Switchman throwing a switch, Proviso yards, Chicago: photo by Jack Delano, April 1943
My tribe came from struggling labor
Depression South Eastern Illinois
Just before the southern hills start
To roll toward the coal country
Where the east/west morainal ridges
Of Wisconsin trash pile up
At the bottom of the prairie, socially
A far Midwest recrudescence of Appalachia
Slums at Cinder Point between railroad and Illinois River, Peoria, Illinois: photo by Arthur Rothstein, May 1938
Master pipefitter in the age of steam
Indian fifty percent, very French
Who didn’t derogate himself
As a breed, showed none of those tedious
Tendentious tendencies. Came down
From Chebanse, from the Illinois Central
In Iroquois County, to the Chicago &
In one of the Twenties boomlets,
The last precipitous edges of the great devolvement
Owned a nice clapboard house in old town
Where I was brought up off and on during
The intensity of the depression, parents
Wandering work search, up and down
The bleak grit avenues of Flint, following
Autoworkers' houses, Flint, Michigan. These houses rent for twenty-five to thirty dollars and have no stoves, but water if drawn from a commercial well: photo by Sheldon Dick, January-February 1937
Michael Moore-land from the beginning
Manmade poisons in the cattle feed way
Before Creutzfeldt-Jaoob disease and angry cows —
Governments always conspire against
The population and often
This is not even malice;
Just nothing better to do.
Autoworkers' houses, Flint, Michigan: photo by Sheldon Dick, January-February 1937
And every defiant nation this jerk
Ethnic crazy country bombs —
World leaders can claim
What they want about terror,
As they wholesale helicopters
To the torturers —
................But I’m straight out
Of my tribe from my great grandma Merton
Pure Kentucky English — it would take more paper
Than I’ll ever have to express how justified I feel.
Crossing over the Illinois River on the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad, between Chicago and Chilicothe, Illinois: photo by Jack Delano, March 1943
Tribe: A biographical note
Here in one of his final poems, a remarkable eleventh-hour declaration of elective tribalism, the poet delineates his origins, as he has determined them. Its plot -- a descending movement from geography and geology through social and family history to the ultimate defiant affiliation with, in the same moment, his forebears, and oppressed, suffering, marginal people everywhere -- describes a downward-drifting gravitation. This movement is felt as being drawn, in the sense not of devised but pulled from below. One recalls that in its southward advance the final lobe of the last great Pleistocene glacial surge festooned the land around and below the southern tip of what is now Lake Michigan -- the poet's east-central Illinois native country -- with the makings of a rich soil converted in the century before his birth to tilth, and wealth, by pioneer prairie farmers. The mass of the ice moving south, making the landform, dotting it with morainal debris.
Urbana, Illinois: Mr. Harmount is unfortunate: he has been stranded with his circus near Urbana since 1925. Though his trucks are equipped with gears of his own invention which make it possible for them to go up any hill in high gear, still he cannot leave Urbana, which hasn't any hills, because he still (since 1925) owes some $260 to his co-investor, who came to Urbana with him (in 1925), and whom, although he has been supporting him ever since, he cannot pay: photo by Ben Shahn, summer 1938
Of his father's side the poet had known next to nothing. The Appalachian "trash" migrant ancestors were his mother Louise's people. They were tough, resilient folk, who had never been permitted the luxury of being thin-skinned. (See the poet's marvelous early lyric "The Hide of My Mother".) So much of who one is, the person one becomes, is inevitably resolved by genetics. Or as the Greeks put it, character is fate. Though they'd worked it long and hard, the maternal "trash" ancestors had never held significant title to any of that rich, fertile, black-loam corn-and-hog prairie country.
And then sinking down through geology and geography and family and social history, the descending axis of Tribe plumbs the life and career of the poet's half-Indian French Quebecois grandfather, William Merton Ponton. My French-Canadian man, the poet affectionately addresses this stand-in father in the poem Obituary (from the early Sixties collection Hands Up!).This was the most important male figure in the poet's early life, and fittingly, he bore this man's name in his own, Edward Merton Dorn.
Indiana Harbor Belt Railroad switch engine in yard near Calumet Park stockyards, Calumet City, near Chicago, Illinois: photo by Jack Delano, January 1943
In the Twenties, Ponton, a railway steam-fitter, had come down, out of Iroquois County, where he'd worked on the Illinois Central, the great empire-building line of the Illinois Valley, seventy track-miles due south, to Villa Grove, where he'd taken a job scaling and fitting steam-pipes at the Chicago & Eastern Illinois Division Center. No work for the weak, this involved long night journeys often in freezing weather into the middle of nowhere to repair broken and leaky pipes. The rough-and-ready frontier-railroad trouble-shooting aspect of the job would greatly impress his grandson.
This farming and railroading community of some two thousand souls, situated on the Embarras River twenty miles south of the state capitol at Champaign, struck Wiliam Ponton as a reasonable enough place to settle. He married Bessie Hart, a daughter of the here-assertively-justified pioneer stock -- "pure Kentucky English", the note of purity ringing unapologetically if perhaps a bit oddly against this jerk/Ethnic crazy country -- and they moved into a "nice clapboard house" in old-town Villa Grove.
When in later years, the poet, who had long since gone off into the world, came back to Villa Grove on a rare visit, while in town he made a point of stopping at the cemetery to gaze a while at the peonies on William Ponton's grave.
Louise, the daughter of William Ponton and Bessie Hart, had been wed in a whirl-wind, at twenty-one, to a dubious railroad man from the Ohio Valley named William Leslie Dorn, who promptly left her as quickly as he'd found her, with no forwarding address. The fellow was a brakeman on the Chicago & Eastern Illinois, a drifter, virtually unknown in Villa Grove -- and, after the feckless act of abandoning Louise with child, never mentioned. Louise's daughter Nona Abercrombie Lytle recalled: "I asked mother once about her first husband, and she said, ''He was like all railroaders, he had a woman in every stop.'"
A train being pushed over the hump at the Proviso yard, Chicago: photo by Jack Delano, December 1942
For the departed brakeman's young and pregnant wife there was the small-town shame of divorce compounded by the social stigma ("and in seclusion babies are born," the poet wrote in Goodbye to the Illinois -- see previous post) of a secluded, early-springtime lying-in. In thus wise Louise gave birth to a son, Edward, on the second day of April, 1929.
These events left mother and child thrown back upon the ample generosity of William Ponton and his wife Bessie -- a kindly woman who in those years was known to leave fresh-baked pies out on the steps of her clapboard house for the starving tramps who were turning up along the railroad right-of-ways of the prairies as thick as the locusts and grasshoppers in the suddenly dust-choked fields. Louise herself became something of a wanderer, trying to find a life for herself in increasingly depressed times. There was no work for an unmarried woman with a small child in Villa Grove. Using her father's railroad passes, she packed up and went off with her son to her mother's Hart relatives in Michigan, and then around a circuit of her scattered siblings who'd gone to seek jobs -- a brother in the automotive plants of Flint, Michigan, a sister in Adrian, Michigan, a brother in the steel mills at Gary, Indiana.
With the demise in 1936 of William Ponton -- he died at sixty-one of overwork, "wasted like a job," as the poet would write -- the family trials of "depression nomadism,/ wandering work search, up and down/ the bleak avenues of Flint, following/ other exodus relatives" began in earnest...
Night view of part of the South Water Street Terminal of the Illinois Central Railroad, Chicago: photo by Jack Delano, May 1943
Edward Dorn: Tribe, 1999
Biographical text adapted from Tom Clark: Edward Dorn: A World of Difference, 2002
Photos from Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Collection, Library of Congress