Hello! Welcome back to another installment of Critical Breakdown. It’s been quite some time since I last wrote for these pages, so let me review for a moment what this is all about. On this page, I will dissect one of my recent photo-poem posts so that you, the reader, can better understand what is behind the piece. I have found that not only is this a good forum to help explain what a poem means (because let’s face it, not all poems are crystal clear) but it also helps ME to become a better poet. By analyizing my own work, I learn from my own mistakes and successes. So, here we go!
First, some background. I had recently traveled from my adopted home in Brazil to the US to see family, most of whom live in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, where I was born and raised. While there, I visited aunts and uncles, grandparents, and my dad who lives in a very rural area on a farm. I also visited the cemetery where his father, my Grandpa, is buried, which is located in a farming area called Weaverland, just like our last name, Weaver. Although it was good to see my dad, there is too much distance between us to ever have a meaningful relationship. It’s as if we have become strangers– strangers with nothing in common but history.
Also, as if by providence, while talking with my best friend Joe about what he learned about his own family on an Ancestry website, he suggested that I check it out as well. I had always been told that the Weavers kept few oral and even fewer written records. What a surprise then, to discover, that not only is there a well-documented geneology for the Weaver (nee Weber) clan, but that I am a direct descendant of a Hans Johann Anton Weber who came from Zurich, Switzerland to settle and farm an area of Pennsylvania, today known as Weaverland.
I snapped this photo of a wheatfield at my Dad’s home, on a farm in rural PA. Although he is not a farmer himself, he did grow up on a farm as a child, and today lives in an area surrounded by large expances of cropfields, very similar to neighboring Weaverland. The entire area is so serene and beautiful. I never much appreciated the simplicity of the region when I was younger. My only desire was to leave. My Dad never understood why I “read so much all the time” and why I wanted to perhaps someday be a teacher or an artist. And so it was, the first seeds of distance that grew between us. Living 5,000 miles away in another hemisphere, I imagine it would be difficult for there to ever be more.
The photo itself is simple and straightforward, taken with my Canon Elf pocket camera, manual setting to underexpose, macro setting for close-up on the wheat sheaths. I did minimal work in Photoshop on this image, correcting a bit for the washed out sky that is common in Pennsylvania. I also corrected some for brightness, contrast, and saturation, being careful to keep this image true to how I saw the field with my eyes and in my mind. All digital photography needs work in photoshop, just like old fashioned prints were worked on in a lab with chemicals. The camera is just a tool, and digital software helps to improve the shortcomings of that tool.
As catharsis, I had wanted to write this poem about my relationship with my dad. The starkness between us was haunting me, and by writing of it, usually I can move on, get over or see differently my feelings. As I went through the photos of my trip, I remembered the wheatfield image that I snapped at his home. All the while, I could not help shake this sensation that I had finally discovered my family roots. For the first time in my life, I felt that where I had grown up– Lancaster County– was truly a part of me. Like it or not, leave it or not, my people had lived there since the boat landed in Philadelphia in 1717. It was as though the very soil is in my blood. In truly biologic terms, it is.
Father and son
have labored upon this land
for generations; that
first clan whose
name was our very own
had plowed and sown
these same fertile fields
that yielded unto them-all
the corn and wheat and feed–
that they could need
as they toiled and sweat, together
well into the muggy-wet summer nights,
and shivered near death, together
by the darkest of early winter dawns.
Since my Grandpa Weaver had been a farmer, I realized, that all generations of Weber/Weavers (in the 10 generations of our family, the name had changed at some point in time) before him had in all likelliness been farmers as well, all up to my Dad and then me. Me, then, being the first to leave the area. Those fields that I passed in the car as I drove to visit family, were the same fields that my ancestors worked for hundreds of years. They lived, worked, and subsisted on that land, in the hot of Pennsylvania summers and in the frozen depths of its winters. They worked to live and lived to work, and in the end, they survived it all.
And so, for the purpose of this poem, the first stanza represents the land and the the history of my family.
But not us–not you and me.
We never learned the language of father and son,
we never worked side-by-side,
we never tried
one-to-one, never tried to hear and now
the years are gone
and we are
who say nothing.
This second stanza, then, when read on its own makes no mention of the field or history, signifies the particular relationship between my Dad and me. Some of my earliest and most impressionable memories of me and my Dad were those of an uncomfortableness. Likely it had much to do with my being gay, because even as a child, I was soft, a sissy. Probably more than anything, this unease settled between us like the damp in a basement. It is not a one-sided slight, either. There were times when I was made to feel “weak”– and yet, always aware of myself, I was worried about appearing “weak” and projected those feelings onto him.
Additionally, I make specific use of “language,” “speak,” “hear,” and “say” since ours unquestionably lacks all normal communication. I noticed this most during my trip home. Each time one of us would try to talk, there was a break in communication between us. Also, in the second line, I say “we never worked side-by-side”– a hint to the fathers and sons from the first stanza, our forefathers who had worked the land together. We, in a sense, had no land to tend.
Yet if ever it were again, Dad–
if we could be those pioneers, together
a father and son,
and I’d plow and sow and labor the land
until my hands grew sore
and we’d yield more from this fertile field
than corn and wheat and crops to feed,
through summer’s heat and winter’s cold
we would work
and we would grow
Three is a magical number in art and writing– and I use it to full effect in this poem. It is in the 3rd stanza that I tie the 1st and 2nd together and sort of bring it back full circle by repeating the lines of the first one. But instead of ancestral “father and son” who “labor, plow and sow the fertile fields” it is my dad and I. And instead of the field labor merely producing crops to feed (and survive), our work would “yield more,” it would yield a relationship, one where instead of being estranged, we would “grow old, together” like how I imagine all those other fathers and sons did, working the farms until they died. Of note, I speak to my Dad directly in the first line of this stanza– as though I’m having a one-on-one conversation– something which we don’t do other than to talk about the weather. One final point: While I refer to my Dad as “Dad”– in the poem, I make reference to ‘fathers and sons’– this is not by accident. I think, in all due respect, my Dad and I have never been a ‘father and son’ and furthermore, there is this desire on my own part, beyond having merely a better connection to my Dad, but to also experience that traditional type of parent-child relationship.
And there is a bit more to this last stanza than wanting a chance to do it again. In fact, I’m not really saying “If I could do it all again…”– because, no, likely I would still want to leave to see the world. But I do have this nostalgic sense for the past– for a more simple time, when we could connect to the earth and just work to live, live to work without all this fuss of the modern world. No, I would not change what I did in this life if I could. BUT if I could somehow live the life of my forefathers, say, my great-great-great-great-great-great-great Grandfather Johann who travelled across the globe in search of a better life, I would. Heck, I guess I already have.
There is much I have not covered. The symbolism of a wheatfield? Sowing the seeds and tending the soils of a good relationship? Wheat as a sustinence? Perhaps there is some insight YOU the reader have, something that you saw as an outsider that I missed, nay something that would be impossible for me to see? Please, please offer any critical and/or substantial feedback you may have. Did the poem work for you? Did the piece as a whole work? Did it fall flat? No emotion? You just didn’t get it? You don’t like wheat?
As ever, thanks much for taking the time to read. You make me a better person. ~peace, Jason
By Jason Weaver, 2013