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Smethers and the Five-Ton Truck
Later I will learn that the truck is Smethers’ truck; though, Smethers
is not the driver.
The driver’s name is Theodore
The truck is huge. It is a five-ton truck, dual axles at the rear, enormous
tires mounted on enormous wheels ringed
with heavy-torsion nuts,
and beside the source from which is issuing this racket—crazy
chattering and whining sixteenth-notes—
flywheels, fan—I want to know why the sixty-acre woods
are burning, why Smethers has emerged from
the smoke: Smethers wiping his face with his red handkerchief,
Smethers calling down to me from his cab,
before the house on Calhoun Street, Fort Wayne, Indiana:
green cab, red bed,
Fort Wayne Park Department stenciled on the doors.
It’s your grandfather, he says. There’s no water past your corner,
and the chief says, "We’ll let it burn."
It’s only stunted trees and brush. Is your mother in the house?
You shouldn’t be so near the street.
I want to know why Smethers’ face is dark, why his hair’s
black and curly,
and I do not know I want to know.
Who knows what he wants
to know at five? At five whatever woods
are burning are
never simply burning. The smoke is gray-and-yellow smoke.
What flames you see,
what sparks—one block, two blocks away—what perfectly enkindled
duff and bark and tufts of burrs you witness
rising high upon a fire’s up-draft, climbing toward
they are flames and sparks,
phenomena, empty spaces filling up with gas and vacancies
more marvelous than pages
in any child’s book. . .
It’s August, 1954, for instance:
You are not conscious of the fact,
nor conscious there are questions about facts.
And if the five-ton truck—war over-run, put on the auction
block and sold into the service
of this city—came off a line
in Lansing, Michigan, August 9, 1945, only hours before the news
a second bomb destroyed a place
called Nagasaki, how would anybody know without, perhaps, a ticket
signed by a company inspector?
A General Motors invoice
cached between springs and wiry fibers of excelsior beneath
the cab’s bench seat?
Or stashed behind the bench-back
in the tool box with wrenches, hammers, flares,
where such things matter
as a quart of motor oil,
and history is tacks and string, a bill of lading,
a pinned together fan of spring-steel gauges
for setting spark plug gaps:
Smethers, my grandfather. His father
distributing his children across the county
after the shock of his wife’s death. Smethers with his brown fingers
arranging arrowheads he’s turned up working
flower beds in the city’s cemeteries and parks. Me-She-Kin-O-Quah—
Chief Little Turtle—and his defeat
of St. Clair’s army—November 3, 1791—the ambush on the Wabash,
where Little Turtle witnessed
so dense as to eclipse the sun.
The black spear point
Smethers lay in the palm of my left hand: “The man who worked this flint
died two-hundred years ago at least.”
Miami, Wyandot, Delaware, Shawnee.
The woods are burning, where developers will break ground
to build a South Town Center,
Plaza, Mercantile Arcade, Bazaar;
and here is Smethers in his park department truck,
elbow out the window,
shovels and rakes at attention
in the rack in back.
They’re going to let burn trees of heaven, sumac, Chinese elm,
scrub oak, crazy grapes.
the fire will not get out of hand. He’ll see me Sunday,
whenever Sunday is.
We’ll go to church.
We’ll take in tow the subtleties, all the rhythmic flights of Latin
prayers and hymns.
(Praéstet fídes suppleméntum sénsuum deféctui.)
The sounds fix things inside us.
And we’ll have the five-ton truck I’m amazed to see him in,
its under and its overtones,
its flaring fenders, the troops who never hunkered down upon
the boards beneath a canvas top
to curse, or lie, or tell the truth about
brothers killed near oases somewhere south of Queen
Hatshepsut’s sphinx or
aboard some transport, struck a mine two days shy of Guam.
They will park the five-ton truck at the Park Department lot
with the fleet of five-ton trucks—
surplus and aftermath—, and Smethers, who is no talker—
who is most comfortable with silence—
will rock his rocker, swing his porch swing, gaze out over
Wells Street, trolley wires overhead—
the spaces of his world never more precisely limned—
his work uniform laundered now, the smoke-smell
just a faint motif,
like a refusal of or a preference for disciplined forgetting
sixty acres of burned over ground.
