by John Coward
I can’t explain why, but my literary taste runs toward the particular, the actual, the concrete. To put it another way, I prefer reading about things that are—or appear to be—real. That would explain my continuing interest in the American poet Millen Brand (1906-1980). Brand is probably best known for a novel called The Outward Room (1937), a Depression-era story of a young woman escaping an insane asylum and struggling to regain her sanity. Brand’s poetry, by contrast, is understated and much less dramatic. In Local Lives (1975), Brand highlights the small but crucial elements that make up the lives of ordinary people in the Pennsylvania Dutch Country. This is a poetry book that opens with a map of villages with names such as Seisholtzville, Green Lane, Long Swamp, and Huff Church. That’s part of the “real” that attracts me to Local Lives.
Born in New Jersey, Brand was of Pennsylvania German descent through his mother. Brand studied at Columbia University and later worked as a psychiatric aide, an experience that informed the plot of The Outward Room. In 1940, after many years in New York, Brand moved to Crow Hill, overlooking Bally, Pennsylvania, where his writing life changed. He began to appreciate the lives of his neighbors, who were old German families of Mennonite, Amish, Brethren, Quaker, and Catholic persuasion. “I had a house, barn, and some acres of land,” Brand wrote, “and for the first time in many years I had a sense of community.” These people and this particular American place inspired the poems in Local Lives. Brand’s motives, as he explained, were as simple as they were noble: “I was impelled by a sense of valuable lives going unrecorded.”
I should note here that Brand’s poems are not traditional verse—no rhymes here, no rhythm or meter. For Brand, poetry was an open form. Thus Local Lives included, as Brand himself noted, “skills, trades, anecdotes, ledger entries, letters, even two recipes.” In fact, the first poem in Local Lives is “Bread,” which opens with these lines: “Heat fat. Pour it into the flour. / Some salt for sweat and for the sea. / Some sugar for the little ones’ tongues.” In short, Brand’s poems are flat, more prose than traditional poetry. But what the poems lack in lyricism, they make up in plainspoken clarity. Brand’s poems are unadorned, bits of speech and story recorded and set down in short, irregular lines.
This sort of poetry can be dull, but in Brand’s deliberate hands, these poems capture something small but essential about these good people. Consider this poem, published in its entirety:
A Little Thing
(Squire Benfield talking)
‘The Devil’s Hole?’ That’s a stretch of road
from Huff’s Church down toward Clayton.
In the days when that was a dirt road,
a farmer once drove with mules,
and his wagon got stuck in the mud.
The mules could hardly lift their legs.
‘This is a devil of a hole,’ he said.
Since then it’s called The Devil’s Hole.
That shows, doesn’t it,
how long a little thing can be remembered?
This poem, told as a bit of stray conversation, recalls a seemingly insignificant incident. Such moments, I posit, make up the substance of the daily life we all experience but rarely stop to consider. In Local Lives, Brand succeeds by preserving common stories from real people—ordinary but actually amazing people—whose place and time and simple humanity are worth remembering and contemplating today. Find an old copy of Local Lives and see for yourself.
John Coward teaches media studies and journalism at The University of Tulsa. He is a member of the Nimrod Advisory Board and the author of, most recently, Indians Illustrated: The Image of Native Americans in the Pictorial Press (University of Illinois Press, 2016).