Alan Morrison on
(Smokestack Books, 2015)
Includes free CD of a complete live performance
by Larry Beckett of Paul Bunyan
An American Epic
Long blank verse narrative poems seem to be resurgent in recent years, which is something to be celebrated and appreciated, especially since decades of postmodernist poetics have seen in the main a reductionism not only in terms of meaning but also in terms of form which has meant –with, of course, some exceptions– that the pared down shorter –or supplemental– poem form has predominated. But larger themes and longer narratives demand a longer poetic form and, in many cases, the entire length of a book. And it’s not simply the scope of themes or the length of narrative that demands a longer form, it’s also demanded if there’s to be a relatively unrestricted and ambitious exploration of poetic language.
The eponymous hero of the poem is a giant lumberjack from American folklore whose origins are in the oral traditions of North American loggers; Bunyan was later popularized by writer William B. Laughead in a 1916 promotional pamphlet for the Red River Lumber Company. Or, as the blurb on the back of the book explains: ‘Paul Bunyan re-tells the legend of the giant lumberjack for the twenty-first century. Drawing on logger folklore, James Stevens’ stories and the Davy Crockett almanacs, Larry Beckett’s poem is a modern epic in ‘long-winded’ blank verse’.
The rangy sprung rhythm lines, muscular music and verbal exuberance of Larry Beckett’s Paul Bunyan calls to mind, at once, the lively narrative verse of John Greenleaf Whittier, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s blank verse Evangeline, A Tale of Acadie, and the life-affirming lyrical transcendentalism of Walt Whitman and Ralph Waldo Emerson; American antecedents apart, one also gets the sense, to some extent, of the rapturous singsong style of Dylan Thomas, particularly passages of Under Milk Wood, and ‘Fern Hill’. Beckett’s buoyant blank verse bounces along with a joie de vivre which is instantly infectious on the ear and eye, catapulting itself off the page with sprung rhythm, comprising spondees (two long syllables) and trochees (a long then short syllable):
Out of the wild North woods, in the thick of the timber
And through the twirling of the winter of the blue snow,
Within an inch of sunup, with the dream shift ending,
A man mountain, all hustle, all muscle and bull bones,
An easy winner, full of swagger, a walking earthquake,
A skyscraper, looking over the tallest American tree,
A smart apple, a wonder inventor, the sun’s historian,
A cock-a-doodle hero, a hobo, loud, shrewd, brawling,
Rowdy, brash as the earth, stomping, big-hearted, raw,
Paul Bunyan lumbered and belly-laughed back at the stars.
Some of the Americanisms present from the outset, such as ‘sunup’ and ‘smart apple’, lend a sumptuousness to the language and imagery which is immediately appetising. There’s no doubt in my mind that on the basis of its ebullient beginning alone, Paul Bunyan has an instant place in the canon of the American epic poem.
The painterly descriptiveness of the following lines is exceptional, while the deluge of images become the more tangible for serendipitous euphonies, assonances and alliterations:
He was rigged out in a slouch hat, a red work shirt
Under his faithful mackinaw with its hickory buttons,
Suspenders and high-water stag pants, which were tucked
Into his brass-hooked and buckskin-laced black boots,
And this foot-loose blue ox was sashaying at his side:
Babe, who was combed with a garden rake, who measured
Exactly forty-two ax handles and a plug of Star tobacco
Just look at the amount of k- and b-alliterations in those seven lines: ‘mackinaw’, ‘hickory’, ‘hooked’, ‘buckskin’, ‘black’, ‘ox’, ‘rake’, ‘exactly’, ‘ax’, ‘tobacco’; ‘brass’, ‘buckskin’, ‘black boots’, ‘blue’, ‘Babe’, ‘tobacco’; and the wonderful assonances: ‘slouch’, ‘hooked’, ‘boots’, ‘foot-loose blue ox’, ‘tobacco’ etc. This is very physical poetic language that cracks and crunches its way across the page and is absolutely intoxicating.
Beckett plays much with colouristic imagery:
Out of the scud covering up the dusty morning stars,
The baby-blue snowflakes of the first blue snowfall
Were scurrying down sky-blue, all over, like butterflies,
In flurries, blue as Monday, blue as the moon, as heaven,
Decorating the pines, blue as a ribbon, blue as bluegrass,
As blue songs and blue laws, and glittering on the boughs
Like jays and berries: it was icing up the evergreens,
Sticking to itself, and stacking up in balls and drifts
Like fury, and the seconds were as tight as the icicles;
It was quiet like it’s quiet before the sour beginning
Of the redbreast’s la-de-dah…
Then, a bit later, we get ‘white pine’ to add to the wide spectrum of colours: blue, evergreen, redbreast, white pine. Beckett’s alliteration is in full throttle throughout and yet never seems to be obtrusive to itself or to the flow of the lines –while the colouristic imagery continues:
When the big stick was whittled on down to a whistle,
It crackled, it swished, it got the shivers in its limbs,
And when it snapped, it tilted, timber splintered, twigs
All tore off, and it rip-roared down in green confusion.
The phrase ‘green confusion’ is delightful. After building and pioneering the iconic North American log cabin, Bunyan is joined by a hullabaloo of fellow lumberjacks from a gallimaufry of ethnic backgrounds –Beckett beckons them in and the nicknames tumble forth in a poetic eruption on the page:
On the roofs and welded the timber as tight as anything.
