Featured Poet: Gerry Sloan
I was born in Oklahoma City in 1947 and moved to rural Leflore County shortly thereafter, ranging freely between the houses of grandparents in Howe and Heavener until my father bought a house on the G.I. Bill. I attended elementary school in Heavener through grade 6. The Heavener “runestone” made a permanent impression, as if you could inscribe characters in a wilderness where people might later puzzle over their meaning. Maybe that was my first poetic inspiration. My Sunday school teacher, Gloria Farley, wrote the definitive book on the Heavener runestone. My paternal grandfather taught me to fish at age 4, because I was the only grandchild who could sit still. I feel that fishing and verse have much in common: including observation, patience, and perseverance.
My family border-hopped for four generations between Oklahoma and Arkansas, many of them buried in rural Crawford County, including my 2G grandfather who was “killed by the bushwhackers.” My father was hired by the Shipley Baking Company and we moved to Fort Smith in 1959. That same year I attended Scout camp on the Buffalo River and was “hooked,” you might say, on the Ozarks. I was fortunate in having an English teacher named John Taylor in high school, who turned me on to literature and introduced me to the stories of Vance Randolph. My first poems were published in The Litsmith, the high school literary magazine, and the Southwest Times Record. I would often spend my lunch money at Vivian’s Bookshop. Those books still collect dust in my study: Words for the Wind by Theodore Roethke, The Collected Poems of Stephen Crane, and a collection of haiku published in Tokyo.
At Arkansas Tech I pursued a B. A. degree, majoring in music with an English minor. I discovered facsimile editions of Wm. Blake’s prophetic books in the school library. B. C. Hall taught some writing courses and helped me with my poetry. James Whitehead offered me an assistantship at the U of A that proved to be Frost’s “road not taken.” I chose instead to attend Northwestern University in Chicago for a master’s degree in music.
Recently retired from teaching music for 43 years at the University of Arkansas, I sit on my hill in Fayetteville observing the profound changes happening (too quickly) to our region as well as globally. Many of my poems are meditations on these changes. I have published 3 chapbooks and 2 collections: Paper Lanterns (2011) and Crossings: A Memoir in Verse (2017). Some of my first literary inspirations were the New England Transcendentalists, especially Emerson and Thoreau. So, if I had to label myself, I would choose to be remembered as an “Ozarks Transcendentalist.”
Once Upon a Time in Arkansas
the forest yielded its bounty
as seasons rolled along, dry
kindling ushering flame
to the chopped firewood.
In summer too hot to sleep.
In winter the quilts so heavy
your toes ached if you slept
on your back, waking to splash
your face from the frozen basin,
toweled before starting the chores.
I haven’t seen a photo negative
in fifty years, another missing
piece to childhood’s puzzle,
our family’s white faces black,
hair suddenly gone white inside
the confines of the dark-room,
reversals which never occurred
in our respectable small town
where coloreds ate in the kitchen
and took their bitter coffee black.
Seeing Bobby Don Smith’s father
slaughter a hog in the back yard—
knocking it out with a sledgehammer
and hanging it up in a tree to bleed—
prepared me for the shower scene
in Psycho two years later, sitting there
in the darkened theater with Mother,
watching Janet Leigh’s black blood
flow irretrievably down the drain,
turning my universe upside down.
We could not have been more astonished
if Dad’s uncle had showed up with a caged
tiger instead of the eight-inch centipede
in a quart fruitjar, threatening with its alien
black body and Halloween-orange legs
that doubled as stingers. Its fate I can’t recall—
science-fair project or death in a dumpster—
though now it must suffer the fate of all
the Big Fish stories and Big Snake stories
that vanish on the tongues of the tellers.
In the Vernacular
He always wore a sweat-stained Stetson
but never any socks. We were struck
by his hairless shins. He was down
to just a single snaggle-tooth but
could go through corn-on-the-cob
like a one-fingered typist and was
even undeterred by fried chicken,
which Rose would catch to wring
its neck then later scald and pluck.
We wondered if he slept in his hat.
Being older than the green recruits,
it fell to his lot to barber the dead
and escort their bodies back home by train,
which beat, hands down, the trenches of Verdun.
Thousands fell without firing a shot
from the ‘Spanish flu’ at Camp Pike.
He later came back and got married,
waited for the monthly pension check.
That it survived the moths was miraculous,
his trench coat moldering in the smokehouse.
A Child’s Christmas in Howe
It was during the Great Depression, before
recycling was in fashion, that the brothers
(four of them, bereft of sisters) would exchange
homemade newspaper kites on Christmas Eve,
might even receive a real live apple or orange
from their father, or a jar of pear preserves
from Aunt Nellie, the same aunt who, after
their mother died, would herd the naked
boys into the smokehouse on washday
to scrub their only change of overalls.
WWII vets were never known as whiners.
When they sent Dad to HealthSouth to rehab,
the nurse said, “Mr. Sloan, on a scale of one
to ten, please rate your pain.” “Fifteen,
goddammit,” he replied. The night he died,
the hospice nurse asked me to witness
her flushing his seven meds, a hedge
against hillbilly heroin, and I wondered
at the healing arts, if the Arkansas River
was qualified to deal with so much pain.
I don’t know where they wintered
but the finches have returned,
scolding us for withholding
our customary hanging ferns.
But the wind is so strong today
it wouldn’t have mattered anyway,
and the neighbors’ cats are still
resting on last year’s laurels.
Balanced on a breakaway ledge
at the edge of the Cossatot,
we saw a leopard darter
riffle the water,
as if paradise had briefly
lifted her skirt. A harvester
rusting in nearby undergrowth
failed to disturb the towhee’s
earnest vocalese, clueless
that the surrounding
ground was once
a less than prosperous
homestead, its occupants
tucked under a quilt of humus.
Probably meant as a hotplate or coaster,
this cross-section of oak from my friend,
Rick Squires, is from a beam in the barn
of his family homestead going back
two centuries in southern Missouri.
Never mind dendrochronology,
that fancy word for the study
of tree-ring growth. I can see
these layers as ripples formed
by pebbles the seasons have
tossed into time’s holding-tank
to record the vagaries of climate,
the changing degrees of sunlight
and moisture. Not just a tree’s
accrued attempts to wring
nutrients from humus cushioning
karst limestone, but the human
effort to also wrest subsistence
from the same recalcitrant soil,
sending forth rings of children
and grandchildren, who finally
flee to the cities, the invisible
rings of their DNA to inform
some future anthropologist
of what we gained, or lost.
Gerry Sloan is a retired music professor living in Fayetteville, Arkansas. He has published 4 chapbooks (one translated into Mandarin) and two poetry collections: Paper Lanterns (2011) and Crossings: A Memoir in Verse (2017). His work has appeared in such literary magazines as North Dakota Quarterly, The Kansas Quarterly, The Nebraska Review, Nebo, Slant, and the Anthology of Magazine Verse & Yearbook of American Poetry. He received the WORDS Award for Poetry in 1990 by the Arkansas Literary Society. More recently his “Poem for Palestine” won first place in the Gaza Freedom Flotilla Literary Contest.