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Essays/Nonfiction

Sugar in the Gourd

It was 1974, and I was in the bar of the Cottage Hotel in Mendon, New York, and I’d never heard anything like the Swamp Root String Band: the short, wiry fiddler doubling with a wire-haired woman on mandolin, the laid-back guitarist and manic banjo player, both wearing denim shirts and workingman’s western boots, the bassist in clay-stained jeans (someone told me she was in the ceramics program at RIT; I had friends who were potters, so I recognized the signs). It wasn’t the way they looked; everybody in the bar looked more or less like that. And it wasn’t just the music, although I hadn’t heard anything that sounded as authentic before. I knew The Band and Dylan’s John Wesley Harding, and I liked their rough, unfinished quality.

I sat at a table next to the bassist’s corner of the stage as the band kicked its way through “Sugar in the Gourd.” Nearby, a window looked out on Route 251, which led to Victor; hang a right, and you were off toward the little vineyards of the Bristol Hills above the Finger Lakes. Mendon is suburbs now, but it was farms then; it was easy to imagine nothing but fields, orchards, and haylofts all the way south and east until you hit my father’s home country in the Catskills, not the resort or fly fishing or bohemian Catskills, but the hardscrabble railroad and farm towns of Walton, Andes, Delhi. That’s where the music took me, old times, tough times, depression times.

“They tied the only Democrat in Walton to a tree on election day until the polls closed,” Dad once told me. His grandfather, a trainmaster and telegrapher on the New York, Ontario, and Western—his duties included photographing accidents, common on the notoriously poorly maintained “Old and Weary”—got angry with his DAR-proper wife when she wouldn’t give a meal to the hobos who passed on the tracks behind their house. Dad walked me around the cemetery in Walton, pointing at gravestones, saying “train wreck, train wreck …” His favorite book, and one of mine too, Carl Carmer’s Listen for a Lonesome Drum, chronicled the author’s travels around upstate during the Depression; it was full of stories of fights, hangings, horse theft, meanness, fiddling. The music felt that way too, raw and raucous and inexplicably joyful.

I wanted to make that sound, but I didn’t play the right kind of instrument, couldn’t sing, so I tried to get it in poetry. My first manuscript was called Sugar in the Gourd, and the title poem echoed one of the lyrics I remembered from The Cottage Hotel: sugar in the gourd, can’t get it out, way to get the sugar out is roll the gourd about. The poem was about depression, my father’s depression, the electroshock treatments he received, his withdrawal and anger, all of which happened while I was in junior high. I have three memories of that period. In the first, I am in the dark, library-like waiting room of the psychiatric wing of Strong Memorial Hospital in Rochester, and I see my father in a doorway at the end of the corridor; I want to go toward him, but I can’t, because the air is charged, and he seems to be hanging in that storm of light, cruciform, like Blake’s Albion. Then, I am in a mustard-brown vinyl chair in another waiting room, this one in the brutalist two-towered state hospital on Elmwood Avenue, the place he feared he’d go when his insurance ran out; the floor tiles are big, mottled, the kind they put in schools then, and I am watching the closed steel double doors that lead into the ward. If I didn’t think carefully, I would swear to the truth of those memories, but I know they can’t be right. I don’t think I ever went with my mother to Strong; I certainly wouldn’t have been allowed to see him, and no hospital waiting room ever looked like the wood-paneled reading room of the local library I loved. I don’t remember if my father was ever moved to the state hospital or why, in that recollection, I’m expecting him to appear, and with the sense that I somehow got there on my own, although I was nowhere near old enough to drive.

The third memory, though, about the Beatles, makes sense. Dad is in the doorway of the guest bedroom he used when he first came home; he’s angry because I’m listening to The White Album, which some kid on his hospital floor kept playing on repeat.