Who was it set the fire, if not boys practicing survival in the wild?
How many birds’ nests burned?
How many cellos, violins, basses, piccolos and flutes,
men and women with their ticket stubs,
tapping their batons and calling for silence, that figurative nothing
for the performance,
this remembering of tares and twists of history, cacophony
and dissonance, harmonies
the working out of scores for five-ton trucks, sixty-acre fires, grandfathers,
pasts, where everything and
where who you are—
For isn’t this the question from the start?—
is like a five-ton truck emerged from a smoke-enshrouded residential
a sprawling city’s limits.
It is a truck you’ve never seen before. A man you recognize within
stops and idles at the curbside
where you’re taught to say you live: This is your house. You have
its number in your head.
This is your grandfather in a five-ton truck. He could be anybody else
the way this timing works.
He could have just finished knapping
a flint point.
Then you’re five.
And then you’re not five. You don’t know. And then you know
the relationship could be the same.
His last name could still mean what Smethers does.
He could still fail to explain a fire. He could, and you could,
compositions for piano and clarinet
and in this way
increase upon the mysteries of a five-ton truck.
-from Blue Orange
BIO: Robert Grunst’s full length collections of poems are Blue Orange (Ashland Poetry Press, 2012) and The Smallest Bird in North America (New Issues, 2000). His poems have appeared in American Literary Review, Cimarron Review, The Iowa Review, Nimrod, Poetry East, Seneca Review, Tar River Poetry, and many other magazines. His essays focusing on the history and culture of the Great Lakes commercial fishery have appeared in a number of publications including Inland Seas, Lake Superior Magazine, and Michigan History Magazine. Grunst was born in Fort Wayne, Indiana and raised in Holland, Michigan on the western shore of Lake Michigan. He taught 9th grade English for the Midland, Michigan Public Schools and subsequently spent three years working as a gillnet fisherman and engineer on Lake Michigan and Lake Superior. He teaches a variety of courses including creative writing as Professor in the English Department at St. Catherine University in Saint Paul, Minnesota.
An Interview with Robert Grunst by Aaron Bauer and Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum
Aaron Bauer and Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum: What is your favorite part about writing a poem?
Robert Grunst: My favorite part of writing is the part played by nothing: a poem begins for me in knowing nothing about what heading a poem might take after the initial throwing off of lines. I’ve slipped immediately into the language of boats and lines and navigation, because new poems I’m working on come from boats and lines and navigation sources. I’ve led an off-and-on other life as a commercial fisherman on Lake Michigan and Lake Superior, experience I’ve let simmer for many years while chairing an English Department for a term and teaching, and teaching, and the time’s right now for these poems. For instance: Finnish fishing people up in Michigan’s Keweenaw Peninsula. How they’d grapple for drowned men. They modified bed springs—coiled wire frames. They brazed hooks onto the springs and frame, hooks, say, with five inch shanks and two inch gapes, and they dragged these hook-rigged frames over and through areas where people were lost. There’s hardware in this. There are drowned men: though, I’ve written this poem no farther than you see here. I haven’t any idea about what it’s about beyond its concrete materials, and if I did I would not have the not knowing impulse to get me searching for an image or base line measure that might provide direction. There’d be no potential for surprise, no reason to begin. Nothing is the premiere factor in surprise, surprise being an answer to what the poem’s about. Or nothing is the answer. Certainly nothing is when the issue is getting started.
AB & AMK: Now, you’re probably expecting this as a follow up, but what is your least favorite part of writing?
RG: This one follows from the last line above: Certainly nothing is (the answer) when the issue is getting started. My least favorite part of writing is not writing. Anyone can be writing while not physically sitting or standing somewhere with pencils and paper or with an Underwood or with a computer. I mean not writing—too distracted or committed to other matters to attend to the nearby nothing that is key to a poem. Wordsworth. Getting and spending. Being out of tune—whatever the cause.
AB & AMK: In “Smethers and the Five-Ton Truck,” the loss of the sixty acre woods is more than just a loss of landscape. We see a loss of the past with Smethers who might have searched for Native American arrowheads in a place like this, and a loss of the future with, “men and women with their ticket stubs,/ conductors / tapping their batons and calling for silence” because the instruments that could have been made from the wood were never made. How does our physical environment contribute to who we are and where we are going? What happens when that environment is lost?
