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Title: "Town Crazy"
Author: John Cullen
Review by: Lauren Sartor
Town Crazy by John Cullen is a trip through the Northern part of rural USA. Cullen uses vivid description of the outer world to conjure what he would guess to be the inner workings of people who live and die in small-town America.
The people Cullen writes about are perhaps poor, sometimes crazy, most often manual laborers. They are frequently shoved aside by a world bigger than themselves. Most characters are practical and reserved, resiliently holding onto the industrial means that upheld the morale of the community for many years. The people’s concern is primarily themselves, the town and the people within the town. Small tokens are a constant show of solidarity, though most often given as common considerations. From advice to shiny nickels to the electric company allowing a month of electricity in a missing woman’s house, the people understand humanity as helping the survival of another in an environment that is often indifferent, sometimes inhospitable. They are the moving mechanisms of a landscape whose motions do not consider the people in it, but whose colors are made by these people. “The Priestess” is a poem, quite different in its surrealistic nature from the rest of the poems, but symbolic of the people’s reliance on the town:
What the priestess waits for
no villager knows, how she stands
on one slender foot in the wind,
how she remains so still children swear
her ankles sprout roots, tendrils
drilling dark earth. ...
Villagers carry bundles of life.
and go on with the burdens of life.
At a distance, someone sees her hover
but says it must be a mistake. She laughs
at that. The fever keeps rising.
The basin of the sea, the salad fields ...
This is how she holds herself wealthy.
When stretching out her hand, expecting
a gift from the gods, she closes it quickly,
knowing too little and too much are useless.
It is here, in the middle, like a crossroad,
that she waits. Her hands heavy
The poem perhaps takes place at a time before the people of Town Crazy when the residents were still villagers. Yet, the demonstrations of hard work, refusal of superstition and foreboding of changing times is applicable. Throughout Town Crazy, there are outside forces, often disruptive, that “built the bypass which ruined the shops,” that stopped traffic so that “those living east [had] to drive the five miles south” to enter town again, or displace “most shack and spare wood cabins … trappers … the local roughs” with bankers. The environment will still stand (however much manipulated) but no longer will the community. Although most of his poems focus on people, the culmination of these descriptions paints a singular picture of a place. Men fish, drink and sweat, women are mysterious and go missing, the individual is lonely and everyone is remembered, for to remember the people is to remember the town and vice versa. In “A Toast to Bill Clayman” the last two stanzas read:
Think of Bill Clayman!
Take all the time you need!
And pause like this when you remember me.
Then, over beer, brief smoke and laughter,
name what dreams
and hope we loved and lived.
lifting in your name and your son’s.
The act of remembering throughout the book and the visitation of the narrator to his childhood town is bittersweet. The narrator appreciates the small-town culture but also acknowledges the inevitable destruction. The narrator knows the place and people he writes about but appears very conscious that he is not part of the community. In the first poem, “Michigan Signs,” the narrator is at a bait shop to buy specks and is a “beginner at best.” Two poems later, in “Pine River Fishing,” the narrator admits that he “never hooked a trout” and in a later poem he is a visitor who “felt the urge to run but sat in his room / to share the local gossip.” The narrator is almost like a foreigner in familiar land. He has an undying curiosity about the town and people he has left behind. This curiosity is perpetuated both by his distance from the familiar as well as his devotion to what instinctually is part of himself. It is uncertain at first what he hopes to gain from coming back, particularly with his initial discomfort and shame. However, midway in the book in the poem “Town Crazy”, the narrator understands that by acknowledging his roots, he becomes whole and by understanding what may have happened to him if he stayed, forgives himself for leaving. Below is the last stanza:
Some people say he got mixed up on drugs;
others insist he got fried in ‘Nam ...
I keep hoping that he’ll miss me and then walk
the other way, and that somehow I’ll escape
his touch and trembling hand. But when I see his reflection,
I know I was right, and that this time he’ll need more
than simply money or a chat. I admit, at first, I wanted crazy
like that tie with skull and crossbones near the knot,
or thoughts of a fling with a girl who hopped the bus.
But I’ve never wept for hours at a broke doll
or spoken at length with a tennis shoe.
And for the kind of moment that might become a lifetime,
I consider the possibility of refusing to turn around,
of walking away, a face in the crowd, with the weight
for fear held deep inside me. And then, as anyone
who hopes to live well, I turn the face I looked at
in the window, turn it to face the both of us.
Cullen’s endings are particularly strong. In “Michigan, Between Exits,” the narrator gets hooked into buying an old trunk from a roadside store. The last stanza reads:
Back on the highway, heading north or south,
you feel quite foolish but somehow can’t laugh.
Your money disappeared from between his fingers
into one of the pockets of his overall blues.
You want to believe the magician he must be
makes the dollars disappear to a place of safety
and, after the show, brings them back and grins.
When Cullen ends a poem, he ends it completely. There may be an ambiguity, but if it is there it is not just one felt by the reader but felt by the reader through the narrator. There are no “What if’s?” or white noise buzzing through the reader’s head, no need to turn the page looking for perhaps another line. Cullen so excellently closes the poem, not with conviction of the subject exactly (for Cullen acknowledges the unknown in the mundane) but with the certainty of a raconteur finishing a story.
Cullen also uses strong images. They are not wild nor trite, but exact and idiosyncratic of the place and time: “blue-flowered soy,” “homemade wine from dandelion or cherry,” “November rain / to the chest.” Even more poignant in his poems are the actions. After all, this chapbook is one of people and of rediscovery: “steelheads rise from the river lows,” “stripping sticks with my knife,” “sled dogs bay at full moon.” The narrator knows more of the environment then he is willing to admit - what his humility denies, his poetry betrays.
The narrator has a clear understanding of his territory, from the immediate to historical, personal to impersonal, obvious to not so apparent. Everywhere in his poems there are the consequences between the division of progress and contentment, expenditure and preservation. In “The Heights” for instance, he tells the ongoing changes of damming a river eighty years ago. In “Moves West” a town is isolated by natural damage done to a bridge. Although Cullen paints the story of each person in his poem so clearly they stand on their own, they knock down a bit under the weight of the environment. Each person, each town, is subservient to their environment.
The poems in this chapbook read like anecdotes retold by a visitor who ran the stories over and over in his head on the drive home. He captures the essence through what he has seen, heard and what he knows and is eager to tell. Just when he thinks he has it right, he hands you a beer and sits you down.