I trust that memory because aggrieved bitterness, and a near-contempt for the world changing around him, were two of the masks my father’s illness wore. I’ve tried them on myself. Once again, he was standing in a field of light, and that must be the shock treatment working its way into the image along with the Blake-like stance, arms raised along the door-frame. But thinking back, I believe in this image because I can’t blame him. Who would want to suffer a dark electrical storm of the soul with “Piggies” and “Helter Skelter,” let alone “Revolution #9,” as background music? A beautiful song like “Blackbird” might be even worse, the irony of loveliness in the midst of shame and fear and loss of dignity. Either way, those songs became for him metaphors of his experience in the hospital, just as my imagined memories were metaphors for my experience of what happened to him.

But I trust them too, just not as facts. I trust them because of those doors, which are metaphors, must be, or they wouldn’t repeat, and they wouldn’t repeat unless, like all doors, they imply something glimpsed but unseen, heard faintly but left unsaid. Metaphor is what I go to poetry for, not sentiment and not candor, neither of which can drive the tension between what is said and what’s withheld. The door is always more transfixing than what’s behind it, the song more vivid than whatever the singer’s biography has to say.  I came to Bob Dylan late, but when I took John Wesley Harding home from our little WPA-built public library, I felt right at home in a world I didn’t understand because that’s what home was for me.

In the cellar, in an old fiberboard suitcase, cheap and fastened with cloth straps, illegible address labels pasted one over another, the kind college students in the 1930s used to send their laundry home, I found diaries and photos from my father’s family. The diaries were written in spidery, brownish script, nearly illegible, and seemed mostly to have to do with weather. One volume had a title: The Big Snow. The photos included derailed trains, a family posed in the depot and in the same place a man with a mustache and a bulldog, another in some sort of uniform, a surveying party, a daguerreotype of an angry and very old patriarch, two group portraits of ladies, one with and one without mandolins. Only the patriarch was labeled: Cook St. John, who had lived to be over one hundred, sired eleven children, buried several wives, and was interviewed by a New York paper not long before his death. He didn’t look happy about any of it. I was more interested in the ladies’ mandolin club, and I realize now that I was looking at the faces of those carefully dressed, small-town women from sometime in the early part of the last century to see if one of them was my grandmother.

Florita Chamberlain Smith has left almost no trace in the genealogical record. I can’t find her father’s family or her mother’s. Her mother-in-law was the DAR member who refused to feed the tramps, and my father told me she was equally cold to her son’s wife; she thought her beneath him. I only have one photograph of her; she’s holding me, a baby. I remember her house, a tiny bungalow, the chunks of coal for the fireplace, the stiffness of her purple and black housedress, a packet of clover seed in the garage, the molasses cookies cooling in the kitchen. It can’t have been more than a year or two before my father’s breakdown that she vanished into those memories; she was committed to another asylum, a cluster of brick buildings in the shadow of the state hospital towers, and I never saw her again until her funeral.

I don’t think she ever played the mandolin.

That’s a lot of ellipses … unlabeled and undated photos, missing family history, illegible journals, unplayed or unremembered instruments, a boy’s memories that trail off. And the ellipsis is another home of metaphor; you can’t say what it is, but there it is anyway. All through high school and college, I couldn’t forget the depression that seemed to run in the family, and I didn’t see any reason why I would be passed over by those wings. I went through the old photos taken in towns that seemed as remotely in the past as they were in the mountains, except that my father had lived there, had known some of those sepia faces or at least their stories. I stared at the journals, those testaments of snow-bound isolation. There was too much no one wanted to recall or was willing to explain. I tried to sidle up to it, and I hoped music might be the indirect path to the heart of that country.