RG: Smethers worked for thirty years for the Fort Wayne, Indiana Park Department; and it does not follow that Indiana is the only one of our fifty states that does not have a Native American “reservation.” The fact is notable when one recognizes that the land now encompassed by Indiana’s borders was densely inhabited primarily by Miami and Shawnee and Illini people, and the land, watersheds, and rivers were crossroads, trade and exchange routes for scores of other native people. The region was thriving before European fur traders and settlers came in the late 1700s. Working in Fort Wayne’s park garden beds, Smethers unearthed hundreds of native artifacts; the spear point alluded to in the poem was among things he kept. And you notice that the loss of the woods is more than just a loss of landscape.
One of the triggers behind the poem is this: The spearhead was a beautiful symmetrically knapped object: black flint, I suppose, with a distinct burnished sheen. In places its edges could easily draw blood. But I dropped the point on a basement floor—finished concrete. The flint shattered. Unbelievable. The carelessness. The pieces and the absolute implausibility of reassembly. So in a sense the poem reassembles the spear point that could not be reassembled. No semblance of the past is anything but semblance: a negotiation with estrangement.
I’m reminded of the historian, Paul E. Kopperman’s Braddock at the Monongahela. In trying to make sense of the disastrous river crossing ambush—fatal for Braddock and many others—, Kopperman gathers written accounts, dispositions from the post-battle inquest and journal and diary entries about the battle from witnesses on both the British/Colonial and French and Indian sides of the melee. The sense that emerges through the cacophony of conflicting accounts with the two-hundred thirty years remove is that no sense can be divined from the accounts as to precisely what happened, whose preparation was insufficient, whose strategies failed, who acted with clear determination and honorably or dishonorably. Braddock died from his wounds. At the rank of colonel and twenty-three year old, George Washington was a leader among the colonial volunteers. Daniel Boone was a wagoner in the far strung-out supply column. There are indisputable bits and pieces. Aside from the few sound facts, though, the story is something of a fabliau and perfectly instructive in disclosing how a lot of history is arrived upon.
As for lost environments? Before the fire the sixty acre wood was a welter of what many people would have discounted as thistle and sandbur tangles, wild vines and urban buffer crazywoods, box elders predominately among trees of heaven and a few remnant sycamores. (Nothing there was suited for woodwind or stringed instrument building). That sixty had probably been cut over, the hardwoods quarter-sawn and milled, and the rest burned to allow for farming by the 1860s; then, 1920s(?) the farmland went sour. The fields filled in willy-nilly with deposits of wind-blown seeds. Environments we see and talk about are overlain by superseded environments: all the ever-evolving place. To a child that wood was wilderness; to developers, a site for a mall with plenty of parking. Children come to understand the concept of change and magnitudes of change at different rates of course. For me, then and now, that fire amplified how quickly change can come—and absolutely. There was the Fort Wayne Union Stockyards fire too. The story of the burned boys. The cries of the animals. Layers of burning hay bales born aloft into the night sky by that terrific - furious heat. A total loss except for the poem maybe.
AB & AMK: The form you choose to write “The Seventh Sacrament of the Thumb” and “Smethers and the Five-Ton Truck” leaves a lot of fragmented syntax and white space on the page. Could you talk a bit about your visual aesthetics and how the form and content of these poems relate?
RG: The cabinetmaker – carpenter of ‘Seventh Sacrament of the Thumb’ is surprised finding his thumb in a place he did not think to find it. The fragmented syntax and white space, then, is a factor of the thumb’s severance and the confused messenger, or attaché’s, duty to call the carpenter back to attention: to report that life, under the best of conditions, requires these separations: here the accidentally amputated thumb; next; and next; and next what remains is the moon and no volition—no will left to imagine oneself jest master of the moon.
For the carpenter estranged from his own thumb everything within his range of vision is strange: table saw, workshop, hammer, lighter; concepts like far and near and grace and order. Language is strange. Syntax is strange. The concept of death is strange. Form’s a factor of content; an old saw, that is. And you can imagine the carpenter’s saw is old too.