Now all the burly, joking, gallivanting lumberjacks
Showed up and rolled in, sailing, thumbing, and hiking,
Foreigners out of the old countries, and talking funny,
Like Limeys, Micks, Frogs, Canucks, and Scandihoovians,
And Yankee Doodle boys hailing from the four corners
Of the United States, Fly-up-the-creeks from Florida,
Evergreen men from Washington, Pine tree men from Maine,
California Golden Bears, with Corn Crackers, Knickerbockers,
Granite Boys, Green Mountain Boys, Old Liners, Old Colonials,
Buckeyes, Muskrats, Panhandlers, Mudcats, Yellowhammers,
Hardheads, Sandhillers, Tarheels, from down East and Dixie,
An all-star team, and the ruggedest crew ever crowed:
Wrestlers, wreckers, boozers, barnstormers, roustabouts,
Breadwinners, ramblers, fiddlers, roughnecks, runaways,
Penpushers, windjammers, daredevils, and crackhunters,
And no galoot in the whole gang under eight feet tall,
Come in with a caterwaul to join Paul Bunyan’s camp
On the river and kick off the original lumber drive.
A ‘galoot’, incidentally, is ‘an awkward, eccentric or foolish person’; what’s undeniable is Beckett’s unbound vocabulary. Some passages read almost as an American melange of Dylan Thomas and Gerard Manley Hopkins:
Where the strawberry bushes, where the raspberry trees
All ran wild on the slopes with berries as big as plums
By the plash and swizzle of the rock-and-rye springs,
Under the gillygaloo, which brooded up on the steep
Of Pyramid Forty, with its stand of one million pines,
And way over behind beyond, the whangdoodle whistled.
Delicious images abound, such as ‘soil/ Smooth as butter’, and gustatory sense-impressions proliferate through the alliteratively bristling lines:
Where the red clover cows gave milk that didn’t sour
And the devil grass cows gave straight cough medicine,
Where the green vegetables were rooted so god-awful deep
It took an inventor to pick them, and where a redneck
One day chanced to see sparrowgrass sprout up so hard
It went roots and all into the air, and lived on nothing
But the climate, and he saw vines dragging punkins along,
And when he got tangled up, he went for his jackknife
And found a big cowcumber that had ripened in his pocket.
When Pea Soup Shorty clattered the triangle for breakfast,
The boys stampeded for the cookshack and grabbed up forks
At a pine table so long a story started up at one end
Was so tall at the other end they had to hire a flunky
To shovel it out the door. Now first off, and for starters,
There was oatmeal mush, logging berries, hasty pudding,
Eggs fried over easy, over hard, sourdough biscuits,
Klondike spuds, pilgrim marbles, apple grunt, sowbelly,
With all the trimmings…
The term ‘punkins’ is American slang for pumpkins while ‘cowcumber’ means cucumber; ‘pilgrim marbles’ might possibly allude to Marble cakes, ‘apple grunt’ is a dish made of apples and pie-crust, and ‘sowbelly’ is salted pork. Such colourful and sumptuous terms are a gift to a poet. Colouristic images continue to populate the poem: ‘red clover’, ‘green vegetables’, ‘redneck’. It’s gustatory imagery galore in the following passage, pockmarked with o- and a-assonances –we’re reminded of the famously gargantuan American appetite:
When they rolled sugar cookies down the table the boys
At the foot got gypped, and so Big Ole the blacksmith
Dreamed up the hole and toted the doughnuts on a stick.
All this was only horse ovaries before the main dish:
Hotcakes! They had a choice between pancakes, flatcakes,
Slapjacks, griddlecakes, stovelids, battercakes, flapjacks,
In piles, topped with skid grease, floating in maple slick.
Then the eponymous lumberjack hero readies himself to speak: ‘And Paul Bunyan standing out on American mud, ready/ To big-talk to his bunch of drifters, and brag up logging’. In a way, the dialogues in the poem are the least interesting things about it, at least, in linguistic terms, although even these narrative-propelling speeches couch occasionally colourful phrases, such as ‘stick to it/ Like it was old whiskey’, and
Two, there’s no brawling and no boozing in the woods:
I might see a little back-of-the-shanty roughhousing,
Or a short nip on a cold Sunday…
I love the o-assonance in ‘no boozing in the woods’. Bunyan’s rallying call to his fellow lumberjacks gives a real sense of the lumberjack-lingo which sounds almost like old seafaring language:
I need upwards of half of you as sawyers, to fall
The trees, whirling an axe sharp as sunlight around you
Till you steam, and ache all over, till your veins bulge;
I need plenty of swampers, to bust up the scenery,
And slash and rut the trails, and to lop off the limbs
From the down pine, which calls for backbone and stay;
And I need ox-strong skidders, to tug the logs to sleighs
And snake the load across the ice, over the toteroad
On down to the rollway, on the slopes of the branch;
And at the spring breakup I need the top lumberjacks
As the water rats, who’ll ride the logs down the river
Into the snags and jams, just for the glory of it.
Now take a breath of this almighty Appalachian air,
Grin like an old pioneer, and pitch into the timber!’
One is almost reminded of the sunny and blustery animism of Dylan Thomas’s landscape in ‘Fern Hill’ here:
Winter broke out in the up country with a big bang
And a big wind, blowing all morning without a letup,
Wheezing like a harmonium, whooping through the boughs
Of the stiff pines, squabbling with itself, puffing so hard
It tossed rocks like kisses…
Bunyan doesn’t adapt well to paperwork, he’d much prefer being outside swinging his axe –here we get again colouristic images:
This foolishness was foxing Paul Bunyan,
Who was up to here in his ledgers, logging the logging,
Who, with such-and-such receivables, so-and-so payables,
His red invoices, his black bills, his ice cream payroll, was
Writing his chronicles, and book-balancing like an acrobat.
And a little later, mention of his ‘green fountain pen’; colours clearly have much symbolism for Beckett. Frustrated by being kept indoors on the accounts, Bunyan exclaims with wonderful assonance: ‘I’m missing the whole hoot owl morning!’. Just when you think the language can’t get any more colourful we are introduced to foreman Shot Gunderson:
The original push Paul signed on was Shot Gunderson,
The iron eater, the bear tamer, the all-creation hunter,
The rip-snorting snuff chewer, who could knock a cougar
Spang out of a bull pine with one good tobacco squirt.
