Local Lives

I found an amazing book at the used book store:  Local Lives: Poems About the Pennsylvania Dutch by Millen Brand, ©1975.

He had kept a poetic diary for thirty-four years documenting the real people and real events of the community he lived in, publishing it almost as an afterthought.

His character sketches are simply amazing.  The poem below is from that collection:

The Life of Josephus Gerhard
by Millen Brand, in Local Lives: Poems About the Pennsylvania Dutch

Butter Valley has been the steady dwelling
of this man, Josephus Gerhard,
between the two hours, the hour
that scraped the first wail, and the last
rise and fall, rise and fall.

“I was ninety-five July sixteenth,
Yes, old.” He sits straight in his chair
across whose arms his tan stick lies,
a carefully placed bar.
His voice is burred but clear.
“Old. My eyes see less each year,
and I hear less and get weaker.
Yes, the going is down, though slow.”
His skin is the lace shedding of a locust
but with no new locust under the web.
“I was born on a Friday, yes,
I have an almanac of that year,
eighteen fifty-three. Down below Millside,
on that farm where the barn is, or was,
so close to the railroad. Burned down now.
I went to school in Palm,
in Stump Hall– other places.
I didn’t like school. I didn’t like to study.
Some like to work with the head.”
He touches his naked head. “Not me.
I left school in the spring, then worked
on my father’s farm for a time.

“When I was twenty-two, I married.
Yes, I married Elizabeth Schultz.
You know, down there”– his finger gives one flick–
“the Chester Schultz farm near the mill
that used to be her father Amos’s,
there she was born and raised.
I never thought to have her for life
until I was grown. Then the idea grew.
Yes, at her place,
there was a strawberry patch. One day
we went to the end of that patch
amd my wife gave me some strawberries.”
His silence considers that gift. “Well,
so I wrote her a letter. Yes,
that’s what I did.
I didn’t say it. I wrote a letter,
So it happened. So it came.

“Two years later we took this farm.”
He indicates up the hill the buildings
clotted white under pines.
“It was a farm left, ignored, abandoned
for over a hundred years.
A hundred seventeen acres
and ten acres of woodland yet.
It was washed, nothing growing but weeds.
Gullies. Washed off, it was terrible.
I said I was afraid we couldn’t make a living.
‘Well,’ my father-in-law said, ‘you try it.’
So we started.
The fields were all scattered with stones.
They had that much that we piled them in heaps
like you piled manure in the old days.
With them we filled the gullies.
Some gullies you could drive a horse through.
There were so many tree stumps!
I pulled them and threw them in,
I don’t know what I put in,
but I filled the gullies and made ground.
Horses helped. I always knew horses.
Yes, they were part of it. Once I had
twenty at one time in my barn.
So then instead of stones, manure.
So we made crop, we improved.
Farming, always farming.
No grass mowers. We mowed all by hand,
by scythe, and grain by cradle.
As a man would mow,
a woman was need to bind.
She’d make a band out of straw,
grab a bunch of it, make a twist,”
his hands work quick in the air,
following the woman’s hands,
“stick it under, and that kept the grain together.
Yes, rye, that was so long
you didn’t have to make a double band,
but the wheat, that was shorter,
that had to have two skeins for it.”
In those skeins of rye and wheat,
the handwork of history comes to an end–
all reaches him in the lines of reapers
crossing the fields, and so stops.
“I always had good help to help me.
I had one man eight years,
another thirteen. Ralph Berky’s father,
a painter by trade, a schoolteacher by knowledge,
loaded my hay and grain twenty-two years.”
He turns his stick so that it points away
out of the web of his hand,
out to the acres of the hill,
out to the ground his son now farms in new ways,
but which his own life reclaimed.
“I was at the barber’s
and they were talking about communities.
I said in ours we loved one another.
One said that coud not be said
of any community anywhere.
I said, ‘Well, ours is that way.'”
As he holds his strong stick out,
he repeats, “Yes, ours is that way.”


1 Comment

  1. markonit

    …what I like about this poem is how it built up to the statement, “Ours is that way”, by prefacing it with episodes of how the community helped to create the farm…


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