“Perhaps no wrong is done and no temple of human justice violated in pointing out that each authentic poet makes a style of his own... In the spacious highways of books major or minor, each poet is allowed the stride that will get him where he wants to go if, God help him, he can hit that stride and keep it.” — Carl Sandburg from the preface to his “Complete Poems”
The second part of Carl Sandburg’s biography of Abraham Lincoln won him the Pulitzer Prize. His hefty volume of verse garnered two more, leaving no doubt that he was an icon of American letters. But writer and poet Sandburg was also a collector and singer of folksongs.
Another poet and singer of songs, John Paul O’Connor, has written sonorous ballads of love and social commentary, songs of labor and political protest. In 1984, O’Connor was celebrated in The Victory Music Folk and Jazz Review: “He is a folk commentator in every sense of the word, digging out his subject matter in the streets, among workers, in the homes and faces of the people he meets, and then playing those circumstances and emotions in union gatherings, peace rallies, community gatherings, concerts and workshops. The tradition of Guthrie, Leadbelly and Seeger is safely carried on in the mind and song of O’Connor.”
Last year O’Connor’s first book of poetry “Half the Truth,” won the Violet Reed Haas Prize. It is a rolling, rambling, often charming collection of sometimes wistful, at other times aching, narrative verse. He says: “I have always been interested in poetry from the time I read Carl Sandburg in high school. But I began writing it and studying in earnest toward the end of my touring career in the ’90s... My touchstone poets include Galway Kinnell, Haydyn Carruth, Carolyn Forche, Mark Strand, W.S Merwin, to name just a few.” O’Connor also maintains a reverence for the late, working-class bard Philip Levine.
Many of the pieces have a dreamlike quality, images that shift and dance through scenes of home, family, workdays, journeys and serenity in the company of a beloved. Memory touches on innocent romantic yearnings of youth, adolescent hopes never requited. Later amorous strivings find fulfillment. They effervesce and fade, replaced by others who stay for at least awhile. Clunky cars emblematic of the slim contents of a young man’s pockets run haphazardly through free verse. They transport and shelter the poet, his loves and friends to places remembered in varied shades of light. In the title poem “Half the Truth” two nighttime sojourners traveling a highway stop at a lonely bar they had always intended to visit:
Let’s say we come in and the only one sitting
at the bar is a woman, the spitting image
of my mother. She is around sixty years old
and her name is Mary.
The traveler drops a few coins into the jukebox and “lackadaisical notes of a piano” suffuse the room:
Does this seem like a dream?
Or a ghost story? Half my mother’s
ashes lie inside an urn buried on a hill
in Seattle. The other half my sister
is supposed to have strewn on the Iowa
River. She is a great procrastinator and
lives well with grief, just as my mother did,
who married it.
In a few poems tired worn-out vehicles chug to a stop forcing a search for help, for other means to get home or somewhere. In “Fast Storm,” a father and his 5–year–old daughter get stuck on an exit ramp in South Dakota as a deluge rains down:
We were going absolutely nowhere when it lets loose like a flooding river. My forehead was on the steering wheel when I heard her small voice ask, What’s the matter Daddy? Why aren’t we going? We waited the storm out talking about God. She used the male pronoun, and I, being infected by the encroaching feminist hordes, asked her, What makes you think God is a He? She gave me the look of a sage, and said, Because God is a boy’s name.
In “Gooseberry,” O’Connor recalls the Industrial Workers of the World and old Wobbly Jack Miller. Jack was the last survivor of the 1916 Everett Massacre. The inveterate labor man disbelieved in an afterlife but O’Connor imagines Jack reincarnated as a gooseberry tree:
He might feel the wind and bear fruit each year
until one summer tyrants bind the hands of someone
who forgets to keep his mouth shut. And as in the old
Wobbly tale, given the choice from which tree
he will hang, the condemned chooses the gooseberry
because its branches hang too low to do the job.
Of course, a story so fantastic belongs only to religion.
As for religion, O’Connor leans toward the atheistic “but I identify strongly as a Catholic and I feel like a Catholic because of my strong family upbringing in the Church... I probably identify more as a Catholic than I do as an Irish American.” His mother was particularly devout. In “Mysteries” he recalls:
Even so, I would have continued
carrying books home from St. Patrick’s to our house on Parker
Street, my sister and brother beside me in those years
that went by as slow as the brown Cedar River, my mother
making all the novenas, my father all the happy hours.
On Thursdays the eighth grade marched from the school
to the church for confession, while Father Lang grew tired
hearing our impure thoughts. You don’t need to come
over here every week like a herd of hogs, he’d say. But the very
next week Sister Mary Florecita would line us up again. Underneath
her left eye, which was always mysteriously cocked sideways
as if expecting enemy ambush, we snorted like pigs to the slaughter
as we walked double file to the confessional. Those were
the latter-days of God’s facelift. The bomb could drop
at any minute because the Russians would want to knock out
the tractor works in Waterloo.
O’Connor states the Vietnam War ignited his political awareness and “it is probably true that my experience of Catholicism helped politicize me.” Since the age of 19 he has been active in labor unions as a member, organizer and officer. Now a recognized poet, O’Connor’s volume of 61 pieces is a warm offering that affirms his artistic reach and versatility. n
John O’Connor tells me that his poetry book is available at Open Books, the exclusive poetry emporium on 45th Street in Wallingford. It can also be ordered at Snake Nation Press.