Beckett’s delight in language is tangible as alliteratively relays the back story to Shot Gunderson:
He was a big noise on account of his mouth thunder,
And he was a slam-down jack-up bawl-out old bastard
Who might reel it off for days, like a one-man riot,
And it’s said he could cuss the quills off a porcupine.
One time all his curses were written down in a book
Called The Ox-Skinner’s Dictionary, but it burned up,
And the story goes it was by spontaneous combustion.
Shot Gunderson was breaking in his highball system
On the Tadpole River, up in the Bullfrog Lake country,
And he was croaking so loud into this absurd wind
His voice cracked up into nothing, into a squeak,
And without his old thunder it was goodbye job, but
Shot’s back talk had caught on real glorious with the boys,
And from that day on lumberjacks used flowery lingo.
What I particularly admire about Beckett’s blank verse is its approximate precision on the page in terms of line lengths and syllables –most lines count as either 13 or 14 syllables; this discipline helps give the sense of the verse almost bursting its banks as it bumps up against anything but arbitrary line breaks and enjambments. Next up we have the new replacement foreman:
The new foreman was punch-drunk Chris Crosshaul, who
Was a white water maniac and loved to ride the logs
With a hundred-damn-verse song, and a fanatic smile,
And who hustled the timber down White River, rolling
By the unreal badlands…
Then we are introduced to a ‘Swedish mountain man’ (and I’m reminded that there were many Swedish immigrants to turn-of-the-century America, one of whom was legendary labour activist Joe Hill, real name Joseph Hillström (1879–1915), who worked as an itinerant labourer):
Big Swede, the bull of the woods, was swaggering up
Out of nowhere, sure as Shenandoah, yellow-haired,
Sky-tall and red-faced, grinning his great buck teeth,
His eyes blue fight, and his big paws jammed in his pockets.
Beckett’s lines bounce along sing-song-like buoyed on never-obtrusive assonance and alliteration: ‘Up there the springs are burbling, and the phillyloo bird,/ With a big beak like a stork and no feathers to spare,/ Sails with its belly up to the sun to ward off colds’.
As the dialogue becomes more prevalent one feels as if, in some respects, Paul Bunyan is not so much a verse-narrative as a novel-in-verse, even if it’s relatively uneventful and the real energy and verve is in the verse itself rather than the narrative.
The eponymous giant is given giant lungs by Beckett:
Old Paul spit and reddened, stamped on his heel and roared.
Now he had three voices: first, his snort, inside a room,
Was gracious, like a sea breeze, just a curl in the air;
Second, in the great outdoors, his yell was a living gale;
And third, his roar was so loud it would light a fire
In the woods and snuff it, like he boomed this morning:
A passage relaying a series of colourful insults exchanged between Bunyan and Big Swede is the first point in the poem for me that one begins to sense the narrative overtaking the verse somewhat and one is sensitive at this point to the perennial challenge of sustaining narratives in verse over long distances, which, for instance, demonstrates just how titanic John Milton’s talent was. Then, in the following passage, one senses for the first time that Beckett is at risk of tripping over himself in the thickets of his verbiage:
And now it was Bunyan on top of the bucking Swede,
Walloping him pow! in the kisser with a hard right!
It was real dusty up there, and the two fist fighters,
Trading argument settlers, were wrapped up in a cloud,
It was bad, it was blue murder, the blood was flying,
The absolute booms of the jawbreaking, haymaking,
Heart-busting punches had all the bunkhouses wobbling
In the lumber camp, and the whole territory rocked.
It was a knock-down drag-out by Dakota rules:
Nevertheless, this is still highly effective, kinetic verse. The fight over, the two pugilistic lumberjacks make peace again and Bunyan, impressed by Big Swede’s use of his fists and the ‘blue fight’ in his eyes, makes him his ‘straw boss’. Bunyan is brought up short by the sudden blotting of his log books:
They saw the mountains go boom in the awful shock wave
From the big fight between Paul Bunyan and Big Swede,
And the lumberjack shanties shake till they were timber,
And looking through the sticks and damage, old Paul yelped:
The ink barrels in his head office had split their ribs
And spilled ink all over his day journals and log books;
The tallies were splashed, and the characters were smeared,
The rigmarole was illegible, everything was blackened
Up to volume ten thousand…
It occurs to Bunyan that this is some sort of punishment for his having wasted too much time fist-fighting with his foreman: ‘While I brawl and I feather
My cap I catastrophe what I love; I’m all the mayhem
I need, I banged up these shanties, these innocent books
With my own fist! Look: my bouncing chronicles are spoiled,
Bunyan blames himself squarely then resolves to rewrite his histories:
And I don’t care how many god-damn dollars I pile up
Or prayers I squawk to the sky, I can’t buy them back.
Okay, the boys and I are in a pinch, it’s time to light
Into a whiz-bang and history-making job, and quick;
Oh my crazy lumberjacks…
That’s some lip-smacking c- and k-alliteration! Then the lumberjack has an epiphany:
He was still stymied a couple of pots of coffee later,
When, popping his knuckles, he sauntered to the window
And sprawled back: it was hard to swallow, but he saw
What looked like a pine forest out there, out of nowhere,
With a chance of trees, and all of them big and bare,
Buckskin and topless, like a logger’s kingdom come,
It was better than a kick in the head by a blue ox!
And again there’s a verbal singsong flourish worthy of Dylan Thomas:
…and he dilly-
Dallied awhile on the way back to his pencil shoving.
