Tuesday, May 16, 2006


PR PRIMEAU reviews

The Art of Country Grain Elevators by Jon Volkmer
(Bottom Dog Press, 2006)


Jon Volkmer is the Thomas Hart Benton of contemporary poetry. That is, without the Benton's rampant misogyny, nasty anti-intellectualism, and general abrasiveness. It is in his dirt simple illumination of working folk’s trials and triumphs that he falls into close alignment with the self-described “enemy of Modernism.” Volkmer remains loyal to his American roots; in terms of both structure and content, his poetry stands in stunning contrast to current poetic trends.

In sixteen poems planted among black and white photos capturing classic Heartland imagery (courtesy of Bruce Selyem), Volkmer presents a world of sun-scorched backs, calloused palms, and gruff voices. The Art of Country Grain Elevators takes the reader on a long ramble through the Nebraskan countryside. Despite being a professor of creative writing at Ursinus College in Pennsylvania, the poet’s voice is that of an aged husker. His steady, genuine verse suggests a sort of wizened insight inherited through a family line whose blood, sweat, and prayers have long fertilized Nebraskan soil.

In “Rats”, Volkmer paints a gruesome scene: hired hands stomping on baby rodents, snuffing the life from them as they scramble into the open. An indirect but deeply stirring meditation on natural order, the poet writes: “they did a silly stomping jig/I clapped, until I saw the tiny bursts of fur/‘But Dad!’ I said, ‘they’re babies!’/‘But what?’ he said, ‘they’re rats.’” With those lines Volkmer grasps by the neck the dark poetry and crude justice of rural life.

“Epitaph on a Three-Block Main Street” is a melancholy reflection on lost towns and lost lives -- on lost history. Volkmer conjures up places that “can’t be found, not on a map” and villages whose very foundations have been worn away by the stiff winds which blow forever across the plains. The specter of the ghost town arises on both a physical and spiritual level; the reader imagines the poet’s voice shrinking to a forlorn whisper as he concludes, “You have to visit the nursing homes/to find a handful who remember/where Table Rock was…”

In one of the collection’s finest pieces, Volkmer artfully sketches the perverse intimacy which exists between a farmer and his seed. “Dust” is divided into curt verses which argue from this perspective and that as to which crop “killed man first.” “Wheat can be funny/smelling almost of bread/And the shit you cough up/kind of looks like dough.” The poem is wreathed in black humor, though it concludes on a macabre note: “I knew milo was the worst of all/because Old Vaughn said so/and he had to spit out/the oxygen tube/to say so.”

Largely avoiding the bold typography, sharp line-breaks, and raucous subject matter which typify much of poetry these days, Volkmer has crafted rich and authentic poems which speak to the soul and come from the hearts, hands, and hard work of Midwesterners. His sensible diction and populist undertones are refreshing breaks from the transgressive experimentation of the avant-garde and the snooze cruise that is more mainstream poetry. The Art of Country Grain Elevators is the hymnal of the everyman farmer, the tireless laborer, and the blue collar Joe whose lives blaze marvelous in their simplicity. Here we have Woody Guthrie with a dash of confused nostalgia, maybe Robert Frost stripped of Yankee trappings, perhaps even Richard Brautigan sans marijuana. Such beautiful Americana comes along all too infrequently in these busy, postmodern days. Quiet but powerful, Volkmer’s prairie songs can -- should! -- be savored by everyone from the schooled poet to the school janitor.


PR PRIMEAU is manager-in-chief of PERSISTENCIA*PRESS and the editor of Dirt, a 'zine of minimalist poetry and poetics. His work has appeared in Skald, Eratio, moria, minimum daily requirements, fhole, Yawp, and Starfish.


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