White space and fragmented syntax—and enjambment—in ‘Five-Ton Truck’ comes by consequence of all that’s unknown, all that’s pure speculation. Between the lines a lotis indecipherable; a lot spills into not knowing or into unexamined belief and into doubt. For the imagined child, the five ton truck is this enormous clattering and exhaust spewing figure seemingly uncontestable in its sheer physical presence.
Yet the men in the truck are next to unreal for never having been in such a place before. And then what of the truck? The phenomenon of the truck is contingent on what? While the truck is the “absolute ground” of the poem, the truck’s hardly more certain than is certain what Praéstat fides suppleméntum sénsuum deféctui means to a child, or anyone else lacking deep immersion in Latin. In this sense, too, the white space, as in ‘Seventh Sacrament of the Thumb,’ calls attention to severance of order or the improbable appearances of and the contingent elements of order in the poem itself.
AB & AMK: At the end of “Smethers and the Five-Ton Truck,” we see music as a way to further mystify rather than explain the mysteries discussed in the poem. Does this relate to your broader views on the purpose of art? Should readers of poetry come expecting a clarification or a further obfuscation?
RG: There’s a leap from bird song to formal orchestras and conductors and batons and men and women with their ticket stubs. The leap’s occasioned by questioning just what, if anything, might be accurately remembered? The question immediately raises questions about what we might suppose accurate might mean? What might the standard deviation of error be? Or who draws the difference between dissonance and harmony? And dissonance is harmony; and harmony dissonance. Which might well sound like obfuscation: nothing more than Hegelian head-standing. Obfuscation for the sake of or in thrall of obfuscation is nothing more than see-through legerdemain. ‘Five-Ton Truck’ is in part about being uncertain, confused, about visiting the planetarium with no prior knowledge, no guide, no map of the constellations and then being set, as we all are set, to the task of saying where we are. What arbitrator has license to decide such matters? What matters? Whose matters? Nevertheless each person is so licensed.
Whether mystifying or not—either way—the elements of music are out there plangent or restive, distinct or fleeting along with the intrinsic impulse—I hope—to make sense of it; to remix, to revise, adumbrate; add or subtract: to move toward some peace accord: Entendre if not to understand.
AB & AMK: The child-speaker of “Smethers and the Five-Ton Truck” approaches the poem’s events with a high level of uncertainty. At one point, he even feels somewhat to blame for the incident, “Who was it set the fire, if not boys practicing survival in the wild?” What similarities do you find between a poet writing and a child questioning? What attracted you to this perspective?
There was a child went forth every day;
And the first object he look’d upon, that object he became;
And that object became part of him for the day, or a certain part of the day, or for many years, or stretching cycles of years.
The Wordsworth line comes to mind as well, but Whitman’s lines are surpassing improvements.
Again I’ll mention that “Five-Ton Truck”—the fire especially—is linked to “The Fort Wayne Union Stockyards Fire, May 2, 1952,” a fire I know of only by relatives’ tales and, too, through research for the poem, from Fort Wayne Journal Gazette and Fort Wayne News Sentinel articles sent to me by a gracious Fort Wayne reference librarian. Tales hold that boys are always the ones who set the fires and almost always accidentally of course. The guilt of the imagined boy of “Five-Ton Truck” is guilty by class assignment. Everyone’s worthy of suspicion when no one knows or no one’s saying how the fire started. This is a happenstance of a Catholic education too.
Children believe all sorts of remarkable things. “Wrong” things. And “right” things. Bizarre things and wondrous things. And so do adults. The general difference is that children’s minds are ever more agile than adults: possibilities are unlimited. And poems’ possibilities must be unlimited. Otherwise, we’re finished.
Three of the poems in Blue Orange have to do with my Aunt Dorothy, or Dottie, second of my father’s three sisters. In today’s parlance we’d say Dottie was developmentally disabled. Her physical functions were unlimited if, though, perhaps, she was a little more clumsy that ‘usual.’ She had the mind of a three year old going on four perhaps. A three year old’s mind in a thirty year old body. She was an endless source of wonder for me: the stories she told; the adventures she cooked up. She was my age and three times larger than me and three times larger again. And three times again. She taught me not to believe in any pre-assigned limitations. Imagination is limitless.