Highballing like fire through the amazing orchard,
Shearing the trees into big blue butts, the timber beasts,
Appleknockers, animals and punks, floaters and palookas,
Broke into the green timber: the double drive was led
On the left Side-by-Side by the bull moose, Big Swede,
On the right by the ramrod, Soupbone Tom, log-hungry
And money-mad, who was so skinny he had to stand
In the sun ten lousy minutes to throw a shadow,
An ‘Appleknocker’ is an American nickname for a country bumpkin. In such a vast work it’s inevitable there will be some relatively flatter, more prosaic passages here and there, and maybe that’s a blessing in a way as it gives the reader a pause for breath amid the denser parts, but when Beckett cranks up the language again to fever pitch –one might almost term his verse style as verbally obsessive– it’s a blessed reverberation:
…the bible pounders, with their nerve
And their noise, on the punks and whittlers, who whipped
All morning without any muscle, and the sightseers
And witnesses, out gawking instead of pitching in, and
On the buckwheaters, who were all thumbs, hopeless, slow
As grandmas, and didn’t know a broadax from a banjo.
The listing of the different types of trees is evocative:
…tackling the barber poles, crooked
As ram’s horns, hollow trees, redtops dying of beetles,
Wolf trees, on a perhaps, fat pines and bastard firs,
Rampikes, blowdowns, and the clear long-bodied saw timber,
And falling the ice-broken bayonet tops, stagheads, cripples,
Timber with stubs, burls, swells, crowfeet, spike knots,
Scars, and pitch pockets…
All these trees observed ‘out in the windshake woods’ –a phrase which strongly recalls Dylan Thomas. Beckett has a real taste for gustatory and tactile images: ‘…bite off a chaw of fancy dynamite/ Eating tobacco, grab hold of his ax by the blister end,/ Whistle something while planting his bergman calked shoes’. Beckett is, simply, a master of description:
…with a high forehead full of logic wrinkles,
And with sky-pale blue eyes behind his golden spectacles,
Which perched on his long snout, and who bit on his lips
And fiddled with his necktie, as he scraped a jackknife
Beckett’s poetry is as ‘bouncing’ as Bunyan’s chronicles, courtesy of alliteration, in this trope, the b-sounds that almost buzz from the page: ‘And scribbled on the bluff, making numbers, up and down,/ And all oblivious to Paul Bunyan, which is no breeze./ Paul waved his burly arms’. Beckett also manages to grease his dialogue with near-tangible images: ‘I think I’ll just help myself to a chaw of this here/ Peerless spit-or-puke tobacco: you’re welcome to it/ If you like, it tastes ferocious’. The character Bunyan is chatting to is depicted –rather ironically given the verbally dense style of the poem in which he’s set– as boasting a big vocabulary:
Why hell, you know since all of you hillbillies are hooked
On chewing tobacco, I ought to market an out west brand;
Ads, billboards, sandwich boys, listen to the campaign:
Dazzle the boss, and wow all the gals with just one nip
Of this champion funky all-American plug tobacco!
I’d have to scalp it, you see, knock it down dirt-cheap
To cut under the boys back east; I could branch out
And pocket a cool million, oh and I mean clean up!
It sure beats melting in these god-forsaken boondocks.’
This dialogue, which hardly stands out as particularly verbose, is followed by the line: ‘Old Paul was thinking this bird swallowed a dictionary’. Beckett himself might be accused of such, but I for one applaud his hearty appetite for language (indeed, Beckett actually lists the Concise Oxford Dictionary and Roget’s Thesaurus in his bibliography for the book –shouldn’t all poets do this though?– as well as, among numerous other books, Woods Words: A Comprehensive Dictionary of Loggers’ Terms, The Folk Songs of North America and American Thesaurus of Slang). Next, a rather verbose land surveyor joins Bunyan’s lumberjack outfit:
‘Hi ya, Mister Bunyan. I’m John Rodgers Inkslinger,
Answer man, math whiz, ballyhoo man, land surveyor,
Country doctor, local comic, and back street philosopher.
I’m actually working on a rough geography problem.’
Impressed by Bunyan’s undiscovered grasp of surveying,
Inkslinger squinted with surprise, and started jabbering,
‘Well, I’ll be hornswoggled! You’d make a hot surveyor;
Why you’re no country egg, or frontier rowdy! Look,
Why don’t you hook up with me and be a mud chicken?
With your latitude and my longitude, there’s no limit;
Suddenly Inkslinger realises Bunyan’s ox has trampled his tools –both the surveyor and Bunyan are similarly bereft:
Your dumb stinking ox trampled on my instruments!
My charts, my scopes, my pencils, my lines, my tables,
My cheating sticks, they’re all stomped on by the blue beast,
It’s all over! Ah, I might as well just kiss it off!’
‘Hang on, Johnny. I apologize for the blue ox, honest,
But don’t you act like a nincompoop and start bawling!
Okay, two-fisted calamity’s knocked you for a loop:
What do you do, caterwaul like a kid, or bang back
Like a cowboy? I say why dive, on a random punch?
I all but wiped out my tall chronicles in a fight,
But damn if I was whipped: I just spit and jolted on.
Now, don’t boohoo: come on, let’s tromp over to the camp.
No sweat, you’ll get your share of sun circles,
Beckett’s turns of phrase are always striking: ‘Nothing this side of sunlight can lick a lumberjack’. The p-alliteration piles up hypnotically in the following trope: ‘Inkslinger spluttered, stretched out his arms, wobbled/ And said oh-oh like a moo cow, doubled up like a sack/ Of Idaho potatoes, and slumped into a mud puddle’. Again, Beckett’s lines jostle and bristle with alliteration, assonance and sibilance:
Oh, say a gyascutus: it’s big as a buck in winter,
And with blue lightning in its eyes, jack rabbit ears,
Mountain lion jaws, and a yowl like a southeast blow,
It’s no wonder you can’t see it till after a snake bite,
Sloping across the foothills, up on its telescope legs,
Hanging on tight with its rainbow tail, and eating rocks.
