I come from several provincial cultures. I’m the small town kid, the blind kid, the one who spent time alone; who went to a rural high school; a tier two college. I belong to the provincially privileged as I see it now, able to think in the sunbeams and motes. I love artists from outlier places: Toni Morrison; William Faulkner; Jackson Pollock; Langston Hughes; Ella Fitzgerald; James Wright; D.H.Lawrence–the list is nearly endless.
Just so I’ve always admired this poem by James Wright:
“Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio”
In the Shreve High football stadium,
I think of Polacks nursing long beers in Tiltonsville,
And gray faces of Negroes in the blast furnace at Benwood,
And the ruptured night watchman of Wheeling Steel,
Dreaming of heroes.
All the proud fathers are ashamed to go home.
Their women cluck like starved pullets,
Dying for love.
Their sons grow suicidally beautiful
At the beginning of October,
And gallop terribly against each other’s bodies.
Certainly the poem is dated. It was written sometime around 1960. Martins Ferry, Ohio was then and still remains a deeply sectoral and impoverished place. (In fact, now that the coal and steel plants are gone, it is arguably worse.) Yet for all that, despite its dated racist language and its decidedly un-feminist depiction of housewives–what? We see alcoholism, despair, wantonness, the strippling boys, children of drunks growing suicidally beautiful and playing a violent sport that is really no sport at all.
I admire the poem for its keen edges; its refusal to play the American game of small town sentimentality–football is rendered here as terror.
I was in mind of it when watching the Trump mob storm the US Capitol last week. The Jugalos, Boogaloos, the Q-Anons are the provincial suicidal gallopers, desperate boys and their girls with digital devices on their wrists.
Didn’t it look like a football tailgate party for the fathers ashamed to go home?
Cheap little rhymes
A cheap little tune
Are sometimes as dangerous
As a sliver of the moon.
― Langston Hughes