Eden" has her own vision of natural supernaturalism; "[she] saw that the hornet was holy, / the sinuous snake fashioned / the first letter of a psalm" (43).
"Maconaquah's Portrait," the third section, deals with the history of Native Americans in the area. As one might expect, many of these poems are rather bleak. "Trade Route" introduces Mekinges, "a Lenape chief's daughter," who is married to the trader William Conner. After she bears him six children, he leaves her for "the neighbor's / blue-eyed daughter," and builds her "a fine brick house." In "Mekinges's Story" she muses, "In the wilderness of his dreams, / did he enter our mud-chinked cabin / and tussle with our firstborn sons, / the ones who grew, he said, / like weeds?" The finely calibrated bitterness here marks Wagner's skill with historical narrative and unobtrusive, economical characterization and imagery. Also worth noting is that these two poems include rare contemporary references, as Wagner mentions her daughter who accompanies her along the White River, unlike the "other girls" who are not on a trail "that doesn't lead anywhere / they can Facebook their friends" (54).
"Today is a church / with its door left ajar" (64), Wagner writes in "Amish Hymn," one of many poems in part four, "Creekside Prayer," that pay attention to both the natural world and human constructions. Often the latter are declining or abandoned, like the old barn with light through missing boards "illuminating what's absent." Even the natural world is seen in decay, as in the "scruffy buckeye tree" near Wagner's house, which in autumn turns "the color of rust on a tractor / left for decades in the rain" (68).
This elegaic mood shifts in part five, "Circle City," which groups poems set mainly in Indianapolis. Even in the city, Wagner's attention is drawn to the quirky detail and (often) into the past: a fossil squid in the limestone of a cathedral, deer grazing in the vast Crown Hill Cemetery among the graves of Benjamin Harrison, James Whitcomb Riley, and John Dillinger. "Hard Truths: The Art of Thornton Dial" offers a glimpse of young students who "turned off / their iPods and hunkered down / to make poetry from their own hard / streets": "They built something to last / from the petals of shredded tires / and the glint of bottle glass" (86).
The final section, "Sylvan Springs," ranges more widely in place and time. Perhaps its most crucial poem for Mennonite readers, "The Lerner Theatre, 1953," offers a bold rewriting of Mennonite dogmas as it describes Wagner's mother watching From Here to Eternity, falling in love not just with the bare-chested Burt Lancaster but with the extravagant theater itself, with its beaded chandeliers, Turkish screens, and plush gold curtain. "All of it was worldly, I all of it was good," the poem exclaims, and "She loitered with hundreds of other sinners / in a dome of darkness / where she could see distinctly / the complications / a romantic life could take."
In essence, and to its credit, The Harmonist at Nightfall is quite a "worldly" book, in the best sense of that term. Among its main accomplishments is to trace in compelling detail, and to both celebrate and mourn, the complications that come from living in a material, physical, historical world that is also infused with the spiritual. And it insists that, no matter how much we may yearn to be otherwise, in crucial ways we are indeed both in and of this world, though we are not limited to its surfaces nor compelled to align ourselves with the many blunders and disasters of its human inhabitants. Shari Wagner is no apologist for secularism, and remains in many ways firmly within the Mennonite tradition. But she has traveled much in her own Concord, spent long enough in the Indiana that is her "spot" to speak intimately and eloquently of its secrets and depths. She is an excellent guide for those of us still pursuing our own enlightenment.