If your pleasure’s fire water, I can bring you a fat jug
Of my wild juniper moonshine: it’s righteous, cutthroat,
And with beer back, look out! It’s a true antifogmatic,
It’ll whoopee you up in no time, as sure as preaching.
Would you go for the complete works of Bigmouth Bill,
In forty volumes, with woodcuts, a forward, backward,
Index, glossary, concordance, gazetteer, and almanac?’
The wonderful term ‘antifogmatic’ refers to ‘a drink of liquor taken to counteract the effect of fog or dampness’. A character called Johnny devotedly salvages Bunyan’s ink-blotted chronicles:
Johnny came back out with book one of the chronicles:
He’d traced over the goose feather scratches in the paper
In white ink, religiously, bringing back the alphabet,
And he’d salvaged all of the ten thousand volumes.
Old Paul stared, and he said with a catch in his voice,
‘I’m proud to know you, Johnny; but why’d you do all this?’
‘I’m in love with you, high pockets, what do you think?
No, really: sulking gets to be duller than Wisconsin
After a while, and patching up the chronicles was fun.’
‘Oh Johnny Inkslinger, you’re in! Shake hands, partner.’
The chiming of ‘Wisconsin’ with ‘chronicles’ works particularly nicely here. Beckett’s constantly inventive turns of phrase keep the verse alive and kicking:
Kicking out the jams, tangling with the skookumchuck:
Waterfalls, whirlpools, narrows, tiderips, neverstills.
The slough pigs at the tail end of the misty parade,
Whirling swingdogs, yawping, laid back, sacking the rear,
Rolling the draggers and strays in the almighty water,
One old strong-arm logger fought free of the varmints
And slooped straight out of the blue, falling so far
The dang bluebirds built a nest on his windy head
And hatched their daughters and sons before he hit home.
Old Paul saw the whole gallinipper sneak attack,
And he shuttled Brimstone Bill the bullwhacker south
On a hot pony and at full pay for the Pecos River
To round up fighting Texas bumblebees, big and pronto.
The lines are bursting with alliteration and assonance:
But after a dogfight, the insect mobs fixed it up
And went in cahoots, cranking out a bunch of crossbreeds:
The moskittos, with stingers at both the front and back,
And just a monstropolous fancy for hooktenders’ oxen.
The word ‘monstropolous’ is eye-catching: it means ‘An increasing forgetfullness, that expands in proportion and dimensions, much like that a monster’. It’s no mean feat that Beckett keeps up the poetic momentum whilst also sustaining a narrative that needs to catch the attention as much as it can –personally, I’ve been reading this long poem for the poetry as opposed to attempting to follow the narrative too closely. It’s interesting to have insight into lumberjack folklore, inclusive of its own mythical forest monsters:
Old Paul shouldered his pine-butt straight-barrel flintlock
And hiked on out to hunt in the freezing Michigan woods.
Just a spit and a holler out of camp, he got a flash
Of an actual gumberoo, looking for burned-out woods,
With a pumpkin head and a potbelly like a stove,
Ape arms and crazy legs sticking out round its waist;
It’d heave itself off a slope and roll down sideways,
Squeaking like a pulley, and scared of nothing but fire,
Because if it ever rubbed up against a flame, kerblam.
At times one can almost imagine a tobacco-spitting old timer from a 50s Western chewing on these colourful anecdotal lines:
It minded him of when he sighted a whirling whimpus,
Which was a scraggly bastard, as big as a rain barrel,
With its plow horse legs all grown together at the fetlock
Into one hoof, and skinny arms which were so long
It steadied itself by propping on its palms. If a man
Was dumb enough to sidle up next to a whimpus,
It would cakewalk and whirligig like a wino on ice:
A crack from the whirling fists would cream the guy,
And the whirling whimpus would lick him up like pudding.
And then there are the ‘huggags’:
He thought of his staring contest with a flock of huggags,
Which stood thirteen feet high and weighed in at three tons,
With mud balls instead of heads and warts on their snouts,
Gunny sacks for ears, pine needle coats, and big flat feet.
The huggags go grazing in herds, on pitch and sweat,
And when it’s time for shut-eye, since they have no knees
And can’t flop down, the herd faces northwest by the moon
And sags against the trees, which, under three-ton pressure,
Begin to slant after a couple of nights;
One can’t help thinking of Mark Twain and his river-hobo at times in this text:
The long grasses hang on and mob out of the mud
Under the green snarl of wild holly and huckleberry,
And up with the looting bluejays and whiskey jacks,
In the tight bark whose calligraphy nobody can read,
The old evergreen timber muscles toward the light.
Beckett is often partial to the neologism, as in, for example, ‘circumbustification’, and ‘gully-whumping’: ‘I feel so gully-whumping good when I look out/ On a Northern morning and see the pine cones bulge/ On the branches, and the daylight lean against the trees’.
I caught myself imagining the following colourful insult being spoken by a Western old timer followed by the ting of his tobacco as its spat into a tin: ‘You jerkwater slow-poke wishy-washy deadhead/ Flat-beer pussyfooting lollygagging drag-ass punks!’. One almost expects the hackneyed American cowboy term ‘two-bit…’ to come up at some point. Bunyan’s hearty insults continue:
You bunch of whittlers are useful as a one-legged man
At a kicking match! I want to see Swedish steam
Spout out of your temples; get dirty, give her snoose!
I catch a man boondoggling and I’ll eat him for lunch!
