Mary Swander, the Iowa Poet Laureate and Distinguished Professor of English at Iowa State University, is one of those inspiring people who makes you think you can do anything. She teaches in Ames, but spends summers in a one-room schoolhouse where she lives, near Kalona in Amish country, where she grows her own food because of life-threatening allergies. She also had a paralyzing neurological illness after a drunk driver hit her, and during a year as a visiting professor in New Mexico found alleviation and spiritual solace through friendships with a Russian Orthodox priest and an herbal healer, about whom she was initially skeptical.
You can read about these life-changing experiences in her two memoirs, Out of This World: A Journey of Healing and The Desert Pilgrim. And it helps you put your life in perspective. She has overcome illnesses in a positive way. Swander writes poetry, memoirs, essays, journalism, and plays. I must confess I knew her exclusively through her stunning memoir, The Desert Pilgrim, until a few weeks ago, when I read Heaven-and-Earth House, a brilliant collection of poems and monologues about her life in Amish country.
On a recent afternoon, I decided to attend a reading by Swander. It was a kind of Oh-God-what-am-I-getting-into? thing, because we don’t have many writers around here, and I have attended events where PR writers hold forth, and time seems very, very long. So I hid in the back of the room, because I wanted to duck out quickly if necessary.
I was spellbound. She could probably perform in a cubicle or on the stage of the Met and still hold the audience. Honestly, she is talented and mesmerizing. A bit like Orpheus (Orphea?).
So, with impeccable timing and a strong sense of drama, she sang and played the banjo before she read from her latest book, The Girls on the Roof, a poetic novella about the Flood of ’93 and a reunion of its survivors in a small town on the Mississippi.
Note: The flood of ’93 was traumatic for Midwesterners. I wasn’t here, but I know about it. Levees broke. Neighborhoods were underwater, houses destroyed, and people rescued in boats from porches and roofs. Later, they had to dig mud out of their houses and filled garbage can after garbage can with sludge. There was no running water or electricity. People lined up in grocery store parking lots to get water rations from the National Guard.
People in the Midwest don’t complain much about it. It’s not a talky culture (and that drives me crazy).
Swander’s The Girls on the Roof, which turns the flood into a kind of folktale, is structured so we can laugh, and my sense is that Midwesterners need to laugh about the flood. Set in a tiny town called Pompeii (pronounced Pom-pee), the poem tells the story of Maggie and Pearl, a mother and daughter who get stuck on the roof of Crazy Eddy’s Cafe during the flood. When the corpse of Mike Fink of the junkyard washes up, they suddenly realize he was the lover of both mother and daughter. And he has a knife stuck in his back: Maggie’s husband, Bigfoot, had also learned the secret.
Maggie and Pearl are silent, and then they fight, and we learn their different ways of dealing with disaster. Maggie wants to make a raft out of boards from the coffin that washed up, while Pearl waits to be rescued by a man. Maggie points out that Pearl has always waited in vain for a man to save her, because her husband Cur couldn’t.
At the Kwik ‘n E Z, the convenience store above flood level where the citizens of Pompeii have gathered, they watch the spectacle of the mother and daughter fighting. Both women work at Crazy Eddy’s, the cafe which Bigfoot, a giant, inherited from his father, Crazy Eddy, a dwarf. Pearl is a little person, like Crazy Eddy. Maggie will never say the “d” word, and will barely admit that Pearl is a “little preson.” And that is an issue between them.
Maggie wanted to get away. She taught herself French from a tape, and can’t believe that now she’s going down the river to sit on the roof and not to drink wine in a white-tablecloth restaurant in New Orleans. She always dreamed her daughter, too, would leave Pompeii. But Pearl wants to stay: the sight of a handsome man at the glue factory is enough for her.
Swander’s colorful descriptions are accurate; she also is a journalist, and covered the flood for The New York Times. Below she describes Maggie in a cottonwood tree.
She dangled above the flat roof of Crazy Eddy’s,
the flood waters gurgling below.
Why me? she wailed to the wind,
the leaves and twigs brushing her face.”
Swander also tells the story of the “haints,” like Bigfoot and Fink, who return from from the dead and tell their side of the story.
Crazy Eddie says:
Life ain’t no free lunch.
Death ain’t no peanut butter sandwich.”
My only problem with the colloquialism is with words like “yup” at the beginning of some of the lines. Swander understands small towns, and people do say Yup and Yep. She knows cafes are gathering places in little towns, and there is a lot of storytelling at convenience stores, too. If you don’t have time to go to the cafe, you go gossip at the Kwik ‘n E Z. There is an oral culture. She captures it, but the Yups distracted me.
It’s a good poem, only 96 pages, and I’m reading it again because I want to experience the language again (the first time it was the story). I’ll see it more clearly that way.
And I do look forward to reading more of her poems.