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Sunday, September 29, 2013

Deep Mapping: Kettle Bottom, Marked Men, and Digging Deep with Leslie Ullman

Turning Point Books
Dig deep enough beneath the fertile soil near Denver’s Botanic Gardens and Cheesman Park and you just might find one of the few thousand bones still buried from when that land was known as Mount Prospect Cemetery, before it fell into disrepair and was called simply “the boneyard.”  Dig even deeper and you might uncover a chip of red pipestone, perhaps not far from the tooth of an old war pony. 

Joseph Hutchison “deep maps” this very land in his historic narrative poem "Marked Men" about the Sand Creek Massacre. 

“A dream led me to the end of the poem,” he told the Tattered Cover audience at his recent signing, “and a dream began the poem. I woke up one night and Chivington was standing at the end of my bed—not saying anything—just looking down at me.  But Chivington didn’t interest me.  I started writing about my responsiveness to the dream.  And in the dream there was a cemetery…”

John E. Poplin's Denver Cemeteries
In 1893, the City of Denver decided to convert the old boneyard into a public park and ordered the living relatives of the buried dead to remove the remains of their loved ones and bury them elsewhere.  More than 5000 bodies went unclaimed. Undertaker McGovern was given the job of transferring these orphaned and derelict corpses.  But coffins were expensive, and dismembered corpses take up less space.  What followed became known as the disgraceful “work of ghouls.”

I expected to learn none of this when I sat down to listen to Joseph Hutchison read from Marked Men, though it was Linda Hogan’s endorsement that drew me there.  Marked Men is a book where truth finally catches up with history… Read it, and remember the stories in this land, still walking on our streets, and still alive.” 

To read the work of a good poet is to hold in the palm of your heart a chunk of humanity, laid bare and pulsing, each word like the sudden intake of breath—sharp, visceral, urgent—especially when the poems unearth a deeper truth beneath the layers of asphalt upon which we stand.

In a landscape far to the east of Denver, poet Diane Gilliam Fisher, this year’s winner of AROHO’s $50,000 Gift of Freedom Award for her collection Kettle Bottom (Perugia Press 2004), knows how make “the stone of the West Virginia mountains yield up its human past….”  

Fisher writes of the coal camps, and of the lives birthed and buried there. These lines are excerpted from her poem “David.”

Papa…goes every day
into the mountain, into the stone. It seals
him in. Sealed in, the men from the company
they tell Mamma the roof it fell, they are sorry.

The poem ends: 

….No Michelangelo
here to cut the stone away from the beautiful men.

I read Kettle Bottom from cover to cover, nearly in one sitting. And when I turned the last page, read the last line, closed the cover quietly—a deep breath came out of me, a slow drawling exhale filled with a deeper reckoning of the death and hardship of those West Virginia coal mining folks. Delsey Salyer. Maude Stanley. Hazel. Clayton.  Shelva Jean.  Miss Terry.  Pearlie Webb.  The poor Dago boy. 

When authors “deep map” a small corner of the earth - in our poems, or novels, or memoirs - we travel vertically through time - down through the history that layers the land, beneath the asphalt and before the botanic gardens, down to where the bones and the stories lie waiting.  It’s not a journey for the faint of heart, but I guarantee you’ll rise up from the experience hungry for oxygen and eager to write.  

MORE ON DIGGING DEEP:  I’m halfway through Leslie Ullman’s new and remarkable, fourth collection Progress on the Subject of Immensity (University of New Mexico Press, 2013).  In her poem “The Story I Need” (first published in Cerise Press), Leslie—in barely 7 exquisite stanzas—conveys this entire 700-word essay of mine.  Ah, to be such a fine poet!  Read entire poem.  Leslie teaches in the low-residency MFA Writing Program at Vermont College of Fine Arts.

NOTE: To learn more about "deep mapping," contact Page for a helpful workshop handout.

3 comments:

Gail Storey said...

Page, I've long been a fan of Leslie Ullman's poetry, and now look forward to reading these other writers you connect us with--thank you!

Connecting People with Nature, and Writers with Words said...

Yes, Gail, Leslie is a beautiful writer. I first met Leslie teaching together at James Nave's Writing Salon in Taos. We taught together for a few years during the summer workshop, and I really enjoyed her. We've been friends ever since. Diane Gilliam's work is amazing too, as is Joseph Hutchison's.

Diane Gilliam said...

From Facebook: Oh, Page, thank you for this wonderful piece. It's just as you say and I remember feeling again all the wonder of the fossils in our mountains when I held the tiny bones and teeth you gave us to hold at Ghost Ranch. "Rifts in time," as Eavan Boland says. Diane Gilliam