Beckett opts for the phonetic spelling ‘snoose’, which is actually spelt ‘snus’: Swedish for snuff. I’m grateful for learning that ‘lollygagging’ (wasteful idling) and ‘boondoggling’ (wasting time or money on something which gives the impression of having value) actually are real words and not Lewis Carroll-esque portmanteaus as in his 'Jabberwocky', for example; though some terms are what might be termed Beckettian portmanteaus, such as ‘diddlewhacky’. ‘Double-bit’ does turn up: ‘and let them swing their double-bit heads/ Like sodbusters in August out mowing the south forty’ –‘sodbuster’ is a person or thing which ‘breaks the sod’ i.e. soil.
Bunyan and the lumberjacks then get caught up in a log-jam:
Old Paul rounded up the river rats and the boom pokes
And started the drive, yelling tips from the book of snags;
But as soon as the wood was wet they hit a log jam,
With a big pole stuck and a whole stack-up behind it,
And if a monkey were to shin up the jackpot to free it,
He’d be sure to be crunched before he could say scat.
There comes, as is common in most of this epic poem, some bravura alliteration and assonance:
Old Paul fired off his shotgun, aiming to tickle Babe’s ass
With buckshot till his tail twirled like a screw in the water,
Which washed it backwards, and untangled the rack heap.
Bunyan and his river hogs, with their peaveys in their fists,
Steadied out on the timber, and barreled down the flood
On the backs of the logs, heading for a far-off sawmill.
Old Paul yanked his slouch hat down to his boiling ears
And took a bite of his squirting tobacco, spiked his log
And snarled at the white water as they all coasted by
The tingling spruce groves, on the lookout for boulders.
Beckett’s powers of description and simile are everywhere in evidence: ‘When they burbled round a long crescent in the river/ Paul stiffened up like a scarecrow in a frost and shouted’. Beckett’s phrases are also brilliantly alliterative, such as ‘cook and the woodpeckers’ and ‘lollapaloozing drive’. At times, however, the expressions can get a little bit over the top, as in the following Cassius Clay-like proclamation:
‘Whoopee! I’m long-legged, I’m rambunctious, I’m ripe!
I’m all bouncy, I’m the spotted horse nobody can ride!
Yeah, I waddle like an ox and I crow like a cyclone,
I punch like a landslide and I fuck like a hummingbird!
There’s a wonderful flourish of gustatory images when the group’s cook is introduced:
The pot wrestler, known to the boys as the belly robber,
Was named Pea Soup Shorty, and was so dead-in-the-bone
And let-it-slide lazy, he’d railroaded his flunkies
Into sniffing the green slop in the kettle for him
Because, he said, it tuckered him out to breathe that deep.
He ruled out groceries one by one: first, porcupine stew,
And then slumgullion, bubble and squeak, and mystery pie,
Till he’d cut all the meals back to nothing but pea soup,
Pea soup today and forever, with a taste like fog.
The imagery here is mainly green –‘green shirt’, ‘greenhorn’ etc. –in-keeping with the pea soup:
...Pea Soup Shorty strolled out there
With a half a hog and three crates of Arkansas chicken,
Which is long for salt pork, dumped it in with black pepper,
Bloomed up a fire under the lake and made pea soup.
When he was running low, he sliced each pea in two
And boiled up a barrel of the world’s first split pea soup;
And when they gave out, the bum salted a green shirt
And dunked it in the kettle, and nobody noticed. After
That, Brimstone Bill the bullwhacker walked up to Paul
To squawk for the boys, and blared till he was blue:
‘Oh, for crying out loud in the clatterwhacking morning!
I love Beckett’s phrase ‘Bloomed up a fire’. If sometimes one has the sense of a slip into prose here and there, it’s still beautifully phrased poetic prose: ‘Blowhard Ike stooped a little under the tools and lingo,/ And sidled out the door while Johnny covered up a smile’. And the names of the characters are always striking, as in ‘Jerusalem Slim’, ‘Pumphandle Joe’, ‘Brimstone Bill’ etc. The physicality of the descriptive anecdotes throughout are always engrossing:
I hid my pinto and bunked in a squatter’s shack,
And he said to go sling the gab with his kin in Ragtown.
Well, by sunup I was three hours on the road east,
Raking my gooseneck spurs and no sign of the outlaws,
And my huddle in Ragtown sent me out to Shinbone Peak,
Far south: the sun sat in the crotch of the two summits,
Just like the old jackass prospector had whispered to me,
There are times when Beckett risks tripping himself up by his own verbal thickets:
Johnny Inkslinger was a skinflint with his ink, since
By rigging up a hose from the ink barrel to his ink stick
And saving seventeen minutes a page by not dunking it,
It’s like he went through a barrel in a couple of squirts,
But such moments are, impressively, the exception. Beckett’s linguistic inventiveness is amazingly sustained throughout –here’s another brilliantly acrobatic passage:
Kerblooey! All of the rib-splintering barrels exploded
To blue heaven with a whoosh of bamblustercation,
Flooring Ike, jolting Sam to the top of a black ridge
Of ink and sourdough, spouting across the ice fields!
The blowup plowed under a green mile of oak saplings
And when it cracked a fence close to the blacksmith’s shed,
Big Ole broke out wonder-struck, still holding his hammer,
And gawking up at Sourdough Sam, riding the flood
Just like a broncobuster high-rolling with the bucks
On top of a hot sunfishing and jackknifing horse,
But he was waving a stump, and bawling at his blood.
