Uncommon Words, Common Wealth

farm with hills behind it
James Collins

View of Rebersburg, Pennsylvania (Centre County) in fall. A new collection of poetry celebrates the state's geographic and cultural diversity, "the places in Pennsylvania that we hold sacred."

Nearly a century ago, Rudyard Kipling wrote, "The things that truly last when men and times have passed, / They are all in Pennsylvania this morning!"

That vision of the state's enduring importance is at the heart of Penn State Press's 2005 anthology, Common Wealth: Contemporary Poets on Pennsylvania. Edited by poets Marjorie Maddox and Jerry Wemple, the collection sprang from The Pennsylvania Authors' Reading Series, as well as a course taught at Lock Haven University, "Our Own: Pennsylvania Authors".

"Students wanted to know, 'Who writes about us? Who writes about our home towns?'" explains editor Maddox, director of creative writing and professor of English at Lock Haven. The resulting book, she notes, is an answer to that question.

Though Pennsylvania has been home to many notable literary figures—Gertrude Stein, W.S. Merwin, and Willa Cather, to name a few—the editors chose to focus this collection exclusively on contemporary poets, connected to the state by birth or "through memory and experience."

The hope, Maddox says, was that the work of contemporary poets would "speak to and for the citizens of Pennsylvania." Adds co-editor and Bloomsburg University professor Jerry Wemple, "In choosing poems for the collection, we really wanted to stress the geographic and cultural diversity of the state, and give balance so that the small towns and rural regions were represented and not dwarfed by Philadelphia and Pittsburgh." Agrees Maddox, "This collection is about place... specifically, the places in Pennsylvania that we hold sacred."

That sacredness is found in the startling depth and range of contributors' voices. In two poems by Jay Parini, "Working the Face" and "Coal Train," the narrator remembers a Scranton childhood of mines and mountains where men toiled "in a world of shadows/thick as a slug against the floor," and boys awakened to the Erie Lackawanna "running to the north on thin, loud rails." "Each passing was a kind of death," writes Parini, "the whistle dwindling to a ghost in the air,/ the engine losing itself in the trees."

In Kristin Kovacic's poem, "Brick," the pride and work ethic of immigrants is captured in a portrait of her 90-year-old grandmother. Writes Kovacic, "our crazy Croation Baba" mounts a ladder to clean the roof gutters of her Pittsburgh home. "Baba, come down,/we cried. Baba! Before you kill yourself!/ But there were needles in her gutters,/and the wind had left its grime, again,/on the trim of her house on the slope/on Koehler Street, America."

Robin Becker evokes a different kind of sacred space in her poem "The Star Show," which brings us into the Fels Planetarium, "in Philadelphia, where I've come with the other/third-graders for the Star Show." The show's narrator leads them on a journey through the seasons and constellations, "the miracle spreading overhead/as he wooed us in plain English/as if he didn't need special gear/to show us the sky's mysteries." At the show's end, the poem's speaker wonders "How could he leave us here, now that we had become/his, now that he had asked us to learn his heaven?"

Becker, who teaches creative writing at the University Park campus, is only one of many Penn State professors represented in the collection. Others include David Chin at Wilkes-Barre, Sean Thomas Dougherty at Erie, and Patricia Jabbeh Wesley on the Altoona campus.

Because contributors to the book hailed from every corner of the commonwealth, the editors were challenged to find a structure for the book that would organize—and emphasize—the rich physical and cultural terrain explored in its pages, from Philadelphia and the surrounding "Dutch" country, to the coal-mining region, the Poconos, and the Lehigh Valley; to the Three Rivers region; the Laurel Highlands; and Erie and the Allegheny National Forest.

"One of the hardest things," says Wemple, "was deciding how to divide the state into sections. There are places that overlap. For example, due to its proximity, the town of Jim Thorpe could be included with the Lehigh Valley, the Poconos, or the coal region." Adds Wemple, "It was also hard to cut from the original 600 or 700 poems we received to the 180 or so that are in the book."

Pennsylvanians—and those interested in the state—will be transported by these poems into worlds that include "the daily chores of a Mennonite housewife, a polka dance in Coaldale, the late shift at a steel factory, the macadam of the Pennsylvania Turnpike."

Reflects Maddox, "As the title of Jason Moser's poem states: "We Never Leave." "Perhaps," writes Maddox in the book's preface, "...there is something about Pennsylvania that never leaves us. Throughout our lives, we keep traveling this Commonwealth's highways and country roads, surprised by its many and often circuitous routes leading us toward 'home.'"

About the Editors:

Marjorie Maddox is Director of Creative Writing and Professor of English at Lock Haven University. A resident of central Pennsylvania since 1990, she has published several award-winning poetry collections, including Transplant, Transport, Transubstantiation (2004), When the Wood Clacks Out Your Name: Baseball Poems (2001), and Perpendicular as I !994).

Jerry Wemple is Associate Professor of English at Bloomsburg University. He is the author of You Can See It from Here (2000) which won the Naomi Long Madgett Poetry Award, and The Civil War in Baltimore (2005). He grew up in the Susquehanna Valley.

Last Updated July 03, 2006