Dylan was in an elliptical as well as an apocalyptic frame of mind when he wrote most of the songs on John Wesley Harding; they’re sparer and often grimmer even than “Tears of Rage,” which seems at least to have a story to tell. “All Along the Watchtower” is an anecdote, a chance meeting in the middle of a siege, in the anxiety before the news arrives. You don’t know what’s happening here, but you know how it feels. “As I Went Out One Morning” starts off like an Irish ballad, with a first line that should lead to a narrative of encounter and accident, except that here the old convention of a man meeting a maid is unsettled by her commanding insistence, his revulsion, and the odd intervention of Tom Paine. To interpret it, even to wonder what Tom Paine is doing here, is to fall into the temptation of allegory. Anyone who thinks there’s an allegorical key for Dylan’s work might as well book passage on Melville’s steamboat in The Confidence Man and wait for the avatars to appear. Here’s the Wicked Messenger “with a mind that multiplied the smallest matter,” the Drifter begging for help in his weakness before lightning sanctions his escape, the pitiful and greedy Immigrant. What they have in common is what they will not tell you, what has driven them to your door, the door you opened, planning a morning’s ramble, only to find them blocking the way, hungry, hands outstretched.

You can close the door. I never wanted to, but I couldn’t walk through it either. In the bad night of a high school acid trip, I lay on my bed, my father’s hunting knife on the bookshelf beside me, the hall light a spectrum splintering along the edge of the door, like the diffraction gratings Dad made in the lab at Bausch and Lomb, microscope slide-sized strips of glass with chrome surfaces; if I held them to the lamp, they broke into a shimmering. I was terrified of the knife precisely because I wasn’t; I had no self to injure. I was caught up by the spectrum, which had no body and no reason to be there, but then neither had I. If I had opened the door, if I had closed it completely, the broken light would have vanished, or I would have. That night almost sent me through the hospital doors, but not quite. And later, too much later, I realized that it might have helped me understand my father better, that my panic might be the door into his.

Instead I listened to the songs and tried to find my way into their landscape.  I spent two years rewriting two poems based on the Big Snow diaries, or the idea of them. I hadn’t read more than a few pages. I didn’t need facts when I had the image of a snowbound wreck of a farm in my head and the teeth-gritting patience to try to get it right in words. The front door ajar, a light from the parlor. These poems were the only thing I wrote then. I had guides—Richard Hugo, especially, in his ruined Montana towns, and Robert Lowell in his graveyards—and I got the poems to the point where there was nothing more I could see to do.  But I couldn’t find the wildness I knew was in there somewhere.

“Too old to be controlled,” sings Wild Bill Jones in the song recorded by the Highwoods String Band; he’s on his way to catastrophe but keeping good company with the sound of two fiddles, banjo, and a singer who didn’t even have to pretend to have a voice, since the song was enough.

I didn’t start playing fiddle until much later, and that’s when I understood how much work it takes to sound like you’re not doing any, how much study to play as if you’re just having a good time in a bad bar. And with poetry, it took a long time to figure out that the wildness, for me at least, was always in the refusal of metaphor to put the cards on the table. Maybe uncanny would be a better word for it, that sense I had in the Cottage Hotel that I was there, in Mendon in the mid-1970s and somewhere in the Catskills maybe a hundred years earlier, and in the landscape of John Wesley Harding, all at the same time. Those two poems helped me get into grad school and sent me off on a long series of looping digressions (I wrote about history and Wagner and Ives and the Velvet Underground and travel and marriage and John Clare and Thomas Hardy) and returns. (Clare and Hardy were fiddlers, the one mad and the other a master of deflection.)

A couple of years ago, I was stuck at a grade crossing, listening to an interview on NPR with one of the minor figures in the Warhol world. I switched over to a CD, Anna and Elizabeth’s recording of “Little Black Train,” as relentless a gospel song as you’ll find. There’s a little black train a-coming. Better set your business right. My father was a churchgoer, but I never knew how much of a believer he was. I don’t think redemption was much on his mind; it was hard enough for him just to set his business even close to right. He would have understood that song, and I think he would have recognized the metaphor in the poem I wrote about it later that day, a longing not for anything beautiful but for the sensation of the locomotive crossing right beyond your headlights, taking your mind somewhere you couldn’t go.

Jordan Smith is a poet whose most recent collections are "Cold Night, Long Dog" (Ambidextrous Bloodhound Press) and "Little Black Train" (Three Mile Harbor Press).

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