Note the delightful neologism ‘bamblustercation’, while ‘broncobuster’ is in fact an actual word for a cowboy who breaks in wild or untamed horses (broncos). Beckett’s descriptions just sing on the page: ‘Say a whirl on a sternwheeler down the Muddysippi,/ With those tall drifting days full of old jokes and whiskey,/ The sky all mare’s-tail clouds, the haymaking sun high/ In the sticky air’. Sometimes it’s almost like reading a cowboy equivalent of Dylan Thomas:
Into the poker midnights where the stakes are fat
And your luck’s holding, shoot! and the peacocking gals
Tugging on your arms, slow-talking and sleepy-eyed,
The stars outside rocking to a skinny harmonica,
And day breaking with the whippoorwills streaking home,
As you roll into New Orleans so all-fired husky
The wonderful ‘whippoorwill’ is a North American nightjar (bird). Sometimes Beckett gets a little bit surreal (not entirely unlike his famous Irish namesake): ‘Hot Biscuit Slim as the new greaseball, a red-eyed man/ Who just pined away, and only spoke on cloudy Thursdays’. We get some more Beckettian portmanteaus in ‘spitnew’ and ‘spanglorious’. Beckett’s epic is picaresque –indeed, many of the lumberjack’s nicknames are piratical– and often quite comical, as in the following passage:
Slim sniffed out the polecat in back of the explosion,
And he straightened up, tugged at his cap, squinted at Ike,
Shook his head, shook it, nodded, spit an arc of tobacco,
Coiled into his windup, slanted his arm with his elbow high,
Ripped out a pitch, and knocked him out with an old doughnut.
Double-Jawed Phalen, who once went scrounging for cheese
And ate a grindstone by mistake, was the only man
Who had the tusks to bite into one of Slim’s doughnuts.
When Ike woke up and hauled his headache to the door
He saw the whole cuckoo outfit loafing around Red Lake
And lumber jammed in the lake as black as a crow’s eye.
Sourdough Sam was leaning on a crutch up a sugarloaf hill,
Slim’s kitchen smells turned out so scrumdiddliumptious,
When the noon gabriel blew the boys didn’t finish a stroke,
But all roared straight in, leaving their axes in mid-air.
The delightfully evocative and ludicrous portmanteau ‘scrumdiddliumptious’ is of course the name of one of the Wonka bars in Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
We learn that Johnny Inkslinger drinking stamina is peerless: ‘his stomach was immortal; he could/ Down a brush whiskey still without so much as a hiccup’. ‘It’s got me as puzzled as a squeal pig in a washtub’ is one of legion ebullient similes of Beckett’s, as is ‘cavorted like a two-gun tornado’. I love the bouncing b-alliteration in the trope: ‘Shivering on his hoofs, swimming, with his ribs rawboned,/ His bellow sour, and the hump on his back ballooning’. We learn that Big Swede is ‘the North Sea all-star milking champ’ (as in milking cows). There’s a very poetic phrase in ‘all dripping with risk, like icicles in April’. Just look at the way the o-assonance powers through the following passage:
He spouted it like an old song, and it wore his voice down
To a wheeze, but a swig of whiskey would fix him up,
And he whisked out a crate of Inkslinger’s white lightning,
Oiled his tonsils on the half hour, and went on droning
At the blue ox. He was on his thirteenth bottle, when
He flared up, with his eyes popping, and fire alarms
In his ears, drunk as a rainbow trout, and he hooted,
And the wonderful -ck-alliteration in this passage:
The tall clouds cracked and it rained like all hickory,
Babe hobbling nowhere in the black mud, and the spray
Spitting off his tail was building into the Rogue River,
Till up on a mistletoe hill, the weather unwinding,
That Beckett never lets up being as descriptively inventive as possible in each and every line is nothing short of astounding: ‘It was so awful chilly, talk froze in the crackling air,/ And the lumberjacks walked around bumping into words’. Beckett’s alliterative technique is remarkable because it never seems obtrusive: ‘Which was sticking up through a hole in the calico sky,/ With falling axes and a great stack of crosscut saws/ Brazed into one, chewing up bark’. Again, Beckett channels Dylan Thomas:
It squiggled and galumphed to the rub-a-dub ocean,
Slap into Puget Sound, the grave old Paul had dug
For the blue ox, wide open for all the whopping logs
Booming over the cockeyed river, and the cockeyed roads,
Again, the alliteration in this passage manages to be near-tangible yet unobtrusively so:
Manage it, and so a wrangler, name of Old Lightheart,
Dragged a bunch of scissorbills off the farms to the east,
And changed them from hay shakers into buffalo boys:
He lit into his saddle tramp pitch and sold them all,
Stripped off their sheep-stinking laundry, dressed them up
In buckskin duds, bandannas, and buzzard wing chaps,
And set his boys to circle herding, lasso looping, guitar
Picking, and buffalo milking out in the pine-rail corral.
Of this here hair-curling and bare-chested buffalo milk
Would give the lumberjacks the go for all-out logging.
There wasn’t a glass of milk or a doughnut but was spiked
With it, and Jersey lightning was branch water next to it.
More Beckettian portmanteaus crop up: ‘rantankerous’, apparently a conscious corruption of cantankerous, and ‘conflabberation’. Sometimes the very descriptive, physical, simile-rich narrations and expositions of Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlow spring to mind:
…a whingding of rain
Was coming up from China, and when he whipped back
His big bearskin rug, the water spindled into the air.
Slabwood was cackling to himself, hoisting the bottle,
When Inkslinger dropped in for a powwow, and old Paul
Handed him a cup of java and a question mark.
‘I’ll tell you, old scout: the lowdown is, the camp’s hurting.’
Johnny poured a streak of moo into the bellywash,
Sugared it up to kill the taste, and tried explaterating:
One can hear Humphrey Bogart lackadaisically mumbling, ‘He slumped down by Johnny and rippled through a wish book’. Beckett can even make a list of items from a mail-order catalogue sound poetic: ‘Quilts, rockers, silverware, trombones, tubs, umbrellas!’. There’s so much to pick up from Beckett’s cowboy-vocabulary, such as ‘caboose’ which is a railroad carriage. As Inkslinger remarks, almost meta-textually:
‘There’s times when I could swear I was in a dime novel,
But then I shine up my memory, and I snap out of it:
Like now, ask me who in the whole showboating country
Can walk out and flimflam a rainstorm, and I’ll say
Oh, a lumberjack, tall as the Sierras, and heading east.’
