Austin Smith: Flyover Country

poetry

In celebration of National Poetry Month, Austin Smith has provided recordings of a selection of poems from his latest collection with the Princeton Series of Contemporary Poets: Flyover Country

Elegy for Thomas Merton

Thomas Merton was a Trappist monk. He lived at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky from 1942 to 1968. A prolific writer, he is best-known for his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain. In addition to his writings on the contemplative life, he wrote about race, social justice, and passivism. In my elegy for Merton, I focus on the strange circumstances surrounding his death. In 1968 Merton left the monastery to travel to India to meet the Dalai Lama and to attend an interfaith conference of monks in Thailand. During the conference he stepped out of the bath one day, grabbed hold of a floor fan and was electrocuted. Ironically, his body was flown back to Kentucky for burial in a plane that also carried the bodies of American soldiers who’d died in Vietnam, a war he’d vehemently spoken out against. I’ve always found the circumstances surrounding Merton’s death strange. Though I don’t mention it in the poem, his last words, upon concluding his talk at the conference, were: “Now I’m going to disappear.” My poem explores the idea of the fan as a stalker, finding him in the quiet Kentucky woods and drawing him to Thailand. But more broadly, the poem is an elegy for a writer and thinker who has had a huge impact on my life.

Into the Corn

Growing up on a dairy farm in Illinois, I have a distinct memory of being afraid of going too far into a field of corn, particularly if the corn was over my head. Though most people, forgivably, think of Stephen King when they think of children and corn, my poem is more connected with folklore surrounding cornfields, based on stories recorded by Sir James Frazier in The Golden Bough. I am particularly interested in this story, which Frazier relates: “Commonly the spirit of the ripe corn is conceived, not as dead, but as old, and hence it goes by the name of the Old Man or the Old Woman. But in some places the last sheaf cut at harvest, which is generally believed to be the seat of the corn spirit, is called ‘the Dead One’: children are warned against entering the corn-fields because death sits in the corn and, in a game played by Saxon children in Transylvania at the maize harvest, Death is represented by a child completely covered in maize leaves.” Upon reading this piece of folklore, I immediately felt a chill in my spine: I resonated deeply with this image of death as a child covered in corn leaves. This story, coupled with my childhood fear that one could go too far into the corn, get lost, and never be found, prompted this poem.

Ode to Flour

When I was growing up my mother baked bread for sale (her catering company was called Grateful Bread). She baked in the farmhouse kitchen, and I remember coming home from school and finding the table and counter covered in flour. My memories of those afternoons conjured this ode. But another catalyst for this poem was a desire I felt to celebrate something simple and perhaps often overlooked. Much of the subject matter in Flyover Country is dark, involving violence, war, environmental degradation. I wanted to write a poem of levity (no bread pun intended), and I mention this desire in the first few lines of the poem. Indeed, it was this urge to praise something that literally made me take up the pen. I remember writing this poem somewhat obliquely, not paying it my full attention for fear that some of the humor and buoyancy of the tone would be lost if I bore down on it too hard, and perhaps it was for this reason that the last line snuck up on me.

Austin Smith grew up on a family dairy farm in northwestern Illinois. He is the author of a previous poetry collection, Almanac (Princeton), and his work has appeared in The New Yorker, Poetry Magazine, Ploughshares, and many other publications. He teaches at Stanford University and lives in Oakland, California.