Beckett really gets the language doing the work, the heavy-lifting of the narrative; there’s more poetic muscle, more colour and image in one line of Beckett’s blank verse than there is in an entire poem in a typical supplement of today. Indeed, Beckett’s impasto poetry is the complete opposite of the contemporary understated, pared-down postmodernist columnated prose that’s so popular among, well, primarily, its exponents –because Beckett’s is poetry that delights in language (as opposed to most contemporary poetry, which is suspicious of it):
The heifer storm jumped out into the daylight and lit up
On Paul’s shoulder, where it sat, looking pale and grouchy;
And with a rainy word and the directions home, old Paul
Slapped it on its rump, and it floated out of the pines
And puffed away towards Iowa, shooting off rainbows.
Sometimes the narrative is truly witty:
Inkslinger was rummaging around the big kitchen
On the lookout for cookies, and saw Sour Face Murphy
Up on a stool, peeling spuds into a bucket of water,
And Sour Face was so ugly the water was fermenting.
Beckett’s seemingly boundless arsenal of images never ceases to strike the eye and ear:
The Galloping Kid, behind a team of ponies, shook
The reins and drove the salt and pepper wagon across
The table, hauling fruit pits, coffee grounds, and eggshells
Out to toss to the tigermonks, who got so strong on
This trash, they took to wrestling blond wolves for fun.
Beckett channels Raymond Chandler again with this description of a character called ‘Slow Mus\ic’:
He was good-looking as an actor, almost always broke,
And famous for hooking imaginary fish all by himself,
Like the goofang, swimming backwards to keep the water
Out of its eyes,…
More b-alliteration makes the lines bounce:
When he was money-raising at the ballyhoo lectures
He talked dimensions that’d amaze all the gum chewers,
And when he was bankrolled, wham! he was out on the job,
Baldheaded, full of salt, and bawling for the impossible.
The way the following lines stack up on top of one another and with the rhythmic crank of the repeated ‘And’s is reminiscent of the mesmerism of nursery rhymes like ‘The House That Jack Built’:
The journal box was famous, the air brakes wonderful,
The cowcatcher would handle a day herd of longhorns,
And the whistle could sing I’ve Been Working on the Railroad.
Now when the mud chickens were all done drawing pictures,
And the powder monkeys had holes in all of the mountains,
And the iron men dropped the rails, and the section gangs
Had hooked them up, and the lever jerkers set the switches,
And the train delayers stacked up tickets and schedules,
And the tent stake drivers had no more nails to nail,
And the carnival crew banged all of the cars together,
And the car inspectors were smiling, and the yard masters
Were snoozing, and the paperweights had full ink barrels,
And the last handrail was shined up by the last porter,
And all the throttle pullers, fire eaters, ticket snatchers
And air givers said okay, the god-damn railway officials
Showed up in thousands and held a banquet in the firebox.
You can hear the pistons and smell the steam in the following descriptive passage:
There she was in the daylight, the Eagle and her coaches,
Her boxcars, her flatcars, her tank cars, and her caboose:
The engineer and fireman couldn’t climb up the gangway
Without carrying bedrolls, so they rode in a balloon
Up where the mules hauled coal out of the tender in cars
And unloaded it in front of the two-ton scoop shovel
By the fire door, with black coal flying into a white fire;
And pretty soon, when the safety valve showed a feather,
The engineer spit, tugged on his hat, and then cranked up
The four-barrel push-pull motor which drove the throttle.
And, again, one of countless examples of Beckett’s absolute mastery of alliterative effect:
Nobody had opened the throttle beyond the third notch.
The train boomed by the one-horse towns, mixing up
The slickers, by the fat farms, stacking hay, shucking corn,
The language in dialogue and monologue limbers up towards a life-affirming fever pitch in the final passages:
The blowups, the jokes and bellyaches, the slams, the scuffles
And the beautiful fistfights, where we became pals backwards,
I can name the years for history by the insane weather
And the scrapes with animals and greenhorns, oh my land,
We’ve charged all over the American map like a railroad,
Finally, Bunyan finds himself with the poem come full circle:
‘Out of the wild North woods, in the thick of the timber
And through the twirling of the winter of the blue snow,
Within an inch of sunup, with the dream shift ending,
A man mountain, all hustle, all muscle and bull bones,
An easy winner, full of swagger, a walking earthquake,
A skyscraper, looking over the tallest American tree,
A smart apple, a wonder inventor, the sun’s historian,
A cock-a-doodle hero, a hobo, loud, shrewd, brawling,
Rowdy, brash as the earth, stomping, big-hearted, raw,
Paul Bunyan lumbered and belly-laughed back at the stars.’
This circularity is fitting since the narrative of this novel-in-verse doesn’t really have a destination but is more a patchwork of highly colourful and vivid anecdotes, almost like a thread of spun yarns from the mouths of a motley collection of lumberjacks. Epic, folkloric, peripatetic, breathtakingly poetic, Larry Beckett’s Paul Bunyan is a rich feast for the senses with some of the meatiest poetry you’re likely to read anywhere today.
My only slight criticism is that it is perhaps a bit too epic in length for the patchy narrative it conveys, while the thick lashings of language with dizzying array of images, colloquialisms, similes and sense-impressions heaping themselves up line after line for 90-odd pages can become a little bit overbearing and one is forced to pause many times throughout to metaphorically ‘come up for air’ from the copious lexicon –and to that purpose the splitting up of the poem into 9 sections, or chapters, provides helpful stopping-off points.
But Paul Bunyan is a barnstormer of a poem, and Larry Beckett is a formidable talent. Highly recommended, with recourse to the audio recording.
Alan Morrison © 2017